Hilliard Estate & Land Management Helps Landowners Restore a Stretch of the South River
In our Winter 2019 issue, we featured Jimmy Hazel, a preservationist and sportsman whose farm in Virginia serves as a model for sensible land and water use. His approach has created a healthy habitat for birds, animals and increasingly—fish.
“I manage South River Preserve with a ‘maximum carrying capacity per acre for wildlife’ philosophy in mind,” said Hazel. “This entails eradicating invasive species, managing hardwoods, growing and appreciating warm-season grasses that some people might find unsightly. But to wildlife, this type of habitat offers protection and food.”
Seventeen years ago, Hazel and his wife Sally purchased 300 acres of forest and open land on the South River in Greene County. An avid hunter and angler, Hazel was drawn to the spot because of the South River and other trout streams, including the Rapidan and Conway Rivers. A little more than a mile and a quarter of the South River runs through his farm.
“It’s a great little mountain stream,” he said. “There are healthy populations of smallmouth bass, sunfish and suckers. Twice a year, in early spring and fall, I also stock the stream with rainbow and brook trout. I fish there at least once a week. We have a contract to buy a parcel on the other side of the river, which gets us more river frontage and the opposite riverbank. This will give us the opportunity to do a better job making improvements to the overall river system.”
The South River originates on the side of a mountain near the Blue Ridge Parkway, in close proximity to the popular hiking destination South River Falls. The stream is 13.7 miles long and is part of the Rappahannock River watershed.
Hazel believes Rose River Farm in nearby Madison County is a great model for his vision of the South River. Rose River Farm offers a limited number of fly anglers private water on the Rose River; the stream’s cold, spring-fed water has a river rock base with very little sediment. The owners managed both sides of the riverbank, creating a healthy river system with large pools for trout.
“Roughly 150 acres of our property is now suitable habitat for dozens of species of birds, including bobwhite quail, indigo buntings, king fishers and blue herons,” he added. “My approach to stream maintenance is very similar. I love to fish and want the river to be a suitable environment for fish.”
Hazel knows what he is talking about. He has been on many statewide boards and chaired several of them. These included the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), where he served for 10 years and chaired for three. In November, the Hazels were honored along with other regional landowners at the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District’s Conservation Awards dinner. The Hazels received the 2019 Wildlife Habitat Award.
South River Preserve is a licensed game preserve with the VDGIF. Virginia Working Landscapes at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute does regular wildlife surveys on the property for pollinators and birds. There are around 40 acres of food plots, two waterfowl ponds that are flooded seasonally for habitat purposes and two permanent ponds.
In 2018, months of repeated and severe flooding caused the South River to laterally migrate and erode nearly 40 feet into a corn and sunflower field on the property. The Hazels completed 250 feet of stream restoration, restoring both the streambank and the aquatic habitat.
“Those floods were so violent. Six or seven other property owners on the South River filed permit applications with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) so they could address the flood damage. I filed a permit application too, but I did so with engineering drawings to improve the river system on our land.”
Hazel hired Resource Environmental Solutions (RES), a nationwide leader in environmental engineering, restoration and mitigation work with an office in Charlottesville. They designed and permitted the project, and Charlottesville-based Hilliard Estate & Land Management (HELM) took on the construction, excavation work and plantings.
“Hilliard Estate and Land Management has really helped me transform South River Preserve into a rich habitat for wildlife. They manage the property and our conservation efforts throughout the year, so the outfit was the logical choice to make the design and engineering plans become a reality.”
The plans called for rebuilding the river bank, returning the water to its original channel and stabilizing the bank to prevent future erosion. Work began early in 2019. It ended up being a three-month undertaking.
“We really enjoyed working with, and learning a lot from, RES on this project,” said HELM Founder Carter Hilliard. “We are big believers in the benefits of collaboration, and we jumped at the chance to work with RES.”
HELM has been in business for more than 10 years and has a team of 20 full-time employees. The company has the know-how, equipment and vehicles to manage land in a sustainable and intelligent way.
“It was a challenging project—winter is the ideal time for river restoration work, but also usually one of the worst times for dirt work,” added Hilliard. “A key component was the live-staking material, which serves as the linchpin for future stabilization once root systems develop and extend throughout the bank. Ultimately, we found a period of consistent good weather in February. We successfully wrapped things up before the March warmer weather hit and the staking material came out of dormancy. So far, the results have been outstanding, and all the improvements have been holding up as designed. We look forward to completing phase two on the other side of the river.”
Hazel explained that it’s critical to address both sides of a river for optimal system performance. The idea behind the stream’s restoration is to prevent the impact of a high-river event. Last year the team addressed only one side of the bank; the other side remained highly eroded and the red-dirt riverbank had no vegetation to prevent erosion.
“It’s a combination of sloping the banks properly and planting materials such as grasses, woody stalks and willows,” said Hazel. “This model works wonders.”
South River Preserve will be even more wonderful when Hazel’s efforts impact the other side of the river.
Visit hilliardmanagment.com for more information.
Joe Shields is the editor in chief of The Virginia Sportsman. He is a writer and marketing executive based in Charlottesville, Virginia. His writing and photography have appeared in The Virginia Sportsman and other publications. Whether fly fishing or surfing, he loves the outdoors and celebrates sporting life and culture in his narratives.
All photos courtesy Hilliard Management