On October 25th, 2019 over 120 family members, neighbors, and conservation partners gathered to dedicate The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Owen Preserve in Yale, Virginia (Sussex County). The Owen land consists of over 1,850 acres and is being managed for recovery of northern savannas, among the rarest of longleaf habitats across the southeastern U.S.

The longleaf pine ecosystem itself has been greatly reduced in occurrence to less than a quarter of its historic range. Longleaf, a fire-dependent system home to many rare and unique plant and animal species, once covered over 90 million acres across 11 southeastern states. TNC holds an easement on the property which ensures it will be forever conserved as a longleaf forest. This tract is the core of the Raccoon Creek Pinelands, one of the highest priority longleaf restoration sites identified by the Longleaf Cooperators of the Virginia Longleaf Implementation Team.

The event included an afternoon outing to the Owen preserve featuring a controlled burn by the Virginia Interagency Burn Crew and an appearance by Burner Bob, courtesy of Reese Thompson and the Longleaf Alliance. Attendees were engaged by expert biologists, forest ecologists, and representatives from various conservation agencies with an interest in longleaf pine. A number of guests helped plant Virginia native longleaf seedlings, adding to the 1,250 acres of existing longleaf on the property that have been planted since 2001.

Following the field trip, guests traveled to the Country Club of Petersburg where a surprise dignitary entered during the reception to offer views on Virginia’s forest heritage: Thomas Jefferson, expertly portrayed in full costume by Kurt Smith of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Attendees were treated to a delicious four-course dinner – “A Taste of Virginia” – featuring crab, Edwards ham-stuffed chicken, bread pudding, and assorted cheeses accompanied by four different Virginia wines from Barboursville Vineyards.

Dinner speakers included Reese Thompson, a Partners for Conservation and Longleaf Alliance board director who charmed the group with his humor and grace, and Bettina Ring, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, who presented the keynote address. Secretary Ring stressed the importance of longleaf restoration and land protection in the context of Virginia’s environmental and economic future. The evening closed with an inaugural presentation to William Owen of the “Longleaf Conservation Champion of Virginia” award, established in 2019 to recognize individuals leading the way to restore the state’s “founding forest.”