Connecting the Community With Nature, Fairfax NAACP

The wide-open spaces along the Potomac are the site of camps created through a partnership between Fairfax NAACP, United Community and Calleva Outdoors that address inequities in access to safe outdoor spaces.
The wide-open spaces along the Potomac are the site of camps created through a partnership between Fairfax NAACP, United Community and Calleva Outdoors that address inequities in access to safe outdoor spaces.

“Just take one more step.”

For a kid on their first day rock climbing, that’s a lot harder than it sounds, says Chris Knowles, art director for Calleva Outdoors, a Washington, D.C.-area non-profit that specializes in outdoor education. This summer, Calleva partnered with the Fairfax NAACP to organize week-long camps for young people living in communities without access to safe parks in Fairfax County. For many, it was their first opportunity to get out into nature and rock climb, swim, kayak, raft, and stand-up paddleboard.

Camp organizers say their primary goal is to get kids to take home what they learn about themselves and the environment at the camps.

Knowles went out the first week of camp to take pictures and to talk to campers about their experience. “There was one kid who said he wasn’t going to climb at all when I asked him,” Knowles says. “He was nervous about falling. But then it came time to try, and he did it.” Encouraged by counselors and step by step, he made it halfway up, Knowles recalls, but fears overcame him and he stopped there. “He was disappointed and quite emotional because he didn’t make it all the way. So, we talked about what success looks like, and he eventually understood that he was a success. That’s what success is. It doesn’t mean getting to the top; it just means stretching your boundaries, going farther than you thought you could.”

Getting kids to challenge themselves outdoors is just the beginning, says Lydia Lawrence, environmental and climate justice chair of the Fairfax NAACP. “Our number-one goal is campers taking this knowledge [about themselves and the environment] and bringing it back home,” she states.

A grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation Get Outdoors Fund helped with planning and provided funding for 30 campers to attend. “Being able to apply [for the grant] during the planning stage gave us the luxury of time,” says Lawrence. “You have to consistently show up and get to know people,” she says. “Every community is different.”

United Community, a Fairfax nonprofit, helped with outreach to two specific Fairfax communities, Creekside and Sacramento, where there was no safe space for kids and families to gather outside.

“There is a park adjacent to the Creekside Community, Mount Vernon Woods, but it wasn’t maintained,” Lawrence says. “It got to the point where the community considered it unsafe. So, part of the project has been to help these communities gain a voice in advocating for safe spaces to be outside.”

Calleva Outdoors staff brought gear to demonstrate for future campers during the careful planning process.

There are ripple effects to this engagement that Lawrence says she never anticipated. Each community now has an active youth environmental club that conducts cleanups of the nearby creek. The elementary school adjacent to Mount Vernon Woods Park has added environmental education to its curriculum and is building a community garden on the premises. And finally, an environmentally themed “Family Fun Day” organized by the Fairfax NAACP and United Community at Mount Vernon Woods helped to highlight longstanding inequities and neglect, reigniting community interest and feedback in the Park Authority’s proposed vision for the park.

None of this could have happened without planning, Lawrence says. “It was the long planning process leading up to the camps that engaged people. It was excitement for the camps themselves that created this engagement.”

Watch a video of Chris Knowles’ interview with campers and United Community’s Niema Knight below.

Morven Park, Loudoun County

VOF protects 636 acres of Loudoun County's 1,000-acre backyard, including the historic Davis mansion, its grounds, and the Ridgetop Trail extending into the forest behind it.

With an annual visitor count of 500,000, Morven Park has earned its nickname as “Loudoun County’s 1,000-acre backyard.” But executive director Stacey Metcalfe just likes to call it her “happy place.”

After a decade of enjoying the trails through the park on her weekly runs, Metcalfe was married in front of the historic Davis Mansion on the property. Not long after, she was asked to join the park’s board, and in 2021, she assumed her current role. “It’s such a special place. I was its cheerleader long before I was ever sitting at this desk.”

Metcalfe’s tenure as executive director began with a reassessment of the park’s mission after the pandemic. “It became more focused,” Metcalfe states. “We wanted to make sure we continued to be relevant.”

