Landcare is about sustainable land management to support the broader region. We need healthy land to have clean air and water, productive fields and forests, and to support strong rural economies and vibrant communities. Caring for that land and keeping it healthy and productive is important for us today and for our future generations.
As a land owner or manager in the Catawba Valley, managing land can be challenging because any single property might have forests and fields, streams and caves, houses and barns, livestock and wildlife. As the manager of that land, you have to weigh many factors in making decisions like costs and potential benefits, the long term sustainability of the land and resources, the environmental impacts of your decisions, and maybe even the connections to the larger landscape.
This section on land management introduces the concept of “whole-property planning” as a land care and management strategy, as well as some of the options and resources available for managing different land uses found in the Catawba Valley. You can find more information and resources on land management options in the Landcare Toolbox or learn about specific landcare projects going on the Catawba Valley in the Projects section.
Whole-property planning is a strategy for managing the land and resources holistically. The goal of whole-property planning is to develop an action plan for managing the various features on a piece of property to meet the goals of the owner or manager in a way that makes sense on the landscape and contributes to the well-being of the region.
Developing a plan is beneficial because it helps you to identify goals for your land and develop a roadmap for achieving these goals. A useful plan will include not only goals, but an assessment of what you have to work with on your land, an idea of what resources are available to help you, and an ability to adjust the plan as needed.1
The first step to developing a whole-property plan is identifying your goals – what do you want from your land? Are you trying to improve habitat for wildlife? Do you want to raise healthy cattle that will bring a good market price? Is your goal to improve the value of timber in your forest to sell when its time to retire? Would you like to see brook trout living in the stream again? Maybe it’s a combination of goals. Whatever they are, it’s important to first know what you are trying to achieve. Some goals may require trade-offs, so it’s important to prioritize your goals.
It’s also important to inventory the land and your resources (a worksheet to guide you is available here). What sorts of land features do you have to work with? Do you have forestland, fields, steep slopes, stream frontage, sinkholes, rocky soil, etc? What sorts of soil do you have? What is growing in the forest or in your fields? Do you have invasive species or endangered species that you might need to manage differently? Mapping out the property is useful to get a better idea of what you are dealing with. Another question is what resources you have available to help you reach your goals. Major management projects such as timber stand improvement or streambank restoration can cost money, and there are several cost-share programs available to help landowners cover these costs. Some of the programs and resources are listed in the Landcare Toolbox, but someone from the local soil and water conservation district office may be able to provide some more specific ideas depending on your goals.
With a basic sense of what you want to achieve and what you are working with, you can begin laying out steps for how to achieve your goals. Figuring out what you need to do might require advice from local experts like a forester, extension agent, soil scientist, wildlife biologists, etc. A list of local offices and contact information can be in the Landcare Toolbox. Land management requires patience and flexibility. It’s not an exact science, so you may need to adapt your strategies and plan as you go.
Click here to read about how students from Virginia Tech are helping landowners in the Catawba Valley develop whole-property plans for their properties.
While this is in no way a complete guide to managing for all of the different land uses and goals possible in the Catawba Valley, we do provide a rough overview of some of the options, as well as some resource for finding more information. The local Cooperative Extension or Soil & Water Conservation District offices are also excellent resources to learn more about your specific goals.
Forest management goals can vary widely. As a forest landowner or manager, you may want to improve the value of timber in the forest, providing quality habitat for wildlife, or ensure you have a beautiful forest to hike through. You may be interested in attracting birds, growing medicinal plants, harvesting timber for local markets, or maybe some combination of things. Different forest management strategies and practices will help you reach these goals.
Most of the forests in the region have already been cleared once or twice in the last two hundred years, so they are not necessarily as productive or as genetically diverse as they could be. Forests are like other plants in that they need space, light, and nutrients to grow. Just like if you try to grow tomato plants too close together, trees that are too crowded won’t thrive like they could. Managing a forest to create space and allow light to reach the forest floor will allow new trees to grow and established trees to grow stronger.
