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This Week in the Watershed

Fones Cliffs: It Could Be Lost Forever, Part 2

BillPortlockAn aerial view of part of Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River in Virginia's Northern Neck. The Diatomite Corporation of America is threatening to develop part of this unspoiled place that is home to one of the most important bald eagle habitats on the East Coast. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff. 

You've been hearing a lot about Fones Cliffs lately and the potential development that threatens it.* To better understand this untouched place along Virginia's Northern Neck and just how much is at stake, we talked with CBF's Senior Naturalist John Page Williams, who is no stranger to this stretch of the Rappahannock. Williams recounted an experience (originally published on ChesapeakeBoating.net) that he had not so long ago on the river, in this special part of the world:

The combination of fresh and salt water, strong currents, marshes and deep water close to shore gives this part of the river a rich biological community of plants, fish, birds, and mammals. Combine that with fertile floodplain soils, and it is no surprise that this region has served humans well for several thousand years . . .

One element in the appeal of the Bay's upper tidal rivers is that there is something interesting going on at virtually every season of the year. Springtime brings spawning rockfish, white perch, American and hickory shad, catfish, and two species of river herring. In summer, the river's shallows teem with juvenile fish that make its great blue herons and ospreys fat and happy, while the marshes burst with seed-bearing plants like wild rice, rice cut-grass, smartweed, and tearthumb. Fall brings blackbirds and then waterfowl, while the hardwood trees along the river turn to blazing colors. Winter brings concentrations of Canada geese and bald eagles . . .

We rode First Light through the curves at Leedstown and Laytons Landing, which is a steamboat wharf site on the Essex County (south) side. Laytons Landing had been connected by ferry to Leedstown and stayed busy until the highway bridge at Tappahannock was built in the 1930s. Here the Rappahannock opens up into a long, straight reach that extends for four miles down to Fones Cliffs.

I told Jim [Rogers] about an afternoon 15 years earlier, when First Light and I had entered this reach on a clear, calm late-October day. With the sun low behind us, light streamed down the river, illuminating a corridor of blazing yellow, orange, scarlet, and purple colors in the sycamores, maples, sweet gums, and black gums before lighting up the tawny sandstone of the cliffs at the far end. I remember stopping the engine and drifting, drinking in the scene. Partway down the reach, I drifted past an empty osprey platform. As I watched, a mature eagle drifted down out of the sky and perched there. The view was the most stunning I have seen in all my years on the Chesapeake.

And yet for all this beauty and important biodiversity, a short-sighted, Miami-based developer is petitioning to rezone the land so he can turn this unique and fragile site into parking lots, commercial development, and townhomes. On October 8, the Richmond County Board of Supervisors will consider the rezoning request, which means we have just one week to speak out loudly in opposition. Stand with us in protecting this jewel of the Rappahannock. Sign the petition to Save the Eagles, Save Fones Cliffs. Because if lost, it will be lost forever.

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

*The part of Fones Cliffs that is owned by the Diatomite Corporation of America.

Learn more about Fones Cliffs and why it's important in our blog series here.

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