Presquile Island enters a new phase of visitor friendly experience

There’s no musty mansion to tour, no painting of its patriarch that hangs over the plantation house mantle; its bequest is the wildlife that has taken refuge on this majestic example of our natural world. Presquile National Wildlife Refuge boasts a wide array of wildlife that has said goodbye to suburban life, and found a home on this isolated island.

Presquile is in the final week in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is accepting public comment on a comprehensive plan that will establish management goals and objectives for all refuge programs over the coming 15 years. Plans for biological and visitor service programs, and the infrastructure needed to support these programs, will be evaluated during the planning process, according to information provided by the USFWS.

The comprehensive plan public comment period will have been open for well over a month when it closes on May 25, 2011. Public meetings have been held (see Village News March 30,) articles written, mass emails sent,  presentations made to community groups, as well as requests for input from community partners such as the James River Association.

“I don’t know how many people I have talked to who have never heard of it,” said Gabe Silver of the James River Association (JRA). “But those who have, come away saying, wow.”

The 1,329-acre island in the James River, just opposite Bermuda Hundred near Enon, protects the habitat of bald eagles, overwintering waterfowl and a large array of aquatic  and wetland creatures.

In 1613, Sir Thomas Dale seized the area, which is now the refuge, from the Appamattuck and Weyanock Native American tribes, as part of the establishment of the Bermuda Hundred settlement. It was then a peninsula of land created by the serpentine flow of the James River. In 1934, a more direct navigation channel was cut, creating an island only accessible by boat.

But after Dale’s taking of the land, farming was established, and in 1660 William Randolph settled on the land and a long line of Randolphs, many famous, was rooted there. Before 1964, when the Randolph house was razed, Presquile was home to one of three remaining Colonial-period mansions.  According to “Chesterfield County: Early Architecture and Sites,” the home, although not grand in scale. was similar in design to the more dignified Shirley Plantation house about a mile southeast of Presquile.

Today there are remnants of a successful farm with outbuildings and a somewhat modern house. These structures will be the basis for an updated environmental education center. In cooperation with the JRA, staff will soon begin renovating the 1,600 square foot house, using sustainable materials to serve visitors and students participating in the James River Ecology School.

“The island is very good for environment education,” Silver said. “It is a pristine habitat.”

A wetlands-friendly boardwalk in currently under construction on Presquile Isle, also known as Turkey Island, that will be 500 feet long and connect to the over three miles of  wildlife-observation trails. And, in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University, work is being done to provide refuge to the prothonotary warbler, a species that is declining in most states, but is steady or increasing in Virginia, possibly due to an aggressive nesting box program on the island.

Goals for the draft comprehensive plan include, in part: encouraging and maintaining Presquile’s biological integrity; sustaining native plants and providing resources for migrating and resident wildlife; fosterng appreciation of its cultural and historical significance; raising awareness of the National Wildlife Refuge System and providing visitors an opportunity to connect with nature.

Public tours are advertised in the spring and fall, although visits can be made by appointment with the USFWS. The island is off limits to visitors without specific permission.

To make a comment on the comprehensive plan, call 804-358-7166.

Cyrus Brame, of the USFWS, said, “A visit to the refuge can be a positive experience. I would like to see an inspired plan that would encourage volunteers.”   

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