Priority Areas


Every year, VWL staff and teams of SCBI scientists, graduate students, interns, and citizen scientists conduct biodiversity surveys on more than 150 properties in our 16-county study region (see: Where We Work). These surveys help us better understand the factors that affect the region’s biodiversity and also to develop best land management practices for people and wildlife.

Grasslands were selected as the initial focus because they were the least well-known among the working landscape types (e.g. forests, wetlands, streams and riparian zones) and had a known suite of declining species in need of further research. Moreover, although Virginia was mostly forested in precolonial times, it also included grasslands established and maintained by disturbance (i.e. storms, fires, and disease) and grazing. These grasslands were home to a suite of native plants -including warm season grasses, and the pollinators, birds, and other species that depended on them. 

In the past 200 years, our agricultural tradition has changed the landscape from nearly continuous forest to a mosaic of forests, grasslands, pasture, and croplands. Although these practices likely benefited some grassland species by opening up the landscape, much of these native grasslands have since been lost through historic conversion to Eurasian cool season grasses, intensive land management, and more recently, invasion by non-native plant species. Accordingly, many of the native plants, pollinators, and birds that depend on native warm season grasses have declined over the last half century due to the loss of natural habitats.

Farmlands and associated grasslands in Virginia have been disappearing over the last 50 years - lost to forest succession and development. Today, about half of the Commonwealth is forested; about 30-40% is grassland, pasture, and croplands, with the remainder being exurban or urban development. As the quality and quantity of grasslands decline, much of the biodiversity that supports and regulates our agricultural economy is lost. Yet, this biological wealth and the benefits that come from it, are essential for our individual and shared economic welfare. To that end, conservation biologists have become increasingly interested in sustaining biodiversity across a landscape that is composed of both public and private lands.

In Virginia, the overwhelming majority of working lands are held in private hands – more than 90% of Virginia is privately owned. Therefore, private landowners are both the keepers of their own economic well-being and the stewards of the natural resources of Virginia. In order for VWL to be successful we rely on community engagement with the landowners in the region. We recruit additional landowners each spring whose properties serve as new sites for our biodiversity surveys. At the end of each season we provide landowners a summary of species observed on their property. Taken together, data from each of these farms are being analyzed as part of a larger study on the relationship between land-management and native species biodiversity and long-term studies that will utilize these data to predict the future of our region’s landscapes.


VWL's Role:

VWL provides a network of landowners who are interested in land use issues and land management best practices, who allow surveyors access to private property, opening up new areas for monitoring and research

Project Impact:

Click here to read an interactive Story Map based on Dr. Amy Johnson's PhD dissertation, "Conservation and Land Management Practices and Their Impact on Sustaining Breeding and Non-Breeding Grassland Bird Populations in the Southeast." Her research used biodiversity data collected as part of this project to investigate the impact of land management on bird communities.

Latest From Facebook

Get Involved

Join our mailing list

Follow Us


Get In Touch

Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road
Front Royal, Virginia 22630
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.