Sustainable forestry is an approach to forest management that integrates the regeneration, growing, nurturing, and harvesting of trees for useful products while conserving soil, air, water quality, wildlife, plants, aquatic habitat, and landscape aesthetic quality2 Employing sustainable forestry methods and practices to manage your forestland or woodlot, you are not only working to achieve your personal goals as a land manager, but you are improving the health of the forest for the entire region. Healthy forests perform invaluable ecosystem services such as filtering water, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and producing oxygen, providing habitat and food for wildlife. An extensive guide to sustainable forestry strategies to achieve a wide range of goals is available for download through the Virginia Cooperative Extension by clicking here.
Silviculture is the forestry equivalent of agriculture — the art and science of cultivating and managing a forest for the desired outcomes. Unlike a field of corn or crops that grow in one-season rotations however, trees, especially hardwoods that are predominant in the Catawba Valley, grow much slower, so it’s a long and complex process requiring patience, careful planning, and a willingness to actively manage your forest. There are several silvicultural practices available to manage forests, each with it’s own pros and cons. Probably the most controversial is the clear-cutting method, in which an entire section of the forest is felled and cleared. Contrary to how it may initially appear, this practice can actually be ecologically beneficial if done properly under the right conditions. To learn more about different silvicultural practices, click here.
Fire can be a blessing or a curse for forest landowners. Fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem which has historically created opportunities for different species of trees to thrive. Oaks and hickories for example are fire resistant species which have traditionally relied on fire to suppress the faster-growing non-resistant trees so that they could compete for sunlight. Unfortunately for the oaks and hickories, people have tried very hard to suppress fire. As a result, the the number of oaks and hickories in the Appalachian forests have been drastically reduced.3 In addition, the amount of combustible fuel on the forest floor is allowed to build up so if and when a fire does start, it can quickly becomes a major problem. Used correctly and under the right conditions, fire can be a useful forest management tool, but it must be used VERY carefully and only with professional guidance. The Virginia Dept. of Forestry provides a number of resources to learn more about prescribed burning as a forest management tool.
Different habitat characteristics for many species of wildlife found in the Catawba Valley are discussed at length in the Ecosystems section, but we will list some specific land management considerations here.
There are major efforts underway in Virginia to restore the native bobwhite quail population through habitat restoration. Quail rely on what is called “early successional” habitat, which basically describes the first phase of vegetation to grow in an area if it is cleared. This habitat consists of native warm season grasses, bushy weeds, and wildflowers, as well as open wooded areas. Specific information about managing open land habitat and managing forested habitat for the bobwhite quail can be found here.
Turkey rely on both open fields and forestland as habitat. Their diet consists of a combination of berries, mast, seeds, grasses, and insects for the young. Read more about managing habitat for turkeys, click here.
The white-tail deer is both a very popular game species in the region as well as a nuisance for avid gardeners and farmers. Deer thrive in edge habitat, feeding largely in open fields and taking shelter in the forest. Particularly in areas where forests have become fragmented because of developments or clearing for fields, deer can become a problem because their habitat overlaps with human habitat. When their food supply is limited, they feed on household gardens, and when crossing from one pocket of habitat to another across a road, they can cause traffic incidents. Deer population management might be as much of interest as how to attract them though habitat management. The Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries maintains a series of programs and resources on deer management.
Non-game birds include those which are year-round residents of Virginia such as cardinals, bluejays, chickadees, and bluebirds as well as migratory birds which spend either the winter or summer in the area. As you can imagine, each group has different habitat requirements, so it can be difficult to manage for one specifically. In general, if you are managing for other wildlife considerations, you are likely going to be providing some of the needs of these birds.
Butterflies and other Pollinators
As discussed in Meadow Ecosystems, hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and various other kinds of insects that rely on pollen and nectar as a food source play a vital role in maintaining regional ecosystems and for farmers by also serving as pollinators. We can support the habitat of these industrious little critters by planting native wildflowers and flowering bushes and trees, either in our fields and pastures, or in the gardens around our homes. Click here to learn about some of the plants that attract pollinators and here to learn about planting your own butterfly garden.
Managing Habitat Features
There are several features which can be installed or managed on land in the Catawba Valley which will provide habitat for a wide-range of animals.
We learned what contributes to poor water quality and degraded rivers, creeks, and streams in the Water Quality section. There are a number of ways landowners and residents of the Catawba and North Fork Valleys can protect the creeks and streams in the valleys.
