Fones Cliffs Conservation

Currently threatened by a proposal for a large development project, Fones Cliffs, is a four mile stretch of white colored diatomaceous cliffs rising over 100 feet above the Rappahannock River. It is the ancestral home of the Rappahannock Tribe and a globally significant Important Bird Area for resident and migratory bald eagles and other migratory birds. This largely unspoiled landscape is a place of both natural and cultural importance and is a key feature along the Chesapeake Trail.

For years, the Chesapeake Conservancy has been working with partners such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and others to conserve this Chesapeake treasure. In June 2019, partners gathered to celebrate the protection of 252 acres which were added to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge for permanent protection thanks to funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund that Chesapeake Conservancy helped to secure. Thanks to The Conservation Fund and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, this parcel will be protected from development and will add opportunities for hiking and bird-watching.

The entire conservation community and the public can rightfully celebrate this tremendous accomplishment. However, now is not the time for complacency. An adjoining 968 acres remain threatened as the corporate owner seeks to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and still faces penalties from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for illegally clearing over 13 acres of trees and other vegetation (see Chesapeake Bay Journal article).

Chesapeake Conservancy will continue our vigilance in monitoring any and all activities related to the proposed development and will continue our strong advocacy for conserving this property and its irreplaceable natural, historical, and cultural values.

There’s still much work to be done. But, a portion of Fones Cliffs have been conserved representing  a huge “win” for the Rappahannock Tribe, the Chesapeake Bay, the Rappahannock River Land Protection Partnership, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Thank you to the Partnership for the National Trails System and the  U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration for producing this case study.

Fones Cliffs provides important habitat for one of the largest concentration of eagles on the East Coast. For this reason, and its importance to other migratory bird species, Fones Cliffs is part of a globally significant Important Bird Area, designated by the Audubon Society.

The cliffs also have a rich cultural history. According to the journals of John Smith, Fones Cliffs was the home of three American Indian towns and bore witness to an often-cited not so friendly encounter between the Rappahannock tribe and the Englishmen aboard John Smith’s shallop. This area is a highlight to those exploring history along the Chesapeake Trail and to paddlers traversing the mighty Rappahannock.

Fones Cliffs is an evocative landscape, offering the public a rare glimpse into the past. The white cliffs, rich heritage, and soaring eagles make this a very special and unique place in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.