Westmoreland Davis and his wife Marguerite filled their home with art and antiques they brought back from around the world.

Part of that reassessment included updating tours of the historic Davis Mansion on the property to match the evolving interests of visitors. The mansion was home for 39 years to Westmoreland Davis, Virginia’s governor from 1918-1922, and tours used to concentrate on his and his wife Marguerite’s lives and the art and antiques they collected during their travels. That changed, Metcalfe says, when people began to ask questions about the world outside the family at the time. “Now, the tours are not only about the people and things inside the mansion, but also about the country. Marguerite Davis couldn’t even vote for her husband when he ran for governor. Reminding people of that history is important.”

The mansion serves as scenic backdrop for equestrian events, weddings, and the start and finish point for the 100-mile bike ride to end Alzheimer’s.

Six hundred and thirty-six acres of the property, including the grounds of the mansion and the Ridgetop Trail behind it, have been protected since 2005 by an open-space easement granted to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The challenging 1.3-mile trail ascends 232 feet through forest to Catoctin Ridge, the highest point on the property. Miles of natural surface and gravel trails extend through the park. All trails are free and open to the public daily.

The remaining portion of the property hosts the Morven Park International Equestrian Center, which holds events like Polo in the Park, horse trials in fall and spring, and the Loudoun Hunt Point to Point Races.

Third-graders from Loudoun County public schools come to learn and play on the grounds as part of their life sciences curriculum.

Educational programming coordinated with Loudoun County’s elementary schools and the Morven Park Foundation’s Center for Civic Impact brings schoolkids out to the park’s pollinator garden to learn about monarch butterflies and the importance of habitat preservation.

The park’s refocused mission, Metcalfe says, is to get all sorts of people out to the park to understand how special it is and how it’s worth preserving. “We’ve learned that public engagement ensures sustainability,” she states. “Ideally, I want everybody to have Morven Park as their happy place.”

For more on what Morven Park has to offer, go to the park’s website and calendar.

Africulture, Carter Family Farms, Orange County

Carter Family Farms is working on inspiring a new generation of farmers with funding from VOF's Get Outdoors Program.

Michael Carter, Jr., is sowing seeds. A fifth-generation farmer in Orange County, Carter grows indigenous African vegetables like amaranth, Nigerian spinach and gboma. But he’s also laying the groundwork for future farmers.

“My father taught agriculture and I am a lifetime farmer,” he says. “It’s always been my desire to plant seeds in others.”

Carter’s family has owned the property since1910.

After five years in Ghana as a consultant to farmers transitioning from conventional to organic growing methods, Carter returned to the family farm and started Africulture, a program that melds his love of African culture and agriculture together to educate others.

“You don’t realize how much people don’t know,” he says. “The most common thing I hear when I’m talking to people is ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘I learned a lot.’ It’s refreshing because it means that they were listening and it resonates.”

Now Carter hosts Africulture events on the family farm. Most recently, he celebrated Juneteenth there with over a hundred people in an event that was designed to attract families. A Virginia Outdoors Foundation Get Outdoors Fund grant helped fund that and future events this summer. “The VOF support made it possible for us to come up with some concepts that really helped us engage the audience we were trying to reach, which was younger people as well as their parents.”

Activities at the Juneteenth celebration included making banjos out of African gourds.

Activities at the Juneteenth celebration included a presentation and African libation ceremony with representatives of the United States Colored Troops, a painting workshop with paints that participants made themselves from vegetable dyes, another workshop where people learned to make banjos out of African gourds, and educational sessions learning about heritage vegetables. And, of course, plenty of opportunities to eat good food.

Everything at the event, Carter says, was designed to “engage your senses, your connection with the land and the gifts the land gives you. With the right creativity and the right processes, you can create something, too.”

To further this engagement Carter utilizes all resources, including technological ones. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is one of his favorite apps to get kids to slow down and listen. “You want to give them the opportunity to appreciate the frequency of joy and peace. It’s at the heart of what we do.”

