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Restoring the Riverfront at Powhatan’s St. Francis/St. Emma

The James River Association's Amber Ellis (left) and Chesapeake Conservancy's Regan Gifford (right) speak to volunteers
The James River Association's Amber Ellis (left) and Chesapeake Conservancy's Regan Gifford (right) speak to volunteers helping to remove invasive species and plant native trees at the historic St. Francis/St. Emma property in Powhatan. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Environmental groups in Virginia are working to improve the state’s water resources by restoring the ecosystems along riverbanks. One area of focus is the historic property St. Francis/St. Emma in Powhatan. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Sign up online for the next St. Francis/St. Emma tree planting, Saturday April 18, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. The Virginia Department of Natural Resources has information on riparian buffers and grows native seedlings. For information on future plantings and volunteer opportunities, contact the James River Association. Read about St. Francis/St. Emma, their mission and activities at this historic property.


In the mid 19th Century, the sprawling Belmead plantation was the site of enslavement. Beginning in 1890s, after the Drexel family established the St. Francis/St. Emma schools, it became a place for empowerment educating thousands of black students. Today, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament say this 2200 acre sanctuary is entering the “era of the environment.”

Sister Jean Ryan: Everything is interconnected.

Sister Jean Ryan helped save this property 15 years ago when the Sisters considered selling it. In 2006, they put 1000 acres into a permanent conservation easement.

Ryan: We look at this land as being something very sacred and something to preserve, both for its history and for the natural aspect it has to offer. We keep looking and saying we’re saving this for seventh generation. When we say that, we also work with Native American peoples and their culture when they say that really means forever, for eternity. So it’s something dear to our heart because of our history and our connection, over 100 years with the land. But then there’s so much more that we’re becoming aware of with the new science today of the interconnectedness of everything.

A small group of Sisters, along with the help of volunteers, have been working to protect and restore this land. Today they’re planting hundreds of native seedlings.

Volunteers: Good morning...

The group climbs into two pickup trucks and heads past the historic 1840s mansion, the stables and a farm field before arriving at the river’s edge. There, the James River Association’s Amber Ellis stands before boxes of small seedlings: river birch, black walnut, yellow poplar, sycamore, black cherry, pin oak, willow oak and hackberry.

Amber Ellis: We definitely want to mix things up, we don’t one section that only has sycamore...

Ellis demonstrates how to use the dibble bar, a spade like tool that opens a space in the ground for the seedling.

Ellis: And you’ll push it out one one way and you’ll take your seedling…

This wooded area is also known as a “riparian buffer,” key to the health of the river and larger ecosystem, says Ellis. They’ve already removed some invasive species, like tree-of-heaven and johnsongrass, to make room for native trees along this two and a half miles of riverfront.

Ellis: The real goal with restoring the buffer is to one, reduce erosion that would go into the James River; two, increase wildlife habitat throughout the corridor; and three, there’s farm land that runs along the property and this buffer protects the James River from any runoff that might come from the farm land like sediments and excess nutrients.

Volunteers: I’m Eric Johnson from Richmond. My name is Sam Lawson and I’m with the Boy Scout Troup of 1807.

Johnson: We live near the James River, both Sam and I have kayaks and we try to get out on the river as much as we can during the summer. So from Ancarrow’s Landing all the way up to Cartersville is where we put in and paddle around, go fishing, swimming. We really enjoy the river.

Lawson: My grandfather suggested that we come out here and plant some trees to help the local environment and add some habitat for the local animals so we said, okay, we should come out here and help.

Johnson: A better, cleaner river, a place for recreation, a place for habitat for animals and wildlife but it’s probably more so fulfilling me, things I need, I feel I need to do, being out here  on a beautiful Spring day, to me this is having a good time.

Volunteers are essential in accomplishing such a big project, planting more than 1000 trees during two work days. But Ellis says there’s also an important educational component to this initiative.

Ellis: A lot of the volunteers who come out may not have planted anything before, they may not know about runoff. They know they like the river, they know they like to get outside, but that’s about where it stops. So this is a great opportunity to get out and actually be working with a view of river all day long so the thing that they’re protecting is right there with them all day long. We’re hoping they leave here and want to plant more things at their own homes and just have a better understanding of the impact they can have on the river.

The tree planting at St. Francis/St. Emma is funded through a grant from the Virginia Department of Forestry, which also provides low-cost pine, spruce and hardwood seedlings to landowners. The Department, along with regional groups like the Chesapeake Conservancy and Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are also directing resources to restoring riparian forest buffers.

Sister Elena Henderson: Would one be in here?

Sister Elena Henderson helps two volunteers find just the right spot to plant another seedling.

Henderson: We knew we didn’t want a golf course, we knew we didn’t want an ATV track and all those kind of environmentally unfriendly [activities]. Nice activities and fun activities for people, but not necessarily friendly for the environment.

Henderson says neighboring landowners have also put acreage into conservation easements and the Sisters hope to conserve another 1000 acres of their own property.

Henderson: We’ve created a corridor for migrating animals to have habitat and we’re hoping to keep it that way.

For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.