By: Mark Battista, Contributing Writer to the Chesterfield Observer, and County Naturalist for Chesterfield Parks and Recreation
A donation of land yields Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation its fourth conservation area. Like its predecessors, this new site protects valuable wetlands and riparian habitat.
The other three conservation areas include the Dutch Gap Conservation Area and the Brown & Williamson Conservation Area along the James River and the Radcliffe Conservation Area along the Appomattox River. The new site, which is still unnamed, will protect almost two miles of riverfront along the lower Swift Creek. Situated in the Bermuda District, the new park site is bordered on the west by Interstate 95 and on the north by Walthall Industrial Park. The Swift Creek delineates its southern and eastern borders.
Since about 85 percent of the property is aquatic, the county is considering using the property for hiking and water trails and walk-in access for fishing and kayaking, notes Stuart Connock Jr., assistant director for the Chesterfield Parks and Recreation Department. The department is also considering wayside exhibits to interpret the cultural and natural history of the land, and it wants to continue partnering with colleges on nature studies and research.
The 459-acre property was donated by James Martin Jr. and G.L. Howard Inc. Swamps occupy most of the western section. The eastern section is more open and dominated by tidal marsh. The Swift Creek meanders along its entire southern border from Interstate 95 to almost the confluence of the Appomattox River. Wooded uplands and a pond comprise the northern section. A small, forested island sits secluded almost in the middle of the property.
The county has been interested in obtaining the site for some time.
“When I bought the property and after I closed on it, the first person that called me about it, which was the next day, was Mike Golden, [who was the county’s chief of parks then],” says Martin. “He wanted to know what I intended to do with the property. I bought the property to hunt and enjoy, and that’s what I did for almost 20 years.”
Now he plans to transfer ownership to the county. The deal should be finalized this winter.
“I did quite a bit of duck hunting there,” says Martin.
During his forays on the land, he has observed a variety of wildlife, such as deer, turkeys, ducks, geese and bobcats.
“There have even been some coyotes seen down there.”
Over the years, Martin has generously given permission to others to hunt and conduct research on his property. By donating the land to the county, Martin and Howard will open this land for the public to explore and enjoy.
The county’s interest in acquiring this and other riverfront properties stems from the Chesterfield Riverfront Plan that was adopted in 1997. The riverfront plan was forged by the union of private, public and nonprofit entities to create a vision for Chesterfield’s riverfront.
“One of the goals of the riverfront plan was to enhance public access to the county’s rivers,” says Golden, director of the Chesterfield Parks and Recreation Department. “This property will provide access to the lower Swift Creek and the Appomattox River.”
Preserving environmental and historical resources along the county’s riverfront and “capitalizing on the scenic quality of riverfront lands” are other goals stated in the Chesterfield Riverfront Plan.
Stories of this new property can be gleaned by paddling through the area. Irregular mounds of gravel and sand dot the swamp, revealing an earlier mining operation along the floodplain. The mounds are probably the spoils, or unwanted material, left from the mining operation. Martin said he believes Arundel Sand and Gravel Company operated there in the 1930s.
Many duck blinds located throughout the marsh tell a story about the important role of wetlands in providing winter homes for waterfowl and an ideal site for duck hunters. The profusion of aquatic plants, such as wild rice, arrow arum, pickerel weed and smartweed, provide food and shelter for waterfowl species.
Small, wooden nesting boxes located throughout the swamp introduce the story and role of researchers. Jonathan Moore, a researcher at Virginia Tech, has been monitoring prothonotary warblers and erecting nesting boxes at this site since 2007. The prothonotary warbler, a golden-yellow bird, has a penchant for swamps.
“I think this site is absolutely important for prothonotaries,” says Moore. “First, the site is exactly what the bird looks for in terms of ideal habitat. They like forested riparian areas with standing water and trees or snags that provide cavities for nesting. Second, since this bird is declining in the U.S., any habitat made more accessible to the warblers [with the addition of nesting boxes in this case] is of great benefit to the species,” adds Moore.
So far, Moore has installed about 70 nesting boxes in the swamp.
Other stories revealed include the gnawed trees and wood and mud lodges built by beavers and the muddy, shoreline slides made by frolicking river otters. Exposed logs become the sunning spots for cooters and painted turtles and hangouts for cottonmouth snakes.
The county expects to open the conservation area to the public this spring. Visitors can take guided kayak tours of the area starting in May by calling 804-318-8735.
Reprinted with permission from the Chesterfield Observer.