In the end, Carter aims to inspire young people to reconnect to the land and foster a new generation of Black farmers, whose numbers are in decline at the rate of 20 to 25 percent every agricultural census. “That’s every five years,” Carter notes. “We need to help folks understand that this is a crisis. And we want to bring attention to that crisis in a meaningful way.”

Carter was named the Small Farm Agent of the Year by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. His mission is to share his knowledge with others.

Carter leads tours of the farm for one to two groups of students from Charlottesville every week, aiming to get them to understand where their food comes from. “Even just yesterday,” he says, “there was a group of young African American students here and the conversation we had was really in-depth, really intriguing. They weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. I tried to answer.

“I can’t say I know what will happen in the future,” he says, “but I know that I planted some seeds.”

Spotlight: Talking Ticks with Valerie Huelsman


               When it comes to least-loved wildlife species, ticks are one of the first that jump to mind. And understandably so, since they are vectors for a variety of diseases affecting both humans and our pets. Due to multiple factors including climate change and forest fragmentation, incidence of such tick-borne diseases is on the rise. Therefore, it is important to know as much as possible about these tiny arachnids and what we can do to minimize health risks.

               I recently had the opportunity to discuss this important topic with Preserve research associate, Valerie Huelsman. As a Virginia Master Naturalist with an environmental science degree, Valerie is a local environmental educator with a wide breadth of knowledge to share. A she told me, “Taking the time to try to understand the relationships between different creatures and their habitats and how they relate back to people is also integral to our scientific understanding–making these relationships relatable through outreach is definitely one of my goals as a local volunteer and environmental educator in Prince William County.”

             Valerie worked with Preserve manager Joe Villari to conduct a study on tick abundance and distribution here at the Preserve over the course of a year. Compared to some other locations, relatively few ticks were found here (good news for hikers!), but this study did document the first appearance of the Asian Longhorned Tick in Prince William County.

The first Asian Longhorned Tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis) documented in Prince William County

               According to Valerie, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves is to always perform a “tick-check,” even if we were only outside for a brief time. Insect repellant and careful removal of any ticks are also important. If you ever develop a rash after a tick bite, please do not hesitate to contact your physician.

               Valerie does not let concern over ticks keep her from appreciating the outdoors, and the Preserve in particular. As she told me, “I’m a big believer in the value of our local natural areas–you do not need to take trips to far off places to appreciate nature–it is truly all around us.” A huge thank you to Valerie for her work here at the Preserve understanding ticks, and all she does for the local area!

Remembering Marty Martin

My friend, William H. “Marty” Martin, was born in Leesburg Virginia in 1941.

