Meagan Cupka didn’t set out to be an environmental warrior. She entered Hollins University looking towards an art major, until an environmental studies course taken to fulfill a general education requirement set her on a new path. Today, she’s the Assistant Director the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy.
[People] don’t know who we are and they don’t know what we do.
It’s not always an easy job. People “don’t know who we are and they don’t know what we do.” At its most basic definition, land conservation is a permanent, legal agreement between landowners and land trusts like the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy that puts a cap on how a property can be used. It prevents development and subdivision and assures at a piece of land will never be used for activities like strip mining or fracking.
Over the past 21 years, Cupka’s organization has conserved more than 17,000 acres of land, including over 50 miles of creeks and streams. “Our goal is to protect rural places,” including waterways and habitats, and to preserve great views.
Some of the “conservation values” they look for are river frontage, scenic vistas, and rare species or habitats. One of Cupka’s favorite spots is in Craig County, where one landowner has been clear-cutting sections of his property to create a songbird habitat, in hopes of attracting the endangered golden-winged warbler.
Farmland is another important value. “We are preserving places that people often have a deep, meaningful connection to,” Cupka says. “We want to encourage that farming heritage here in Virginia.”
Word is getting around. In 2017, they completed nine conservation agreements, instead of the usual three or four. “Recently, [people] have been coming to us, which is great.”
It also makes a lot more work for Cupka and Executive Director David Perry, the organization’s only full-time employees.
Each year, they visit 59 properties they have under conservation, and while some of them are farms, for many others, “we’re going to be hiking up a mountain for several hours.” Their sole vehicle is a Prius, “and we’ve taken that thing off-road more times than we can count.”
“If people want to hike for a day and go and see some really cool farms, please volunteer with us!” she laughs. “It beats a day in the office.”
Over the last six years or so, the organization has also worked on education programs, partnering with other nonprofits like the Clean Valley Council, the Department of Forestry, Camp Bethel, and the Western Virginia Water Authority to get kids out into nature.
“They get to get in the creek and they get to see crawdads and mayflies, and they get in the water, and for a lot of kids, it’s the first time getting in a creek,” she says. “They’re always excited to get in, and that’s fun to see.”
“Kids are getting shorted when it comes to outdoor time, and it’s nice to be a part of fixing that.” One of her favorite memories is an elementary school garden project where she handed a little boy a piece of seed corn “and it just blew his mind” that a cornstalk could grow from what he only knew as popcorn.
It’s good to start kids early, because environmental protection is more of a marathon than a sprint. “That took me a long time to learn,” she says. “It’s easy to get fired up and burn out.”
She saw a quote recently that really resonated for her: “You’re allowed to scream, you’re allowed to cry…but you’re not allowed to give up.”
Cupka encourages people to visit the website, follow their Facebook page, or sign up for their e-newsletter. Anyone interested in donating land or volunteering with the organization can call them at 540-985-0000.
For more details, listen to the full interview.
Written by Heather Michon