The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen Conserves the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Central Blue Ridge Mountains
TNFW’s professional staff and volunteer naturalists manage and help protect Wintergreen’s 6000 acres of open space and forests located along the spine of one of the narrowest points of the Blue Ridge. The surrounding mountain ecosystems include some of the most unique and diverse plant communities on the planet and are home to abundant and diverse wildlife, billions-year old geologic formations and countless remnants of the heritage left by Native Americans thousands of years ago. Our conservation efforts include:
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
For more than 25 years, TNFW’s core mission has been to preserve Wintergreen’s thousands of acres of forests and rare ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations. The value and success of our efforts is exemplified by our years-long work to identify the environmental dangers of constructing and operating a 42-inch natural gas pipeline through the Central Blue Ridge Mountains near Reeds Gap.
TNFW worked closely with WPOA and Friends of Wintergreen by providing geotechnical studies and expertise to buttress their opposition to the ACP. Among TNFW’s support was research by an outside geologist who presented data and mapping showing the inherent dangers of debris avalanches associated with drilling and pipeline construction on the Reid’s Gap crossing. The study’s author, Dr. Bartholomew, also authored the official Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication #4, Geology of the Greenfield and Sherando Quadrangles in 1977, which included Wintergreen. See Dr. Bartholomew’s report here.
TNFW’s ongoing collaboration with scientists doing research at Wintergreen provides us with the knowledge to combat threats to Wintergreen, whether they are the ACP, Emerald Ash Borers, or changing ecosystem conditions threatening forest health or wildlife populations.
But our work is not over. Before the ACP was cancelled, many trees were clear cut and left on the ground in the area near Wintergreen’s entrance. TNFW stands ready to help guide the proper restoration of this site as close as possible to its previous forest ecosystems.
Forest and Habitat Management
TNFW employs a full-time forester who monitors forest and habitat conditions across Wintergreen’s 6000 acres of open woodlands. The forester conducts and coordinates mast studies, wildlife population and invasive species studies and water quality monitoring to assess possible stresses on ecosystem health. These studies lead to mitigation efforts based on good science. TNFW’s forester coordinates research among Virginia university scientists, the Smithsonian Institution, and government agencies that inform best practices for managing Wintergreen’s Forests and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountain ecosystems and contributes more broadly to the scientific community’s body of knowledge. Together with teams of TNFW volunteers and summer interns, the Foundation’s forester also maintains over 30 miles of hiking trails that enable hikers of all abilities to experience the wonders of our Blue Ridge ecosystems.
TNFW conducts annual mast studies to obtain crucial data the Foundation’s forester uses to make management decisions regarding forest health and wildlife management. Hard mast (i.e., acorns and nuts) is a critical food resource for a variety of wildlife species in Wintergreen’s forests and the throughout the eastern U.S. In fact, the abundance and health of populations of deer, bear, wild turkey, rodents and grouse are influenced by the annual production (or lack) of hard mast, particularly oak acorns. The importance of oaks and acorns to wildlife in the eastern U.S. has led many biologists to consider oaks as a foundation species. It is likely that no other current tree species is capable of filling the functional role of oak for wildlife in eastern forests.
TNFW’s basic methodology involves scanning sample trees for 30 seconds with binoculars to determine presence or absence of mast. Trees are sampled in units consisting of 25 trees of the same tree group, primarily red and white oak groups. Sampling sites in Wintergreen’s forests are located off the Fortunes Ridge Trail, the Lower Shamokin Falls Trail and in the Crawfords Knob Natural Area Preserve.
In addition to providing long-term trends on the productivity of Wintergreen’s oak trees and general habitat health, data from these studies is used to guide management decisions regarding whitetail deer population surveys. For example, there appears to be a correlation between hard mast production and number of fawns birthed each year. Because we generally see an increase in fawns the summer following a banner acorn crop and a decrease in poor years, we can use this predictive data to help adjust our deer population control strategies appropriately. Overall wildlife population projections based on mast production can forecast food source demands on our forests, thus providing one critical indication of general habitat health.
Water Quality Monitoring
The Wintergreen community consists of 11,000 acres of forested and developed land along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The headwaters of several streams originate within Wintergreen, flowing through the community and down to the Rockfish Valley. To serve the community and help protect our mountain ecosystem, TNFW regularly monitors and evaluates the various streams in our watershed to quickly identify even small changes in water quality.
Six monitoring sites are located in the Stoney Creek, Paul’s Creek and Pond Hollow watersheds. Water testing is completed using a water testing kit that covers important aspects of water quality. This includes pH, nitrogen-nitrate, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, hardness, and turbidity. E-coli testing is also performed at each location. In addition to chemical testing, it is also important to monitor the living organisms of the stream. Using the “Save Our Streams” monitoring methods and scoring system provides TNFW with the necessary information to assess macro-invertebrates living in the waters.
TNFW uses both monitoring techniques to provide necessary water quality data on Wintergreen watersheds. Based on the results, TNFW is able to quickly identify any water quality issues and recommend prompt action to remedy the problem.
Wildlife Population Studies
Whitetail Deer Population Survey
TNFW began annual whitetail deer population studies in 2001 as a result of increased concerns from property owners, visitors, and resort management over the abundant and growing whitetail deer population. Concern increased due to the extent of damage this population was causing to the forested and landscaped environment. The goals of the population studies are to determine the approximate population levels that are sustainable for Wintergreen’s ecosystems.