While I am devastated to have to share that he suddenly and unexpectedly passed away this week at the age of 80, I am thankful that it was with his wife and daughters by his side.
He was a true original in every sense of the word.
A human of mythic proportions – a being far more rare than the threatened and endangered snakes to which he dedicated his life.
Marty was a father, husband, mentor, adventurer, survivor, war veteran, herpetologist, and total unassuming badass.
A friend to snakes, he acted as one of their earliest ambassadors – far before the eruption of the ecological and animal welfare enlightenment of the 1970s.
Though snakes were his obsession, he was a friend to all of nature and humanity alike, and I know that I don’t carry this heartache alone.
Marty has been going out in the field to locate and study rattlesnakes since he was a young child (around nine years old). He went on to traverse across most of the snake-bearing continents (on foot!), intentionally spending time in some of our globe’s most dangerous locales to document venomous snake populations.
As down to earth as a human could be, he was the field naturalist asked by Steve Irwin to take him out to find timber rattlesnakes to film for his show, The Crocodile Hunter.
Joining the military as a young man before pursuing his university education, Marty served as a paratrooper in the Vietnam war and even once survived a faulty parachute accident during his training. Upon watching this all-too-rough of a landing, his sergeant ran over to see if he was still alive. Seeing that he was, and at least did not have a clearly broken leg, he kicked Marty right in the ribs and told him to get up – because hurt or not, there was no time to lie on the ground if one wanted to remain alive in a war zone.
Tough as nails, he was selected to fight as a bantam weight boxer representing his armed service division. After taking a few punches and delivering many more, he eventually hung up the gloves to fight in the Vietnam War as part of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Seeing plenty of action, Marty honorably left the military just before (sadly) many of his immediate team with which he served lost their lives in a helicopter combat scenario.
Leaving his time in the military and coping with his wartime experiences, Marty went on to gain his Bachelors of Science from the University of South Florida. No stranger to death or danger, once graduated he decided to set out across the world to document venomous snakes.
This love of snakes seemed to place Marty at ground zero for many newly emerging disease outbreaks, civil wars, and many other man-made, and natural, disasters – such as the time he found himself in a Congolese village that happened to be ground zero for the very first Ebola outbreak as it unfolded. Or the time he spent time in Somalia just as civil war erupted.
One of my personal favorite Marty tales is the time he got into an altercation on a small airplane in South America just before takeoff. He was apparently sold a fake ticket and when refused a seat, saw the person on the plane that sold him the fake ticket. Both him and the scammer were thrown off the plane and were in fisticuffs on the tarmac as the plane flew off.
It turned out that the scammer and Marty unintentionally saved each others lives, as that very plane crashed into the rainforest and left only a very few survivors. Oddly enough, he only came to know this when he was reunited with one of his occasional travel companions, who happened to be one of the survivors of the plane crash, while traveling on a public bus through Colombia.
The adventure didn’t stop there for these two intrepid travelers, as the bus was pulled over by the National Police of Colombia along its route. Long story short, most of the bus’s passengers were detained due to the discovery by police of considerable illicit substances in the storage area. Imprisoned for a few weeks, Marty made-do and was even quickly promoted to yard boss. Despite his ability to cope, known innocence in the situation, and patience – he became increasingly worried that they weren’t ever planning to provide due process. Knowing that the prison was very close to the Colombian border, one day during lunch he decided to flee into the rainforest with nothing but the clothes on his back. After walking a day or two, Marty eventually found freedom and sanctuary in an Ecuadorian embassy.
With a life like this, there are many legends surrounding Marty and I am always impressed how I can be almost anywhere and run into someone who knows Marty. His love for snakes connected him with humanity, and he connected so many of us to the beauty and joy of rattlesnakes.
World traveling aside, Marty’s roots run deep around these parts.
The Bull Run Mountains were special to Marty as were almost every single timber rattlesnake denning site here in the Mid-atlantic. He knew each den site intimately and by heart, and if you mentioned one he didn’t recognize he would interrogate you until he realized he already knew it, or needed to go document it for himself.
Marty’s uncle worked at the Beverley-Chapman mill and was bitten on the hand by a timber rattlesnake. Marty remembered being entranced by his uncle’s gnarled pinky insisting that his uncle let him observe his hand every time that he saw him. Marty remembers it was his earliest fascination in particular that hooked him on rattlesnakes.
Marty’s father first showed him a rattlesnake in the Mountains of West Virginia, seeing a similarity in habitat Marty became obsessed with finding rattlesnake denning sites on any mountainous area he went, including the Bull Run Mountains – which was the closest suitable habitat to his childhood home, though no one had officially documented a population here.
In fact, when he was just thirteen, he reached out to herpetologist Dr. Leslie Burger, and told him that there were timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in the Bull run Mountains. Skeptical but intrigued, Burger drove Marty out there and followed him to a den site he discovered. Sure enough, there was an enormous gravid female timber rattlesnake right where Marty claimed them to be. Dr. Burger was thrilled, as the kid was right – there indeed was a population of rattlesnakes on the mountain. So excited, Dr. Burger was eager to collect the snake to preserve as a wet specimen and anchor into his research collection.
Well, that didn’t sit well with young Marty and an argument ensued. Dr. Burger insisted that the pickling of the snake was absolutely necessary to the population’s research, but Marty continued to stand his ground. From Marty’s perspective, it was his snake and Dr. Burger would have never found it if it weren’t for him – so he got to call the shots. According to Marty, Dr. Burger resorted to threatening to not drive young Marty home if he would not let him collect the specimen.
Marty retorted by saying that that was just fine and to do what he needed to do, but that Marty’s mom would be visiting him soon with her .45 when she found out Dr. Burger had left her son in the field. Shocked by young Marty’s moxie, Dr. Burger didn’t want to find out whether or not this was an empty threat. So, Marty was driven home and the snake’s life was spared.
From there forward, young Marty continued to develop a name for himself snake den scouting and taking our area’s best herpetologists out to sites to show them where venomous snakes weren’t yet documented. This led to him being one of the founding members of the Virginia Herpetological Society (at only 17 years old), and then serving for decades on the IUCN task force focused on timber rattlesnake conservation, and a recent coauthorship of the 2021 Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation tome, “The Timber Rattlesnake: Life History, Distribution, Status, and Conservation Action Plan”.
Marty’s happiness was intrinsically tied to the presence and well-being of venomous snake populations, especially his beloved timbers.
At 80 years old, he was more physically capable than most 20 year olds that I have scrambled across the mountain with. Effortlessly crawling up rocky slopes and pushing his way through the thorniest swaths of smilax bushes.
The photos in this post are some of the last I took of Marty as we walked together out of the field earlier this year. I will always cherish that last hurrah.
I love you, Marty.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge, passion, stories, and wonder with me. I hope there are other worlds than this and that you are just on to your next adventure.

