Natural Resources

Land Preservation

Virginia river falls in the autumn

Land Preservation

Rich, diverse natural resources are some of the Commonwealth's most important assets. Increasingly, Virginia government and citizens are partnering to preserve the Commonwealth's open spaces -- a challenge that requires foresight, commitment, and good planning.

Why is This Important?

Good stewardship means taking action to ensure that the natural and historic resources treasured by Virginians are available for future generations to enjoy. Protecting land also helps meet important goals for water quality, wildlife habitat, recreation, and overall quality of life.

Of all the development that has occurred in the last 400 years, more than a quarter of it has taken place just in the last 15 years. Virginia lost over 112,100 acres of forest, farm, and other rural land to development between 2007 and 2012.

How is Virginia Doing?

State Conservation Efforts

Counting the combined efforts of private and public entities, an average of 67,413 acres per year were protected from development in Virginia between 2007 and 2016. Between 2007 and 2010 alone, 387,103 acres were placed under protection. As of August 2016, an additional 287,025 acres have been preserved.

Acreage Preserved in Virginia, 2007-2016
Fiscal Year Total Statewide
Acreage Preserved
Annual Acreage
2007 3,411,172 97,587
2008 3,504,983 93,811
2009 3,594,437 89,454
2010 3,700,687 106,249
2011 3,734,975 34,289
2012 3,798,442 63,467
2013 3,841,509 43,066
2014 3,915,505 73,996
2015 3,955,531 40,026
2016 3,987,712 32,181
Source: Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Conservation Lands Database

According to the state's best estimate, more than 3.98 million acres of open space, parks, historic lands, natural areas, forests, farms and other lands have been preserved by federal, state and local governments, and private conservation organizations (as of August 2016). These lands -- kept free of development through land ownership and easements -- represent about 16 percent of the Commonwealth's total acreage (25,270,000 acres). About 59 percent of these preserved lands are held by the federal government; 31 percent by the state; about 4 percent by local governments; and 6 percent by private / non-profit organizations.

The Commonwealth also participates in the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership focused on restoring the Bay and committed to specific environmental and land preservation goals. Among the many provisions of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement was an ambitious commitment to permanently preserve 20 percent of watershed lands in each participating state by 2010. Available data shows that, as of December 2014, Virginia had reached that goal by preserving 2,790,412 of its 13,831,890 Chesapeake Bay watershed acres -- or 20 percent.

Land Preservation by Virginia Region, 2014-2016
Region Preserved Land
(in sq. miles)
Preserved Land as
Percent of Total
Preserved Land
(in sq. miles)
Preserved Land as
Percent of Total
Preserved Land
(in sq. miles)
Preserved Land as
Percent of Total
  2014 2015 2016
Central 1,041.75 11.3% 1,063.67 11.5% 1,085.39 11.7%
Eastern 317.45 16.1% 321.89 16.3% 324.61 16.4%
Hampton Roads 353.80 14.9% 353.90 14.9% 355.11 15.0%
Northern 592.33 19.5% 600.43 19.8% 605.63 19.9%
Southside 227.10 3.6% 239.04 3.7% 247.92 3.9%
Southwest 852.96 13.4% 856.98 13.5% 860.10 13.5%
Valley 1,893.81 36.9% 1898.66 37.0% 1,902.43 37.1%
West Central 838.78 16.5% 845.93 16.7% 849.61 16.7%
Virginia 6,117.98 15.5% 6180.52 15.6% 6,230.80 15.7%
Source: Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Conservation Lands Database

Every region in Virginia saw some increase in the number and percentage of land acreage preserved in 2016. The Valley region maintained its leading spot with the largest percentage -- 37.1 percent -- of preserved land; the Northern region again had the second highest at 19.9 percent. The Southside region continues to have the smallest percentage of preserved land at 3.9 percent, followed by the Central region at 11.7 percent.

