There’s a swampy, 87-acre property just west of Lucketts that could be easily mistaken for just a forested lot prone to flooding. But ecologists and environmentalists say it’s home to a habitat that is a global rarity worth protecting.
The property, known as Stumptown Woods, is dotted with a system of seasonal pools that serve as breeding grounds for fairy shrimp, wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and Jefferson salamanders, the latter identified as a “species of greatest conservation need” by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
When a private landowner put the property up for sale, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy started working to raise money to buy it before a developer could turn it into a housing subdivision.
“We knew how rich this property was. It’s an ecosystem that took tens of thousands of years to develop and could be lost overnight,” said Nicole Sudduth, executive director of the conservancy.
The organization announced this week that Stumptown Woods will be protected from development, thanks to the help of Chuck Kuhn, president and CEO of JK Moving Services. The company, and the Kuhn Family Foundation, purchased the property for nearly $1 million and put the land under conservation easement. Kuhn has agreed to sell the property for just more than $400,000, less than half its assessed value, to the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. Kuhn was competing with a bid from a developer who had plans to build homes on the property.
This is the lifelong Northern Virginian’s latest charitable donation. In all, he’s purchased 2,578 acres in Loudoun County to be put into conservation easement. That includes a community farm near Purcellville that will harvest crops to donate to Loudoun Hunger Relief’s food pantry.
“This aligns with my family’s vision,” Kuhn said. “We think it’s important to keep the history, keep the farming, the livestock and some of the American heritage in western Loudoun.”
Stumptown Woods, which borders Rt. 15 to the east and Newvalley Church Road to the west, will be first of several sanctuaries of significant habitats preserved by the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy.
Sudduth said the property’s sinkhole vernal pools are the result of top soil eroding from the Catoctin Ridge into the limestone-heavy valley, which eventually formed pools. The result is a perfect balance of water and dry land for rare species of fresh water shrimp, frogs, and salamanders.
The amphibians that use this habitat spend most of their lives underground, in pockets formed by tree roots and mouse tunnels. Once a year, they come up out of the ground and migrate to the pools, which hold water about six months out of the year. These amphibians breed for about 10 days, before heading back to the forest.
“They hedge their bets on the hope that the water will remain in these pools long enough for their young to develop from aquatic species into air-breathing creatures with lungs and legs,” Sudduth said. “It’s incredible.”
The conservancy plans to restore some of the forest that was previously cleared for farming and create a small set of walking trails to allow for guided tours. It will conduct occasional field trips and citizen science monitoring just as it does at the Dulles Wetlands Mitigation Project and at neighboring Gum Farm, which is also under conservation easement.
“Saving this location is one of the greatest legacies I think Chuck can be giving to this county,” Sudduth said. In a thank you note to the business executive, she wrote that “this habitat has existed for 10,000 years and now you’ve made it so it can exist for another 10,000. Thank you.”
Kuhn’s conservation work comes as Loudoun County sits at a vital crossroads. County leaders are weighing how to manage growth and provide needed housing while also maintaining open space and opportunities for agriculture in the west. The Board of Supervisors are in the middle of a years-long effort to rewrite its comprehensive plan, called Envision Loudoun, that will dictate the future of development in the county.
To that end, Kuhn’s company and family foundation have bought nine farms in Loudoun in the past 18 months. “Every one of those farms, we were competing with builders and developers,” he said. “Anyone concerned with protecting open space in Loudoun, this is the time to move.”
His family has purchased about 4,408 acres in Virginia alone, plus farms in Colorado and Montana, to be preserved as open space.
Kuhn stressed that he is by no means anti-development. “Absolutely, housing is important. Growth and development is critical in this country,” he said. “At the same time, I think there are pockets in communities that need to be protected—there needs to be a balance. This is one of those places.”
Those interested in helping Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy raise the money to purchase the property can find more information at loudounwildlife.org.