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The House Mountain Preserve Story

July 11, 2015 (printable version)

Saving the Mountain

The year was 1988, and hundreds of acres on the two peaks of House Mountain were up for sale. Members of the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council (RACC), joined by others, launched “Save House Mountain,” the fund-raising effort that culminated in the purchase of 876 acres on Big House, Little House and the saddle between them. The asking price was $325,000, and the landowner originally gave RACC three months to get the needed money.

The committee swung into action, and before the drive was done, money had come from local businesses, residents, and alumni of Washington & Lee and VMI, and nickels and dimes and quarters from schoolchildren at Lylburn Downing Middle School. Donations came from as far away as Asia, as former residents and students generously gave to the campaign.

As the drive progressed, campaign members sought other conservation organization partners. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a state-supported foundation established “to promote the preservation of open-space lands and to encourage private gifts of money, securities, land or other property to preserve the natural, scenic, historic, scientific, open-space and recreational areas of the Commonwealth,” generously stepped up to cover the balance with its own private funds, thereby becoming the largest single donor. The House Mountain Preserve was thus created, and a regional landmark was saved from piecemeal development.

Caring for the Mountain

Under the terms of the innovative Management Agreements signed by RACC and the VOF, the latter would hold the title, and the land was put under the administration of the House Mountain Management Committee (HMMC), a seven-member board composed of one representative each from the four principal institutions involved in the drive to save the mountain (RACC, the VOF, Washington & Lee University, and the Virginia Military Institute) plus two additional members appointed by RACC and one appointed by the VOF.

The Agreements also established that the land would remain open to the public; limited allowed activities to the traditional recreational and educational uses; and set the land management goal to maintain the saddle and preserve the forest in its existing state. The Agreements authorized the locally-based HMMC to set policy and intensity for uses, and to implement and update the Management Plan for the property.

The Agreements also granted final approval authority for HMMC decisions to the VOF Board of Trustees, provided an opportunity to propose changes to the Agreements every four years, and stipulated that the title would revert to RACC if the State was no longer willing or able to uphold the provisions of the Agreements.

The HMMC has operated successfully by consensus for almost three decades, making decisions and arranging for the resources needed to maintain the Preserve in its natural state and open for a broad range of recreational activities. These actions have happened with generous contributions of expertise, labor, materials, and services provided at little or no cost by community members, local businesses and government, and the Management Committee member organizations.

The Future of the Mountain

RACC and its representatives on the HMMC remain committed to the principles of the original Management Agreements, honoring the promises made to donors and serving the best interests of the Preserve. Among those fundamental principles are: Public access to the Preserve; limiting uses to recreational purposes only, to include hiking, non-motorized mountain bikes, horseback access, hunting, scientific, educational and aesthetic purposes consistent with the other uses, and primitive camping; preserving the wildlife and plant populations in their natural state in perpetuity; continuing the role of the HMMC and local community in making decisions about managing the Preserve; and designation of future title succession.

The best way to “preserve the natural habitat” is to allow natural processes to return the property gradually to an “old growth” forest ecosystem – the rarest forest type in Virginia - that will preserve essential biodiversity, resist non-native invasive species, protect water quality, and maximize carbon sequestration.  While several acres of the Saddle area would continue to be maintained as an historic meadow and heritage apple orchard, RACC believes, based on current science, that nature should be allowed to take its course in the rest of the preserve to achieve the preservation goals of the original Agreements and promises to the donors.

In 2012 VOF staff presented a forest management plan to the HMMC that included significant changes in the approach to the property.  The changes included designating 99 acres of the preserve for active forestry management with possible timber harvesting to provide income for other changes such as parking areas, gates and signage or possibly even staffing.  Other members of the committee objected to some of these changes as inconsistent with the original prohibition on cutting trees, and the other preservation and primitive setting objectives.  RACC prefers non-extractive ways to fund property management, including grants, gifts, establishing an endowment, carbon or easement credits, volunteer labor, and use of privately donated materials and services.

Status of the Partnership and Protection of the Mountain

During discussions about revisions to the House Mountain Management Plan with the HMMC that began in 2012, VOF raised the issue of also revising the Agreements with RACC.  In September 2013, VOF notified RACC that revisions to the Agreements were needed that would, among other things, result in direction of management of the mountain by VOF staff members.  Since then, RACC and VOF have discussed a number of possible ways to address VOF's concerns, but VOF has been unwilling to commit to any changes short of terminating the Agreements.

Discussions culminated in a meeting with VOF and Attorney General’s office representatives in August 2014 to outline a new process for resolving the partnership and preservation issues.   With VOF’s concurrence, RACC remained optimistic that an updated property and forest Management Plan, an appropriate Deed of Dedication, and adjustments to the partnership could be completed to the satisfaction of all the interested parties.  

The HMMC and RACC agreed that Dr. John Knox and Chris Wise would work with VOF staff on revisions to the property and forest Management Plan.  Those working sessions concluded at the end of 2014, with VOF taking the responsibility for producing a first draft of the Plan for review based on the concepts discussed.  A draft Plan has not been made available yet, nor has VOF provided a date for its release.

In early 2015, RACC proceeded with the next step.  With help generously provided by the W&L Law School, RACC drafted a proposed Deed of Dedication.  The draft deed restrictions incorporated the science-based forest Management Plan concepts, the principles of the original Agreements, and compromises offered by RACC that would address VOF’s concerns about the structure of the HMMC while preserving the local management role.   The changes offered included reducing RACC’s appointed seats by one and adding the Rockbridge County Government as a member of the Management Committee.

Rockbridge County officials have indicated their support for RACC’s efforts and have endorsed continued local involvement in the HMMC, the RACC-proposed deed restrictions, and the possibility of the County taking title to the property, if needed, and continuing to manage the property within the framework established by the original Agreements.

VOF, however, declined to review the draft Deed of Dedication, and by the vote of the VOF Trustees on June 25, 2015, has now acted unilaterally in an effort to both terminate the Agreements, and assert exclusive authority over House Mountain, in a contradiction to both the spirit and purpose of the original management Agreements.  The VOF also indicated that it intends to proceed independently to consider yet-to-be-disclosed deed restrictions at their Trustees’ September 2015 meeting.

The VOF Board of Trustees’ action means that the legal issue of the Agreements’ status will have to be settled first. RACC invited the VOF to join together with RACC in seeking a Declaratory Judgement on the status of the Agreements, but VOF declined.

Subsequently, on July 2, 2015, the RACC Board of Directors decided unanimously to proceed with legal action to defend the 1988 and 1989 House Mountain Agreements.  Thanks to the efforts of attorney Jared Jenkins, who is working pro bono on behalf of RACC, that legal action is expected to be filed sometime in July 2015. 

For more information, please contact RACC at 540-463-2330 or racc@rockbridge.net.

(printable version)