This world certainly won’t be the same without you in it, but it will be forever changed for your time here and I hope that you left knowing that you have inspired a whole new generation of snake enthusiasts and we will be sure to continue to watch over your beloved scaly friends for you.

Newton Neck Preserve, City of Chesapeake

The 88-acre Newton Neck Preserve protects an area of pristine shoreline along the Elizabeth River's southern branch that lies between a marina, residential neighborhoods, and industrial complexes. Photo by Mary Bennett.
The 88-acre Newton Neck Preserve protects an area of pristine shoreline along the Elizabeth River's southern branch that lies between a marina, residential neighborhoods, and industrial complexes. Photo by Mary Bennett.

With 90 percent of land in the Elizabeth River watershed developed, the 88-acre Newton Neck Preserve is “a bit of a unicorn,” says Liz Friel, executive director of the Living River Trust (LRT). “In an urban watershed like this one, every undeveloped piece of land counts, but this large parcel is particularly important.”

LRT board member Rolston S. Audain, Jr., shows the audience a sample of polluted sediment from the river as he talks about cleanup efforts.

In June, Friel welcomed representatives from conservation organizations and local officials to a dedication of the property to the City of Chesapeake for a riverfront park. Speakers included LRT board member Rolston S. Audain, Jr., who showed the crowd a cylinder full of polluted muck. “This is evidence of what it takes in order to renew our waterways,” he said. “The samples are coming from a project down the river and represent … a legacy of contamination. We’re replacing [this sediment] with clean sand and carbon pellets that filter the water and leave it cleaner and healthier for the organisms in our river.”

The clean-up efforts are one piece in the larger effort to rehabilitate the river, says Friel. The other is land conservation. “There’s really nothing better to protect water quality than land left in its natural state.”

LRT facilitated the purchase through fundraising, leveraging a $100,000 award from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s Preservation Trust Fund to help secure a grant of $1,000,000 from the Department of Recreation and Conservation. The city closed on the sale in January 2022 and plans improvements for passive recreational use, such as unpaved trails and a kayak launch.

The preserve is part of the last 10% of undeveloped lands in the Elizabeth River Watershed that the LRT is working to protect.

Initially, there was some concern among residents of two surrounding neighborhoods, Fernwood Farms and Dominion Lakes, that a full-fledged park would increase traffic and exacerbate flooding in the quiet subdivisions. Once neighbors learned that there were no plans for an athletic field or a concert venue, they were pleased with the project. An area resident who attended the event explained, “The fact that it’s being placed into the trust as opposed to being developed is a benefit to all of us.”

Local volunteer groups have led cleanup efforts, and the city is in the process of blazing pedestrian trails on the property. VOF funding will help with entrance signs, and the preserve will be open to the public this fall.

