Natural Resources

Land Preservation

Virginia river falls in the autumn

Land Preservation

Rich, diverse natural resources are some of the Commonwealth's most important assets. Increasingly, Virginia government and citizens are partnering to preserve the Commonwealth's open spaces -- a challenge that requires foresight, commitment, and good planning.

Why is This Important?

Of all the development that has occurred in the last 400 years, more than a quarter of it has taken place just in the last 15 years. Virginia lost over 200,000 acres of forest, farm, and other rural land to development between 2002 and 2007. Good stewardship means taking action to ensure that the natural, cultural, and historic resources treasured by Virginians are available for future generations to enjoy. Protecting land also helps meet important goals for water quality, wildlife habitat, recreation, and overall quality of life.

How is Virginia Doing?


State Conservation Efforts

Counting the combined efforts of private and public entities, an average of 71,212 acres per year were protected from development in Virginia between 2003 and 2012. Between 2007 and 2010 alone, 387,103 acres were placed under protection. As of May 2012, an additional 115,370 acres had been preserved.

Acreage Preserved in Virginia, 2004-2013
Fiscal Year Total Statewide
Acreage Preserved
Annual Acreage
Preserved
2004 3,174,019 39,497
2005 3,243,079 69,060
2006 3,313,584 70,505
2007 3,411,172 97,587
2008 3,504,983 93,811
2009 3,594,437 89,454
2010 3,700,687 106,249
2011 3,734,975 34,289
2012 3,798,442 63,467
2013 3,841,509 43,066
Source: Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Conservation Lands Database

According to the state's best estimate, as of August 2013 more than 3.84 million acres of open space, parks, historic lands, natural areas, forests, farms and other lands have been preserved by federal, state and local governments, and private conservation organizations. These lands -- kept free of development through land ownership and easements -- represent about 15 percent of the Commonwealth's total acreage (25,270,000 acres). About 62 percent of these preserved lands are held by the federal government; 29 percent by the state; about 4 percent by local governments; and 6 percent by private / non-profit organizations.

The Commonwealth also participates in the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership focused on restoring the Bay and committing to specific environmental and land preservation goals. Among the many provisions of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement was an ambitious commitment to permanently preserve 20 percent of watershed lands in each participating state by 2010. Available data shows that, as of December 2012, Virginia has preserved 2,724,659 of its 13,831,890 Chesapeake Bay watershed acres -- or 19.7 percent.

Land Preservation by Virginia Region, 2011-2013
Region Preserved Land
(in sq. miles)
Preserved Land as
Percent of Total
Preserved Land
(in sq. miles)
Preserved Land as
Percent of Total
Preserved Land
(in sq. miles)
Preserved Land as
Percent of Total
  2011 2012 2013
Central 957.20 10.3% 987.12 10.7% 1,006.24 10.9%
Eastern 292.43 14.8% 299.72 15.2% 306.43 15.5%
Northern 569.98 18.8% 579.93 19.1% 585.46 19.3%
Southside 182.03 2.9% 192.75 3.0% 199.53 3.1%
Southwest 827.82 13.0% 835.97 13.1% 842.88 13.2%
Hampton Roads 332.73 14.0% 341.75 14.4% 351.55 14.8%
Valley 1,859.28 36.3% 1,878.0 36.5% 1,879.36 36.6%
West Central 814.43 16.0% 824.03 16.2% 830.92 16.4%
Virginia 5,835.90 14.7% 5,935.07 15.0% 6,002.36 15.2%
Source: Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Conservation Lands Database

Every region in Virginia saw some increase in the number and percentage of land acreage preserved in 2013. The Valley region had the largest percentage of preserved land, with 36.6 percent preserved; the Northern region had the second highest at 19.3 percent. The Southside region had the smallest percentage of preserved land at 3.1 percent, followed by the Central region at 10.9 percent.

