RD147 - Report of the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation - May 2017

Executive Summary:
The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation (Foundation or VLCF) serves an important land conservation mission in the Commonwealth. It leverages state funds through matching grants and partnerships to protect working farms and forests, historic lands, open space and parks, and natural areas. The Foundation’s distinctive features include a cross-cutting grant review process to maximize conservation values of funded projects, an inter-agency staff review team that involves expertise from multiple state agencies, and a final review by a diverse Board of Trustees whose membership includes appointees from the Governor, Speaker of the House of Delegates, and the Senate of Virginia.

Since its inception in 1992, VLCF has experienced a name change from the Virginia Conservation and Recreation Foundation to the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, a significant expansion and improvement to its Code authority, and has sustained a successful grants program. In 2000, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees grew from nine members to 18 members. In 2006, the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry was added to the Board.

Total funds appropriated to the Foundation exceed $57.5 million since FY2000. To date, approximately $43.5 million has been allocated to VLCF’s matching grant program. Additionally, more than $13.1 million has been allocated to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) for the Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund in accordance with Virginia Code § 10.1-1020(C)(1). Moneys from this Fund are used to aid localities acquiring open-space easements or landowners conveying open-space easements with the costs associated with the conveyance of the easements.

In FY2016, $2.25 million was available for the VLCF grant round, which was open from June 16 to August 19, 2015. The Foundation received 18 applications for land conservation projects requesting more than $3.89 million in grants. The Board met on October 27, 2015, to consider these applications and approved 14 projects that will protect 1,998.39 acres. Additionally, $750,000 was allocated to VOF for the Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund.

Most recently, $6,423,011 was available for the FY2017 VLCF grant round, which was open from May 18 to July 28, 2016. The Foundation received 36 applications for land conservation projects requesting more than $11 million in grants. The Board met on September 14, 2016, to consider these applications and approved 23 projects that will protect 7,037 acres. Additionally, $2.0 million was allocated to VOF for the Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund.

Since first receiving funding in FY2000, the Foundation has held eleven grant rounds. During those eleven grant rounds, VLCF received 308 applications requesting more than $115.5 million in state funding, which was almost three times the available amount. To date, VLCF has awarded funding to 180 of the 308 grant applications, awarded more than $46.7 million to land conservation projects, and helped protect more than 59,800 acres at an average cost of $781 per acre.

The Foundation has also met its charge to develop a strategic plan for the expenditure of moneys received from the Fund. The strategic plan governing fiscal expenditures has been incorporated into successive VLCF grant manuals beginning in 1999, and has been updated regularly. The most recent revisions to the manual were made for the September 14, 2016, grant round. The grant scoring criteria are outlined in Appendix C. The grant manual is available at: www.dcr.virginia.gov/virginia_land_conservation_foundation/.

The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation serves as a coordinating mechanism for bringing together a number of state agencies’ land conservation efforts and priorities. The Foundation is one of the key tools that Virginia utilizes to attain its land conservation targets. A coordinating multi-agency task force consisting of the Director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the State Forester, the Director of the Department of Historic Resources, the Director of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Executive Director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, or their designees, provide the VLCF Board with assistance on such matters as grant criteria, grant priorities, and grant selection. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation serves as the lead staff for the Foundation.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Office of Land Conservation serves as a statewide central contact, repository, and clearinghouse for land conservation in Virginia. During VLCF grant rounds, this office serves as an important source of information for potential grant applicants and acts as the grant manager for projects funded.

The Office’s website (www.dcr.virginia.gov/land_conservation/) includes a wide variety of land conservation materials and contact information to assist landowners, conservation organizations, and managers with their conservation planning. In addition, the website provides a link to the state’s comprehensive statewide conserved lands resource mapping tool, Natural Heritage Data Explorer (NHDE), which was developed by DCR. This important land conservation-planning tool is accessible at: www.dcr.virginia.gov/land_conservation/tools02a.shtml and is updated regularly.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation also developed other databases that assist in the Foundation’s work. For example, the Department’s “Natural Heritage Screening Layer” is based upon more than 30 years of data collection and is Virginia’s most comprehensive information management system on natural communities and rare, threatened, and endangered plants and animals and their natural habitats. DCR produced several statewide tools such as the Conservation Lands Database (providing a dynamic parcel-level tracking tool for all conservation lands in the Commonwealth) and ConservationVision (providing statewide models to display lands ranked in conservation importance based on their recreational, cultural, agricultural, forest economics, and watershed integrity assets). These tools, as well as others described below, are utilized to help assess grant applications submitted to the Foundation for funding consideration. Much of this data, designed to inspire and inform land conservation, is provided on the Internet via DCR’s Natural Heritage Data Explorer and the Chesapeake Bay Program’s LandScope Chesapeake. Additionally, DCR has developed a Natural Heritage Plan, available at: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/vph.shtml. This plan identifies key habitats for rare species and significant natural communities that merit preservation.

The 2013 edition of the Virginia Outdoors Plan (VOP, or Outdoors Plan) serves as the Foundation’s comprehensive plan as required under § 10.1-1021 of the Code of Virginia. The VOP, published by DCR every five years, is the state’s official plan for the protection and conservation of Virginia’s important natural, outdoor recreational and open space resources. The 2013 edition is the 10th publication of the VOP and the first to be completely paperless. It can be accessed on-line at: www.dcr.virginia.gov/vop. Unlike earlier versions, this most recent Outdoors Plan, with its on-line content and interactive mapping tool, is a living document that provides up-to-date guidance on the latest trends in outdoor recreation and land conservation techniques and strategies.

The Outdoors Plan is based on an inventory of all publicly held park and open space land, including state-owned lands and lands held by federal agencies and localities. This inventory of existing lands and facilities serves as a basis for the Foundation’s needs assessment. In addition to its analysis of existing conditions statewide, the VOP also provides recommendations for each of the State’s Planning Districts in meeting outdoor recreation, conservation, and open space needs. Key areas necessary to protect the Commonwealth’s natural, scenic, open space, and cultural resources are identified. Currently, work is underway to prepare the 2017 Virginia Outdoors Survey, which will serve as the basis for the next edition of the VOP in 2018.