Friel calls the dedication of the park “a community and environmental victory,” bringing together lawmakers, conservation organizations, and locals in a unique partnership. “The Living River Trust is proud to celebrate this partnership,” she says. “This natural riverfront park will be an essential part of the City of Chesapeake’s community park system.

Read Mountain Preserve North, Roanoke County

Since it is not part of a range, Read Mountain stands alone in the Roanoke Valley, providing 360-degree views of its ridgeline. VOF easements help protect the north slopes of the mountain and the view from Hollins University.

Ron Crawford has lived in the Roanoke Valley for more than 75 years, and Read Mountain has always been in his sights. “Every home I’ve lived in seemed to focus on it,” he says. “I guess I’ve always considered it my mountain.”

Crawford remembers the first time he climbed it, at the age of 12 in 1948. He also remembers when he retired in 1996 and built a house 800 feet below the ridgeline. That’s when he noticed that Read Mountain was the only mountain in the area with virtually no man-made structures on its upper slopes and ridges, and when he first thought that the mountaintop might need saving.

One treasured spot along the mountain’s trails is the “weeping wall,” which freezes in winter.

“Back in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps had built a trail along the ridgeline,” he says. “My thinking was that maybe we could call it a historic trail and preserve a 1,000-foot-wide corridor along it. But then the greenway coordinator at the time, Liz Belcher, came out to see it and she said, ‘Think bigger.’ That was all I needed.”

Crawford founded a citizen’s group in 2000, the Read Mountain Alliance, and started a fundraising effort. “We had hikeathons with 45 to 50 people each time, we made presentations to city and conservation groups. We even made a video and gave it out to help people understand the importance of the mountain. We knocked on a lot of doors.”

The work started to pay off in 2005, when real estate company Fralin and Waldron and landowner Al Durham made the first easement and land donations, totaling 243 acres. Alliance partners in the project include the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy (BLRC), the Roanoke County Greenway Commission, Roanoke County Parks and Recreation and Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

A grant from VOF’s Forest Core Fund in 2019 added 304 acres and protected the addition with an open-space easement deeded to VOF. Another grant, this time from VOF’s Preservation Trust Fund, will help the county add another 56 acres. The  acquisition of the additional land and the easement to protect it are being finalized.

The 2019 addition to the preserve includes Buzzard’s Rock and its views of the mountain ranges surrounding Roanoke Valley. Formerly, hikers could access the popular destination thanks to an informal agreement with the owners. Now that Roanoke County owns the property, an easement formalizes this access.

Greenway coordinator Frank Maguire stresses the importance that public-private partnerships have had in pursuing a shared vision of keeping the mountaintop whole. Private landowners, he states, “are setting a good example of what’s possible” in conservation.

Maguire is talking about the Bradshaws, John and Matilda Holland. Matilda grew up on the Andrews family farm on the northern slope of the mountain and has many memories of climbing trees in the apple orchard with her sisters. When it came time to sell, the family wanted Roanoke County to have the property, knowing that it would be protected by an easement and added to the preserve, nearly doubling it in size.

“It’s very special to us,” she states. “We could see other mountaintops with pin cushions all across for cellular towers. I know that the towers are necessary, but we were excited to keep our mountaintop pristine.”

New trails on the northern slopes will add to the existing 4.5 miles of trails in the preserve.

Now both the north and south slopes of the mountain and the ridgeline are protected, but Crawford and the Alliance show no signs of slowing down. The group raised $90,000 toward the acquisition of the 56-acre addition and are setting to work on a master plan for a new trail head and trails on that side of the mountain.

“It’s all about getting conversations started and keeping them going,” Crawford says. “But I didn’t have to convince anybody; everybody I talked to saw this mountain as a resource.”

Spotlight on Paleontology with Ben Kligman

As promised, we continue our spotlight series by introducing you to another member of the Preserve community making a major difference. This time we would like to tell you a bit about BRMNAP’s resident time-traveler, Ben Kligman!

While he may not literally be able to go back in time (that we know of), as a paleontologist, Ben’s work allows us to reconstruct what the area that is now the Preserve looked like hundreds of millions of years ago! A doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, Ben’s specific time period of interest is the Late Triassic-Early Jurassic boundary. This stretch of time about 200 million years ago is significant as the fourth major extinction event occurred then, wiping out massive numbers of entire lineages and paving the way for the world we know today. A lot is known about how this affected marine life–where about a quarter of all species went extinct–but comparatively little is known about terrestrial ecosystems.

