RD29 - Report of the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation – December 2020

Executive Summary:

*This report was replaced in its entirety by the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation on July 2, 2021.

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.

Virginia Land Conservation Foundation

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 $76 million since FY2000 (Table 1) and have resulted in the protection of 179,084 acres. To date, almost $59 million has been allocated to VLCF’s matching grant program. Additionally, more than $15 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 FY2020, $5,859,084 was available for the VLCF grant round; open from June 19 through August 29, 2019 ($3,375,000 was provided in the FY2020 state budget and $2,515,934 was from prior withdrawn projects and projects that closed under their grant budget). The Foundation received 34 applications for land conservation projects requesting more than $15.14 million in grants. The Board met on November 22, 2019, and approved 19 projects to protect 17,575 acres. Additionally, $1,125,000 was allocated to VOF for the Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund. In the FY 2021 budget, $10 million was appropriated to VLCF, however due to the pandemic the funding was put on hold until there was more certainty with the state budget.

Since first receiving funding in FY2000, the Foundation has held 13 grant rounds. During those 13 grant rounds, VLCF received 371 applications requesting more than $138 million in state funding, which was more than two times the available amount (Table 2). To date, VLCF has awarded funding to 223 of the 371 grant applications and awarded more than $56.8 million to land conservation projects to protect more than 78,500 acres, at an average cost of $723 per acre.

The Foundation 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 is updated regularly. The most recent revisions to the manual were made for the November 22, 2019, grant round (www.dcr.virginia.gov/virginia_land_conservation_foundation/). The grant scoring criteria are outlined in Appendix C. Additional updates were incorporated in the 2019 grant round that included criteria to address the new ConserveVirginia land conservation strategy targeting Virginia’s highest priority lands.

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 Wildlife Resources, 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), developed by DCR’s Division of Natural Heritage. This important and useful land conservation-planning tool, which is updated regularly, is accessible at https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/nhdeinfo.

ConserveVirginia represents a new, data driven approach to land conservation that builds upon work already underway here and in other states. Virginia’s first in the nation strategy takes the next step in identifying how and where to achieve the best conservation outcomes, and meets the Governor’s directive to prioritize the most important lands from a statewide perspective, target limited resources toward those areas, and measure the progress made toward achieving multiple conservation goals. ConserveVirginia is a roadmap for land conservation across Virginia for years to come.

ConserveVirginia’s central feature is a living “smart map" that identifies approximately 6.9 million acres of priority lands for conservation. The ConserveVirginia Map is the synthesis of 21 mapped data inputs, divided Agriculture and Forestry; Natural Habitat and Biological Diversity; Floodplains and Flooding Resilience; Cultural and Historic Preservation; Scenic Preservation; Protected Landscapes Resilience, and Water Quality Improvement. More can be learned at: https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/conservevirginia/. Outdoor Recreation is a critical component of the strategy and will be addressed across the categories. As with most land conservation, resource benefits cross multiple categories.

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 2018 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 11th publication of the VOP, the 2018 edition, is a digital document accessible at www.dcr.virginia.gov/vop.

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.