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Storm-damaged preserve in Westmoreland once again ready for visitors

Perhaps it was fitting that rain poured down during the reopening Monday of the Voorhees Nature Preserve.

The preserve, along the Rappahannock River in Westmoreland County, has been mostly inaccessible since a succession of storms—beginning with Hurricane Irene in August 2011—destroyed an access bridge and blocked trails on the pristine swath of land adjacent to Westmoreland Berry Farm.

Michael Lipford, Virginia executive director of The Nature Conservancy, told a group gathered at the berry farm that the now-repaired footbridge “is a perfect symbol of what we’re doing here today, because it connects one thing to another—in our case, the trail system that allows access to the property.”

Another link, Lipford went on to say, “is our connection to the past. We are indebted to the vision of Alan and Nathaliecq Voorhees, not only for the berry farm, but the preserve.”

Alan Voorhees, who died in 2005, was a prominent transportation engineer. He and his wife donated the 729-acre tract to The Nature Conservancy in 1994. Voorhees had the 300-foot walkway built, and carved a network of trails winding through wetlands, forest and along steep cliffs overlooking the river.

“It very quickly became one of our flagship preserves that offered public access,” Lipford said.

He added that Voorhees’ contributions went beyond the preserve.

A working group that Voorhees formed to protect other parts of the river led to the formation of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Its first acquisition was Toby’s Point, purchased from Voorhees. That refuge, headquartered in Warsaw, now encompasses more than 9,000 acres.

Lipford said his organization also owes a debt of gratitude to Westmoreland Berry Farm, which provides access to the preserve and is owned by the Voorhees family.

Alan Voorhees’ daughter, Susan Hunt, and her husband, Tom, oversee the berry farm for the family. Monday’s gathering was an opportunity for The Nature Conservancy to thank volunteers who helped with the restoration project, and the Voorhees family.

Susan Hunt accepted a bald eagle print from Lipford for the family’s ongoing help with the preserve. Her sister, Nancy Voorhees, lives in Bethesda, Md.; their brother, Stu, lives in England.

Following the storms, the Voorhees helped The Nature Conservancy find grants for the cleanup through the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, and The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central is cq. Alan and Nathalie Voorhees provided endowments to both foundations.

Susan Hunt recalled that she and her husband stopped by the preserve site in the 1980s, before her father bought the property.

“He loved it. He thought it was beautiful,” she said. At first, “he thought he might want to develop it, but he decided that would not be a good idea.”

Her father, she says, talked to a friend, who suggested he grow raspberries in the fertile soil along the river. That led to the opening of the berry farm 30 years ago.

“Mom and dad were here almost every weekend,” she said. “They loved the peace and quiet.”

With the latest improvements, she says, more people should take the time to stop by.

“I don’t think enough people really know about it. It’s a great way to spend the day hiking with the family. And we like them to come to the berry farm, too.”

About four miles of trails run through the site, which is home to some rare plants, large trees and offers a sweeping vista of the river valley.

The preserve was whacked by three successive storms. Hurricane Irene, in August 2011, blew down trees and wrecked the access bridge across Owl Hollow Creek. Tropical Storm Lee a month later, and Hurricane Sandy last October added to the damage.

Last fall, volunteers from The Nature Conservancy, Dominion Virginia Power, Asplundh and the Student Conservation Association removed downed trees and debris. SCA volunteers rerouted a trail blocked by felled trees, creating an overlook of the river.

Sam Truslow, the preserve steward, worked with a local contractor to rebuild a large section of the footbridge. That project was completed a few weeks ago.

Nancy Voorhees, who was traveling and unable to attend Monday’s gathering, said in a telephone interview that her father would have approved.

“As time goes by, I see and appreciate my dad’s vision There are very few places like that left in the world.”

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431



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