That’s where VOF’s Preserve at Bull Run Mountains comes in. The soon-to-be Dr. Kligman is always on the lookout for potential fossil sites. Using his expertise in geology, he was able to identify a special opportunity for discovery here. The Preserve is home to a very unique bedrock exposure called the Waterfall Formation. This type of rock is incredibly rare worldwide, and Bull Run’s is the southernmost Jurassic sediments in Eastern North America. Even more exciting for Ben, this is exactly the kind of rock that tends to yield fossils from the early Jurassic, shedding light on the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event. As Ben told me:

 “[The Waterfall Formation] is a very unique and important chunk of rock for understanding one of earth’s largest extinction. It has real potential to enlighten our understanding of this event.”

Since he began his work here, Ben has unearthed over 100 articulated fossil skeletons. These include lake-dwelling species such as clam shrimp, ray-finned fishes, lobed fishes including the famous Coelacanth, and even evidence of terrestrial creatures like early reptiles. Some of the most impressive finds include entire, intact coelacanth skulls! Animals like this are critical for understanding our own evolutionary history, as such lobed fishes are more closely related to modern mammals than they are to ray-finned fishes. 

Clam shrimp fossils up close!

Beyond the animal fossils, he has found many plant species as well, including cycads and cypress-like trees. This provides an understanding of what the entire community might have looked like so many million years ago. This snapshot provides key insight into an otherwise fairly unknown chapter in Earth’s living history.

Ray-finned fish fossils

Ben will be continuing his work here at the Preserve this Fall. We cannot wait to see what other surprises the Mountain will reveal to us. Stay tuned to our Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the latest discoveries!

$2 million available in latest grant round for open space projects

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation is making $1.8 million available from its Preservation Trust Fund program and $200,000 from its Get Outdoors Fund for grants that protect open space for public use and other public benefits.

Preservation Trust Fund grants for the fall 2022 grant round will prioritize projects that result in significant public access, but may also be used for projects that protect exceptional conservation values such as water quality, historic and cultural resources, wildlife habitat, and high-quality farmland and forestland. A real estate interest must either be acquired by a local government or conveyed to VOF to be eligible for funding, and protection must meet the requirements of Virginia’s Open-Space Land Act. There is no minimum or maximum on Preservation Trust Fund grants, but historically they have averaged approximately $150,000.

Get Outdoors Fund grants may be used to fund projects that create, protect, expand, or enhance access to open space in underserved communities. Proposals up to $25,000 may be considered.

The Get Outdoors Fund requires pre-applications to be submitted through VOF’s online grants portal by August 10, 2022. Invitations to submit a full application will be issued within one week of pre-application receipt. No more than 25 applicants will be invited to submit a full application. If an organization has been awarded more than $5,000 in a past grant round, the previous project must be completed before an applicant may reapply. Past applicants must submit new pre-applications. A resubmitted pre-application without significant revision will not be considered. In addition, applicants may not apply more than twice with the same concept.

Full applications for both programs must be submitted online using our grants application portal. Full applications must be submitted by August 22, 2022. Grant awards will be announced sometime in October. Eligibility requirements, sample applications, and other materials may be found online at and VOF encourages potential applicants to contact staff prior to applying to discuss eligibility and seek guidance on producing a successful application. Contact or (434) 282-7054 with questions or for information on how to apply.

The 2022 Artistic Fellowship (Bringing our traditional folk music back to life!)

2022 Artist Fellowship (Bringing our traditional folk music back to life!)

Project: Reviving the musical past of the Bull Run Mountains

Arts & Disciplines: Folk/Traditional Arts, Music/Sound, Music Composition

Theme: Music of the Mountains: Early African-American folk songs, Bluegrass, Blues, and Traditional Folk music

Fellowship Award: $5,000.00

Seeking applications from artists representing the widest range of perspectives and demographics. While we are looking for some traditional insight, we are hoping we can get some non-traditional perspectives and creative interpretations. We welcome all to apply – from students, to newly emerging talent, to well-established artists!

