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COMMENTARY: Sen. John Warner was a champion of Chesapeake Bay
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COMMENTARY: Sen. John Warner was a champion of Chesapeake Bay

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PHOTO: Fones Cliffs

The front-page articles in Virginia mourning the passing of former Sen. John Warner were rightfully long on superlatives. Sen. Warner was described as an “unmatched leader,” a “giant,” and a “dear friend.” To me, he was all that and more.

His reputation as a political maverick was well-documented. He was someone whose litmus test when taking a stand was his conscience and loyalty to country rather than to party.

His family life, military service and cabinet appointment as secretary of the Navy were all well-covered. Somewhat surprisingly though, Sen. Warner’s credentials as one of Virginia’s most significant conservationists received scant attention.

Free Lance-Star readers should be aware that as senator, he was instrumental in the establishment of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park in the Shenandoah Valley. He supported legislation to create and fund the Chesapeake Bay Program and was on point during the creation of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, our nation’s first water trail.

Also called the Chesapeake Trail, it extends over thousands of miles of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, highlighting the explorer’s travels and the indigenous cultures of that era to the present.

Sen. Warner loved the Rappahannock River in particular. He talked of personally moving fish from below the Embrey Dam near Fredericksburg and releasing them above the dam so that they had a chance to spawn.

Perhaps that is what led him to secure $10 million to have the dam removed in 2004 as part of a military training exercise. That act opened up well over 100 miles of spawning habitat for American shad, striped bass, American eel and other migratory fish species.

During the late 1990s, Sen. Warner championed the newly established Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge by helping secure the first refuge appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The landscape-sized acquisition boundary of the refuge was novel for its time, as it extends across seven counties and includes over 60 miles of the Rappahannock River shorelines. Today, visitors can walk trails, launch canoes and kayaks, fish and hunt, and enjoy abundant wildlife, thanks to early advocates like Sen. Warner.

His love of the Rappahannock River and its namesake refuge did not end there, but continued well after his retirement from the Senate.

He was fascinated by the convergence of bald eagles that occurs along the Rappahannock River, particularly at places like Fones Cliffs, a 4-mile formation along the tidal-fresh portion of the Rappahannock River in Richmond County. The forested cliffs reach heights of 80 to 100 feet above the river and are composed of diatomaceous earth formed millions of years ago.

Our Chesapeake Bay bald eagles have a burgeoning nesting population along the Rappahannock, but what makes the area even more special is its attraction to eagles from the southeast that migrate north in the spring, as well as eagles from New England and Canada that migrate south in winter. It is a phenomenon unique to the Chesapeake Bay.

Sen. Warner was determined to help save this special place, and his commitment never wavered. His daughter, Virginia, joined him in that endeavor when she funded the purchase of one acre of land near Fones Cliffs, which Chesapeake Conservancy then donated to the Rappahannock Tribe.

For the tribe, this modest acquisition marked their return to the river that bears their name after an absence of over 350 years. At a celebration of that event in 2017, featured guests of the tribe were John and Virginia Warner.

We were honored that Sen. Warner agreed to serve on the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Board of Directors for many years, and he remained an honorary board member until his death.

In 2016, he was presented with the Conservancy’s Champions of the Chesapeake Award.

During his acceptance speech, Sen. Warner said this about Fones Cliffs: “Like many of you, this is a place that I would like to see conserved for future generations. In fact, I told Joel seeing to that would be one of my signature efforts. This is as important to me as my work to get rid of Embrey Dam, also along the Rappahannock, which robbed many species from being able to migrate upstream. Well, we got that done. Embry Dam is gone. And now we’re going to get this done, too.”

Rest in peace, Senator. You did your part, and we will carry on.

Joel Dunn is the president & CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

Joel Dunn is the president & CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

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