- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

VARINA, Va. (AP) — Conservationists are hoping someone will buy and preserve Curles Neck Farm, a 5,513-acre tract along the James River that is rich in wildlife.

So far, attempts to get private groups or the federal government to buy the land 13 miles southeast of downtown Richmond have failed, mainly because of the $24 million asking price.

“We are desperate to save the property,” said Margaret O’Bryan, president of the 1,400-member Richmond Audubon Society. “The bird life there is incredible.”

Bald eagles nest there. A 500-nest heron colony there is one of the largest in the state. Northern birds such as snow geese spend their winters there.

Conservationists explored the creation of a national wildlife refuge. Federal officials agree that a Curles Neck refuge would complement the 1,300-acre Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, an island in the James beside Curles Neck.

But the entire land-buying budget this year for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that runs refuges, is about $10 million for the 13-state region from Maine to Virginia.

“It does come down to a matter of funding,” said Joe McCauley, manager of several federal refuges in eastern Virginia, including Presquile.

He said raising the money to buy the land probably would require a partnership of several private groups and government agencies.

The property is owned by Richard E. Watkins and Betsy W. Short, who have homes in Henrico County and elsewhere.

They are the son and daughter of the late Fred E. Watkins, a prominent Mecklenburg County businessman who bought Curles Neck in 1943. A dairy farm operated there for decades, closing nearly 25 years ago.

The sellers also would like to see the land preserved, their representative said.

“I don’t think anything would make the owners more happy,” said the listing agent, Frank Hardy, a Charlottesville real estate agent who specializes in large estates.

Curles Neck has been on the market nearly two years. Mr. Hardy said that is “not at all uncommon” for such a large, expensive property.

The property features several homes, including a three-story, 19th-century mansion that needs renovation.

For conservationists, however, the big draw is the land — about 1,000 acres of forest, 1,700 acres of marsh along the James and roughly 2,000 acres of fields and farmland. The property includes 12 lakes.

Curles Neck’s fields and cropland attract birds such as meadowlarks, barn owls and small falcons called kestrels, all of whose populations are declining. They nest at Curles Neck in the spring, flying over the fields in search of mice or insects.

Northern grassland birds such as short-eared owls and harriers, a type of hawk, spend their winters at Curles Neck. The harrier population also is in decline.

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