Virginia’s Natural Bridge now under state ownership

by | Jul 2, 2023 | History, Outdoors

Virginia’s landmark Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County is now fully under state ownership.

The deed establishing the Commonwealth of Virginia as the owner of the natural wonder and 1,530 acres surrounding it was recorded in Lexington on June 15.

The property was previously held by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit organization that works to protect public land. The organization worked with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) through its acquisition process to transfer the property to the Commonwealth for permanent stewardship. It has been managed as a Virginia State Park since 2016.

“We are extremely grateful to the stakeholders who came together and worked tirelessly to make this acquisition possible. Now, the Department of Conservation and Recreation can ensure the protection of this natural, cultural and historic resource in perpetuity,” said Matthew Wells, DCR director.

Kent Whitehead, regional director of land protection for Trust for Public Land, said, “Although Natural Bridge has been open to the public for decades, until the conservation community stepped in, that public access was not guaranteed, and the surrounding land could have been subdivided and sold. TPL is proud to have played a role with other organizations and the Commonwealth in permanently protecting this iconic landscape for future generations.”

The deed’s recordation date coincided with the 87th anniversary of the Virginia State Park System, which opened in 1936 with just six parks — Douthat, First Landing, Fairy Stone, Staunton River, Hungry Mother and Westmoreland.

“Virginia’s state parks got a great anniversary present,” said Dr. Melissa Baker, director of Virginia State Parks. “Now Virginians, and people all over the world who are captivated by the Natural Bridge, can rest assured that this natural wonder will forever be accessible to them as a Virginia State Park.”

A National Historic Landmark, the Natural Bridge is a 215-foot-tall limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek that has drawn visitors since the 18th century.

Thomas Jefferson, who called the bridge “the most sublime of nature’s works” and thought it should be held in public trust, purchased the Natural Bridge and 157 acres from King George III of Great Britain 249 years ago.

In 2014, approximately 1,700 privately owned acres, including the Natural Bridge, were slated to be sold at auction. The Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, administered by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Virginia Resources Authority (VRA), made a loan to prevent piecemeal development of the landmark.

“It’s important to realize that almost a decade ago, Virginians were at risk of losing public access to one of the Commonwealth’s most recognized and revered natural features,” said VRA Executive Director Shawn Crumlish. “The Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund made it possible to conserve this landmark and protect the streams on the property.”

TPL took over the remaining loan balance in 2022 for an interim conservation period.

“We could not have achieved this milestone in the history of state parks without our partners at TPL and VRA, and the foresight and dedication of past and present state parks field staff and agency leaders,” said Brian Fuller, real property manager at DCR.

The park’s master plan (PDF), approved in 2021, called for making several improvements after the state took ownership, including moving Route 11 off the bridge, as recommended by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

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