The survey method used is fairly simple and common. TNFW uses a spotlight count because it is an easy and cost-effective way to determine a population size in an area such as in Wintergreen which has an extensive road system that covers the majority of the developed area. For survey purposes, Wintergreen is divided into three developed areas: Devils Knob, Blackrock and Stoney Creek. A spotlight survey is conducted twice each year (winter and summer) with three nights in each area totaling 18 evenings of survey work. Once the data are analyzed, TNFW gives recommendations to WPOA to use in its management of the deer population in the developed portion of Wintergreen.
Bear Smart Community
Wintergreen is a Bear Smart Community. TNFW works with the WPOA police department to inform homeowners of best practices to avoid conflict with a healthy bear population. This is done by educating community members regarding behavior that attracts bears such as bird feeding at the wrong time of year, garbage disposal and home bear access points. View our post on Bear Safety.
Invasive Plant and Animal Monitoring
Emerald Ash Borer
Emerald Ash Borer has become a recent reality in Wintergreen’s forests. TNFW trapped for its early presence and advised and prepared owners for the approach of this invasive beetle in its early stages. There is currently no reasonable mitigation effort possible and in some areas of our forests, white ash (Fraxinus americana) is a significant component. In high elevation wetlands Wintergreen is near the southern limit of black ash (Fraxinus nigra), a much less common northern species. Both species are impacted.
TNFW began our study of gypsy moth in 1996 as the invasive moth entered our region and began defoliating and killing trees along large segments of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. The study consists of trapping male gypsy moths with a pheromone lure and estimating densities accordingly. If the population reaches a certain threshold, an egg mass survey is conducted to identify where likely defoliation may occur. If egg mass densities indicate a likely significant defoliation, environmentally safe pesticides are applied via aerial spraying.
The spread of the soil fungus (entomophaga maimaga) currently allows natural control of the species. As long as we have abundant Spring rainfall, the magnitude of the gypsy moth threat is greatly reduced. Nevertheless, TNFW continues to conduct studies every other year to monitor for the moth’s presence.
TNFW’s forester attends the Virginia Forests Health Conference each year to join other collaborators in trying to determine the next wave of potential threats to our forests. It seems that at least one pest, spotted lantern fly (Lycorma delicatula) is related to viticulture rather than our forests. Wavy leaved basket grass (Oplismenis hirtellus) is an expected plant general invasive, and the spread of feral hog populations is being observed.
Encouraging Appreciation of Nature
TNFW maintains 3 nature preserves and more than 30 miles of hiking trails that are used by thousands of hikers each year. TNFW naturalists lead weekly hikes along these mountain trials pointing out flora and fauna, billions-year old geologic formations and the heritage left by Native Americans thousands of years ago. These trails provide access to woodlands and streams that serve as our outdoor classrooms for area schools and support environmental research and education programs.
Crawford’s Knob Natural Area Preserve
TNFW manages a conservation easement in partnership with Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Division for the Crawford’s Knob Natural Area Preserve. The Natural Area Preserve encompasses 1,400 acres of mature hardwood forest and a rare mountain wetland south of Humpback Mountain. In 2008, Wintergreen Resort recognized the importance of preserving this ecologically significant area by pursuing a conservation easement leading to TNFW and Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Division both holding easements on the site with TNFW its declared manager. Under the terms of the conservation easement, TNFW manages the Preserve “…to enhance, maintain, and protect rare species habitat and natural ecological communities for the perpetual benefit, education, and enjoyment of Virginia’s citizens.” TNFW’s management also promotes opportunities for research, education and visitor enjoyment. Recent research sponsored by TNFW in the Preserve includes a long-term climate change study, orchid research and eMammal tracking projects with the Smithsonian Institution, and a multi-year spotted skunk study.
Crawford’s Knob overlooks Nelson County’s Rockfish Valley and lies along a narrow section of the Blue Ridge, which is a critical bird migration corridor. Seemingly subtle qualities of greenstone-influenced soil have led to the establishment of a rare wetland community known as a “mountain-piedmont basic seepage swamp.”
Spring water seeping up through cobbles along the headwaters of Paul’s Creek supports a lush flora characterized by red maple, black ash and yellow birch in the overstory, spicebush in the mid-story, and a herbaceous community comprised of various orchids, lilies, ferns, grasses and sedges. Upslope from the swamp is an expanse of mature hardwoods, interspersed with steep, thinly vegetated outcrops.
To learn more about the Crawford’s Knob Natural Area Preserve, please contact Forest Management firstname.lastname@example.org at TNFW.
Daniel Sturt Park and Nature Preserve
TNFW partners with other organizations to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Central Blue Ridge Mountain area.
For all its open spaces and rich ecosystems, Nelson County has never had a dedicated nature preserve for its citizens and visitors to enjoy and learn about their natural and cultural heritage. TNFW believes strongly that successful conservation is based on solid foundations of research leading to an understanding of the complex interactions within a habitat and education to convey that knowledge to people ultimately responsible for protecting it.
In 2013, the late Daniel Webster Sturt deeded a large tract of property in Shipman to Nelson County for the purpose of conservation and recreation. TNFW began extensive research of the tract in 2014 identifying more than 200 plant species and a rich variety of wildlife, including a wide diversity of amphibians attracted to the site’s vernal pools. “It’s a little peninsula of Piedmont that juts into Blue Ridge. It has Piedmont ecosystems that exist within the Blue Ridge, which is unique,” said TNFW’s Executive Director, Doug Coleman.
Working together with Nelson County’s Parks and Recreation staff, area Master Naturalists and Virginia’s Department of Forestry, TNFW is providing expert assistance from biologists, foresters, a landscape architect and volunteers to create the 340-acre Sturt Park and Nature Preserve, the County’s first nature preserve. The Park fills an unmet need within the County and reflects TNFW’s mission to use our abilities to serve our community and preserve our natural and cultural heritage.