Lost Land

Percentage of Rural Land Lost, by State. See text for explanation.As illustrated by the graph at right, development claimed rural lands across the U.S. at higher rates during the 1980s and 1990s. During the late 1990s and onward, however, the trend has been for states to curtail their rate of lost open land. For instance, Virginia lost 112,100 acres of forest, farm, and other rural land to development between 2007-2012, for an average annual loss rate of 0.57 percent, compared to the 200,200 acres lost between the previous 5-year period (2002-2007). Virginia's current loss rate was also lower than peer states Maryland (0.78%) and North Carolina (0.62%) but higher than Tennessee (0.51%) -- and higher than the national average of 0.27 percent. Nebraska was the leading state, with a rural land loss rate of 0.03 percent.

What Influences Land Preservation?

Citizens across the Commonwealth have been voluntarily placing conservation easements on their lands since 1966. Many of these easements are held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), which holds more conservation easements -- over 3,900 easements protecting more than 779,486 acres -- than any public land trust in the nation. Private and non-profit organizations also play a key role in conserving important lands in the Commonwealth.

State and federal tax incentives make donations of conservation easements financially possible for some landowners. For many others, conservation is only feasible if a land trust or government agency can make the purchase. Land preservation in Virginia is currently driven by a combination of citizen donations, state and federal tax incentives, local government activities, and federal funding. Federal funds for land conservation programs have been declining in recent years.

Local government programs for better planning and controlling the development of their lands are also important aspects of land preservation. For example, purchase of development rights (PDR) programs allow localities to buy conservation easements from farmers and other landowners in order to keep some area land free of development. Currently, 21 localities in Virginia have PDR programs.

Additionally, Arlington, Frederick, and Stafford counties have adopted the state's first transfer of development rights (TDR) programs -- where development rights are severed from a particular, often rural, land parcel and traded on the open market for use on another, typically more urban, parcel of land. TDR programs help localities control sprawl and keep growth within desired zones.

What is the State's Role?

The Commonwealth conserves land by:

  • purchasing lands for public use
  • giving tax incentives to private landowners for conservation
  • matching grants from land trusts that purchase land and easements

Virginia has a number of state entities whose mission includes the protection of important lands:

  • the Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
  • the Department of Forestry
  • the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
  • the Department of Historic Resources, and
  • the Virginia Outdoors Foundation

These agencies advise landowners on conservation options, buy land, hold conservation easements, and maintain databases that track various land attributes. The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation makes matching grants to land trusts and local governments.

What Can Citizens Do?

Individuals and groups are strongly encouraged to be active participants in resource management. To learn more about Virginia's environment, stewardship and public participation opportunities, please visit the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation's Environmental Education pages or the Virginia Conservation Network.

Updated September 26, 2016
Percentage of Rural Land Lost, by State.

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Conservation Lands Database:

Watershed data available from the Chesapeake Bay Program.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Summary Report: Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2010 National Resources Inventory

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
Land Preservation in Virginia

Performance Trend:  Trend is improving!
State Influence:  

Virginia by Region: Over 16% of Virginia's total acreage has been set aside for non-development. The Valley region leads the state in percentage of land preserved (37.1%), followed by the Northern region at nearly 20%.

National Ranking: 39th among the 48 contiguous states for amount of rural lands lost between 2007 and 2012.

Related Agency Measures
State Programs & Initiatives

Virginia's Office of Land Conservation helps citizens and organizations protect land and maintains a statewide "conservation lands" database.

The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation provides state funding to conserve certain categories of special land, such as open spaces and parks, natural areas, historic areas, farmland, and forests.

The Office of Farmland Preservation works to preserve agricultural land and forests across the state, mainly through Purchase of Development Rights programs established with localities.

Thousands of farmers have made the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) one of Virginia's most active water quality and wildlife habitat efforts. The program offers financial incentives such as cost-share and rental payments to farmers who voluntarily restore riparian buffers, filter strips, and wetlands through the installation of approved conservation practices.

The Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program connects state agencies with local governments and funds strategies for improving coastal air and water quality, coastal habitats, and sound economic development.

The Land Preservation Tax Credit allows individuals and corporations to take a credit for conveying land located in Virginia for preservation, agricultural use, forest use, open space, and natural resource conservation.

Additional Information

Virginia Outdoors Foundation

Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts

Department of Forestry

Department of Game and Inland Fisheries