Lost Land

Percent Change in Amount of Rural Land, by State. See text for explanation.On the debit side, Virginia lost 208,600 acres of forest, farm, and other rural land to development between 2002 and 2007, for an overall loss rate of 1.06 percent. This rate was lower than previous periods. It was also lower than peer states Maryland (1.96%) and North Carolina (1.68%) but the same as Tennessee -- and higher than the national average of 0.55 percent. North Dakota was the leading state, with a rate of only 0.02% for rural land lost.

What Influences Land Preservation?

Citizens across the Commonwealth have been voluntarily placing conservation easements on their lands since 1966. Many of these easements are held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), which holds more conservation easements -- over 3,500 easements protecting more than 670,000 acres -- than any public land trust in the nation. Private and non-profit organizations also play a key role in conserving important lands in the Commonwealth.

State and federal tax incentives make donations of conservation easements financially possible for some landowners. For many others, conservation is only feasible if a land trust or government agency can make the purchase. Land preservation in Virginia is currently driven by a combination of citizen donations, state and federal tax incentives, local government activities, and federal funding. Federal funds for land conservation programs have been declining in recent years.

Local government programs for the purchase of development rights (PDR) are gradually taking hold in Virginia. Under these programs, localities purchase conservation easements from farmers and other landowners in order to keep some land in the area free of development. Currently, 22 localities have instituted PDR programs, of which 18 have some level of funding; five other localities are in the process of adopting a program.

Additionally, Frederick County and now Stafford County recently created the state's first transfer of development rights (TDR) programs -- where development rights are severed from a land parcel and traded in a private market for use on another parcel of land. Other Virginia localities are also considering adopting TDR programs of their own.

What is the State's Role?

The Commonwealth conserves land by:

  • purchasing lands for public use
  • giving tax incentives to private landowners for conservation
  • matching grants from land trusts that purchase land and easements

Virginia has a number of state entities whose mission includes the protection of important lands:

  • the Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
  • the Department of Forestry
  • the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
  • the Department of Historic Resources, and
  • the Virginia Outdoors Foundation

These agencies advise landowners on conservation options, buy land, hold conservation easements, and maintain databases that track various land attributes. The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation makes matching grants to land trusts and local governments.

What Can Citizens Do?

Individuals and groups are strongly encouraged to be active participants in resource management. To learn more about Virginia's environment, stewardship and public participation opportunities, please visit Virginia Naturally or the Virginia Conservation Network.

Updated January 09, 2014

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Conservation Lands Database: www.dcr.virginia.gov/land_conservation/tools02a.shtml
(updated annually in July)

Watershed data available from the Chesapeake Bay Program.
(updated annually in July)

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Summary Report: Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2007 National Resources Inventory

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
Land Preservation in Virginia

Performance Trend:  Trend is improving!
State Influence:  
significant

Virginia by Region: Over 15% of Virginia's total acreage has been set aside for non-development. The Valley region leads the state in percentage of land preserved (almost 37%), followed by the Northern region at 19%.

National Ranking:  38th among the 48 contiguous states for amount of rural lands lost between 2002 and 2007.

Related Agency Measures
State Programs & Initiatives

Virginia's Office of Land Conservation helps citizens and organizations protect land and maintains a statewide "conservation lands" database.

The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation provides state funding to conserve certain categories of special land, such as open spaces and parks, natural areas, historic areas, farmland, and forests.

The Office of Farmland Preservation works to preserve agricultural land and forests across the state, mainly through Purchase of Development Rights programs established with localities.

Thousands of farmers have made the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) one of Virginia's most active water quality and wildlife habitat efforts. The program offers financial incentives such as cost-share and rental payments to farmers who voluntarily restore riparian buffers, filter strips, and wetlands through the installation of approved conservation practices.

The Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program connects state agencies and Tidewater local governments and funds strategies for improving coastal air and water quality, coastal habitats, and sound economic development.

The Land Preservation Tax Credit allows individuals and corporations to take a credit for conveying land located in Virginia for preservation, agricultural use, forest use, open space, and natural resource conservation.

Additional Information

Virginia Outdoors Foundation

Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts

Department of Forestry

Department of Game and Inland Fisheries