Riparian Forest Buffers
If our goal is to stabilize soil AND trap and filter any pollutants coming off the land, there is no better solution than trees and plants forming a riparian forest buffer. The term riparian simply refers to the land surrounding the water and the buffer is the zone between the water’s edge and the predominant land use. A buffer of trees along the waters edge provides an excellent line of defense against pollution entering the water. The root systems provided by trees are excellent for holding soil in place, for pulling nutrients out of the soil and using them to grow, for trapping particles running off the land, as well as for providing shade and organic materials to support stream ecosystems.4
Excluding Livestock from Streams
If our goal is to reduce the amount of nutrients, dirt, and bacteria entering the water AND to slow down the rate of streambank erosion, another critical thing we can do is keep livestock out of the creeks and streams. Providing an pumped freshwater supply for livestock and fencing them out of the water has been demonstrated to to improve herd and pasture health — and it improves water quality by reducing impacts on streambanks and decreasing nutrient levels in the water with manure being spread on land rather than directly into the water.5
If part of your goal is to use your land to produce products either for consumption or to sell into the market, whether it is food or fiber, then you want to be sure your property is as productive as possible. This section barely scratches the surface on what it takes to make land productive; rather, it’s included because it’s a very important goal when considering land management options. At the end of the day, land use and land management has to pay the bills. Included here are a few productive AND sustainable land management strategies being practiced in the Catawba Valley, which also provide broader benefits to the community.
Rotational grazing for cattle
Beef cattle are a major agricultural product raised in the Catawba Valley. Most herds are grazed on grass pastures in the valley for at least some portion of their life, often being shipped to the Midwest to be fattened up on a grain diet and go to slaughter. Others are “grass-finished,” which means the cows spend their lives eating forage, often from pasture. These cattle are often slaughtered more locally and sold directly to consumers, or direct-marketed. There are growing market opportunities for producers to direct-market their beef, though it does also introduce additional challenges.
Controlled grazing, in which cattle and other livestock are provided limited access to forage on a continual basis, in combination with providing a freshwater sources for animals, has been shown to have huge benefits for the health of the animals, the health of the pasture, the health of the surrounding environment, and the health of farmers’ wallets. Rotational grazing is one controlled grazing strategy that has been implemented in the valley, in which the herd is rotated from pasture to pasture with a well or spring fed watering trough available to the animals. This keeps the animals out of the streams and from drinking stagnant water which makes them sick, it allows more time for previously grazed grasses and forbes to regrow before being grazed again, and it adds a premium of to the value of the beef. 6
Local food production
The number of farmers markets in the US has more than doubled in the last decade7 and the Catawba Valley Farmers Market is among them. With increasing markets for locally produced foods comes a number of opportunities to raise and sell food products from your property. In the valley, small-scale food production is great opportunity to keep land productive, to contribute to the local food economy, and to improve your own bottom-line.
Some information and ideas that might be useful in considering options for producing and selling food products into local markets:
Agroforestry intentionally combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems.8 By adding other value-added plants to areas that otherwise should remain forested such as forested riparian areas, hedgerows, and windbreaks, you create the opportunity to make these areas both environmentally and economically productive. Students and faculty at Virginia Tech are doing research on cultivating and marketing a wide range of non-timber forest products, some of which is taking place right in the Catawba Valley. Click here to learn more about one student’s project on adding edible plants to riparian areas.
Another important goal for some landowners in the valley is the conservation of their land, keeping it as farm or forestland into the future. Many of management tools and strategies mentioned in this section contribute to the conservation of land by keeping it productive and viable, but they do not directly prevent development. In the Catawba Valley, the conservation easement is a tool that can be used to protect land by permanently dissolving the development rights. Conservation easements are usually donated by the landowner in exchange for tax credits, which in Virginia are transferable.
In the Catawba Valley, there are two main land trusts that work with landowners interested in pursuing a conservation easement for their property. The Western Virginia Land Trust and the New River Land Trust both work to conserve land in the region, though the New River Land Trust focuses more in the New River watershed. Virginia has a unique arrangement in that we have a state-level land trust, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation which actually holds the easements in perpetuity. Other organizations that work to conserve property and unique features in the Catawba Valley include The Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the 500-Year Forest Foundation. To learn more about the benefits and what is involved in conserving your land through a conservation easement, contact one of the organizations listed here.