U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) visited Fones Cliffs on June 16 to gain insight into the Rappahannock Tribe’s holdings at its ancestral homeland.
Kaine participated in a roundtable, a boat trip along the Rappahannock River, and a van tour of the diatomaceous, environmentally sensitive property that stretches for four miles on the eastern side of the waterway in Richmond County.
Other participants were representatives of the Rappahannock Tribe, as well as leaders from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservation Fund, and Chesapeake Conservancy.
Prior to contact with the English, the Rappahannock Tribe occupied at least three villages on the Cliffs––Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoack. Fones Cliffs is where the Tribe first encountered and defended their homeland against English settler Captain John Smith during his explorations in 1608.
The Tribe was forcibly removed from the Cliffs after 1649 as English settlers took over valuable farmland.
In April of last year, the Tribe reacquired the 465-acre Pissacoak. The Chesapeake Conservancy purchased that acreage located at the southern point of the cliffs, and transferred ownership of it to the Rappahannock Tribe.
In December, the Conservation Fund purchased about 960 acres at the northern point of the cliffs, for $8.1 million, property through bankruptcy proceedings. The Fund intends to transfer the land to the Rappahannocks later this year.
“This has been really helpful for me,” Kaine told the Rappahannock Times about this visit. “I really wanted to see it because getting a briefing about it doesn’t allow you to understand the magnitude of the challenge still ahead. This is a unique project. There’s still resource needs in order to to complete the acquisition and permanent protection of Fones Cliffs. When you have partners like these around the table, you have confidence that you’ll get there.”
“I feel really good about today’s meeting and was honored to have Senator Kaine here today because he’s been a real champion of the Tribe,” Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson told the Rappahannock Times. “He’s excited with what he’s doing. We work close with his office and Senator (Mark) Warner’s office. We like to bring them in and let them know what our plans are, because they are great partners for us.”
Richardson told the gathering that plans are in the works for a 17-century working village on the Pissacoak property.
“It will depict what day-to-day life would have been for the Tribe before English contact,” Richardson explained “On the 964 (acres), we plan to put a welcome center there. There are few places in this area where people can come to hold a meeting. We also plan to have information about the Tribe’s true history on that place.”
She said a snack bar and restroom facility is also planned.
“We were locked off the river for so many years, and now we want to reopen it to people who want to hike, canoe and experience the land, water and beautiful wildlife that exists here,” Richardson stated.
The boat tour included a view of 13-acres of land that was illegally cleared in 2017 by the manager for the previous owner, the Virginia True Corporation.
Proposed development on the property by Virginia True included an 18-hole golf course, spa and hundreds of homes.
Virginia True was cited for environmental violations and its property entered bankruptcy court.
“This is an opportunity to view what can happen when you clear something,” said Marcie Kapsch, project leader of the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “When that stability is interrupted, nature does what nature does. There was a big land clearing and mud slide that we are still dealing with. But, I don’t know of many places on the East Coast that are close to populous communities that have pristine river stretches like this. All of this is so special because it is the lifeblood of the tribe and it’s so healthy.”
Heather Richards, the Conservation Fund’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, said rehabilitation efforts on the 13-acre site are continuing.
“We have been fairly successful so far,” Richards explained. “We are going to join the Friends of the Rappahannock later this year for another tree planting.”
Citing Virginia True’s failed development plans, Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, told Warner, “Instead of that, the Tribe is going to get ownership of this property, the Fish and Wildlife Service gets an addition to the refuge, the eagles get a permanent home, and all our kids get to enjoy nature and appreciate this for future generations.”
Fones Cliffs provides an important habitat for one of the largest concentrations of eagles on the East Coast.