By Janey Fugate

Tri-colored bats, the one-of-a-kind Natural Bridge cave beetle, salamanders and black bears thrive in the 1,600-acre property of Natural Bridge.

But with an auction of the historic property set for December, all those species and others could be in danger from lack of protection, some environmentalists say. They fear the area’s ecology is at risk because the privately owned property will be sold as 30 separate parcels.

A Cave Salamander

Natural Bridge straddles what is known as a “wildlife corridor,” or a protected space where animals such as black bears can move to and from habitats in both the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny mountains.

Rockbridge Area Conservation Council Director Barbara Walsh says the potential breakup of the property under multiple owners could hinder animal movements.

“It’s one of the last remaining areas where populations of wildlife can travel back and forth for habitat for food and for breeding and maintain the genetic diversity of populations in both of those ridge systems,” Walsh said.

Natural Heritage Director Tom Smith of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation created a map that proposes the ideal protection of the land, whatever the outcome of the auction. The map shows buffer zones, areas of woodland that will include and protect the core natural systems most critical to Natural Bridge’s ecology.

How closely future landowners of the Natural Bridge property adhere to the map guidelines will affect more than just the county’s ecology. Conservationists and some local officials are hoping a deal can be struck that will make Natural Bridge a state or national park.

Valley Conservation Council Executive Director Faye Cooper says that either designation would enhance the value of Natural Bridge and increase economic opportunities for tourism in Rockbridge County.

A Weller's Salamander

“There is real opportunity, I think, for the county to expand on land protection that we hope will occur at Natural Bridge,” said Cooper.

Cooper thinks making the Natural Bridge property public would allow the creation of more trails and ecotourism activities and boost the local economy. Lee Merrill, co-president of the Rockbridge conservation council, acknowledges the relationship between economy and ecology at Natural Bridge.“There is a big challenge in making sure that biodiversity is well served by commercial development,” Merrill said, “and that’s not a conflict.”

The red lines include the core natural communities recommended to be protected. Map created by Natural Heritage Program of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

According to The Economist magazine, local economies and an area’s ecology depend on each other. When economies are strong, that stability supports an area’s entire ecosystem—which includes humans, other animals and plants.

The Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism Office estimates that in 2011 the third-most-visited tourist site in Rockbridge County was Natural Bridge. Tourists also rated scenic beauty as the second highest draw to the area.

Local conservation groups speculate that tourism will only increase if Natural Bridge is managed by the state or national park system. Smith, the Virginia Department of Outdoor Recreation natural heritage director, agreed that Natural Bridge’s environment holds economic importance for the area.

“It’s a nice example of ways in which natural environments and people’s interests in getting in touch with nature and out in natural areas support the economy,” Smith said.

Cooper says natural areas are a large component of an economically and ecologically healthy environment. This land, called green infrastructure, is important to the resiliency and health of natural communities.

“The use of that term community—the essence of that is variety, variety of species,” Cooper said.

Rockbridge County ranks third in the state in conservation easements and acreage in protected lands, according to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Conservation easements are legal agreements between landowners and government agencies that limit the land’s use in order to preserve the land’s conservation value. That adds to the amount of “green infrastructure” in a local economy.

Natural Bridge is considered part of Rockbridge’s green infrastructure. For now, the natural communities found at Natural Bridge are intact, experts say. Smith attributes this to the area’s lack of invasive species, or non-native species that can alter the balance of an area’s natural system.

“Finding an example of that in the Shenandoah Valley is very rare,” Smith said. “And the lack of invasives is significant and helps the site stay stable.”

A Tri-colored Bat

In part because of the lack of invasive species, the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization and think tank based in New York, classified Rockbridge County as a highly resilient landscape.

“These landscapes that receive the highest scores for resiliency are thought to be the places where wildlife will be able to …  get through whatever changes might happen,” said Walsh. “Or at least have the best chance of surviving that and retaining biodiversity.”

The breakup of a large chunk of land like Natural Bridge could lower the area’s resiliency to invasive species and development. David Marsh, professor of biology at Washington and Lee University, is skeptical that that area would be immediately developed and degraded.

But Marsh says that while the short-term effects of the auction on the area’s biodiversity may not be measurable, how the land is developed in the long run is critical.

“With biodiversity,” he said, “you need to be thinking in terms of hundreds of years.”

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