As the basis for this 2022 Artist Fellowship, we have lyrics recorded from within the Bull Run Mountains by a 1930’s Work Progress Administration historian Susan Morton. With historical and musical accuracy and an abundance of talent, we are looking to have applicants:

  • Traditionally recreate the four folk songs we have lyrics (but no sheet music for) utilizing historical and musical research and their talents. View the lyrics here.
  • Digitally record these recreate these four songs in their supposed traditional sound and then creatively reinterpret at least one or two of those songs in a modern/novel/genre bending approach. Or a unique song inspired by your time coming to know the Bull Run Mountains and its diversely peopled past. Potentially anchor these recordings in an analog format (depending upon additional interest and funding).
  • Create content for a minimum of 6 social media posts and 2 blog post that details the creative journey.
  • Perform a recorded set on-site within the heart of Virginia’s Bull Run Mountains where these songs were traditionally sung.

Update 7/21/22

Thanks to local naturalist and historian, Janis Stone, the fellow will now have access to several additional folk songs! View the new additions here.

Project Background:

VOF’s Preserve at Bull Run Mountains acts as the conservation spine of the eastern most mountain range within the Commonwealth of Virginia. Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve protects 2,500 acres that is surrounded by an additional 5,700 acres of land protected from development – in the form of conservation easements held on private land. Given this, it is surprising to some that this mountain held such a diversely peopled past.

Many marginalized peoples historically viewed these mountains as a sort of societal sanctuary. Historic mill operations and the economic gains that accompany them, anchored each end of the Bull Run Mountains. It was the ridges and hollows in between that provided respite to those who found themselves economically disadvantaged, or otherwise outside of the prevailing mainstream society of the time.

There are tales of First Nations People who escaped the “Trail of Tears” by hiding within the Bull Run Mountains. Other tales tell the story of enslaved peoples who found freedom through Underground Railroad routes that cut right through this mountain range. Both, pre-American Civil War “free Blacks” and post-Emancipation African-Americans, owned land, made lives, and raised families here.

As much as this landscape provided life, it often proved to be a challenging one, and people began to leave this mountains’ rugged landscape when presented with greater opportunity. As a result, human habitation began to dwindle by the 1940s, leaving behind dozens of cultural history ruins (homesteads and cemeteries), countless artifacts, folklore, stories – and in a few remarkable cases, song.

This Fellowship is intended to help us bring this mountains’ rich history back to vivid life and tell the stories of the people who made their life here. Creating a new avenue of connection of to this place and our VOF Preserve’s Making History Our-story initiative.

Site Background

The Bull Run Mountains are the easternmost mountains in Virginia. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation owns and operates a 2,350 acre preserve that sits just 35 miles outside of our nation’s capital. Before becoming a state-designated Natural Area Preserve and being managed as an open-air museum and living laboratory, this mountainous landholding was home to many marginalized peoples. For the past three years, staff of the Preserve have been researching and presenting the historical narrative of the Preserve in honest, open, and empowering ways.

Long-term housing will not be offered during this fellowship, as work can be done mostly remotely and we don’t want to limit ourselves by proximity alone, but at least two visits (and free stays at our VOF Research Outpost located within the heart of VOF’s Preserve at Bull Run Mountains) will be requested, as we want an individual who wants to connect to this place and our history. So, while this fellowship is open to applicants everywhere, this project unfortunately cannot be completed entirely remotely without advanced approval of extenuating circumstances.

Application Requirements

To apply, please reach out to our VOF Preserve Manager, Joe Villari, at

Please include in your application:

  • A short bio (and CV if available).
  • If a musical group, please list all individuals’ names and their role in this project.
  • At least 2 samples of your work, but ideally a full portfolio of past work.
  • A brief proposal is preferred. One that describes your intended approach to this fellowship project (max one page). This should include a short description of why you would be the best fit for this project, what materials you would need (if any) to complete it, and the realistic timeline anticipated for this project