Eagles Vie with Landowners for Waterfront Property

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The second of a two-part series.

Eagle flies close to water to catch fish. i

The eagle population in the United States has soared under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. In response to the bird's comeback, the federal government plans to take the eagle off the endangered species list in late June. iStockPhoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockPhoto.com
Eagle flies close to water to catch fish.

The eagle population in the United States has soared under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. In response to the bird's comeback, the federal government plans to take the eagle off the endangered species list in late June.

iStockPhoto.com

Hear Part 1 of This Report:

Graph showing increase of bald eagle breeding pairs in the lower 48 states 1963-2000 i

Bald eagles have made a resurgence in the United States because of a ban on DDT and protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development. hide caption

itoggle caption
Graph showing increase of bald eagle breeding pairs in the lower 48 states 1963-2000

Bald eagles have made a resurgence in the United States due to the ban on DDT and protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development.

Terrell Bowers is building a house in a popular feeding area for bald eagles. i

Terrell Bowers is building a house on Fones Cliffs — a popular feeding area for bald eagles on the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia. hide caption

itoggle caption
Terrell Bowers is building a house in a popular feeding area for bald eagles.

Terrell Bowers is building a house on Fones Cliffs — a popular feeding area for bald eagles on the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia.

The Chesapeake Bay region is home to almost 1,000 pairs of bald eagles — up from 60 pairs 30 years ago. Lindsay Mangum, NPR/Source: Bryan D. Watts, Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary. hide caption

Click on the map to see eagle nesting patterns.
itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR/Source: Bryan D. Watts, Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary.
A new house on Fones Cliffs, a popular feeding area for bald eagles on the Rappahannock River i

Terrell Bowers' new house is being constructed on a rural stretch of river that is used by eagles migrating from Canada, New England, and Florida. Bryan Watts hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Watts
A new house on Fones Cliffs, a popular feeding area for bald eagles on the Rappahannock River

Terrell Bowers' new house is being constructed on a rural stretch of river that is used by eagles migrating from Canada, New England, and Florida.

Bryan Watts

In the 40 years since the bald eagle was first protected as an endangered species, the bird's population in the lower 48 states has soared from a low of about 400 breeding pairs to more than 9,000 nesting couples. That growth has the federal government planning to take the eagle off the endangered species list in late June.

Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development. Because most of the eagles on the East Coast nest on private land, decisions made by landowners help determine the fate of the eagle.

Terrell Bowers owns more than a half-mile of a waterfront formation called Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia. His property gives him a rare vantage point to witness the bald eagle's amazing comeback.

"Up here on the cliff you can look down on them sometimes while they're flying," Bowers says. "They can be real peaceful and just riding the wind, or they can go after a fish and get more aggressive. They're something!"

As Bowers stands on the edge of the cliff watching a young eagle glide over his head, it is hard to imagine that he has become a bit of a villain to eagle lovers in the Chesapeake Bay region. But he's in a pitched battle with them over the future of Fones Cliffs.

Prime Real Estate

The cliffs are among the many places up and down the East Coast where people are now vying with eagles for choice waterfront property.

But the fight over Fones Cliffs isn't a typical case of developer vs. environmentalists. That's because Bowers actually has been trying to conserve his land — and make some money while he's at it. Ironically, he says government policies designed to save eagles are taking away his incentive to protect the cliffs.

Most of the eagle habitat along the East Coast is on private land — as is the case with Bowers' property. Biologists are worried that Americans' desire for waterfront homes will chase eagles out of the roosts that are vital for their survival.

"It turns out that currently about 80 percent of the breeding population that we have is on private land," says Bryan Watts, a biologist at the College of William and Mary, who knows Bowers property well. "It's pretty clear that the future of the bald eagle will really be up to private landowners."

When Bowers first visited the Fones Cliffs property, it was love at first sight. He was drawn by the peace and quiet, and the amazing views of undulating cliffs and a majestic river. At the time, Bowers did not know that eagles love this place, too, and that their presence would create a lot of trouble for him.

Eagle experts consider Fones Cliffs a sweet spot for eagles. The cliffs make great lookout posts for prey. So in addition to a healthy local population of bald eagles, hundreds of other eagles from Canada and New England spend the winters around here, feasting on fish, geese and ducks. Hundreds more eagles fly up from Florida in the summer.

Incentive to Conserve

Not long ago, Bowers was trying to put his land into something called a conservation easement. In return for protecting the land, he'd get a big tax break or maybe even a cash payment from a federal wildlife refuge that is a few miles down river. The government paid a nearby property owner almost $2 million for an eagle easement, according to Joe McCauley, manager of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

"We pay market value as determined by an appraisal," McCauley says.

The size of Bowers' check would depend on the value of his land. And that value rests on how many houses Richmond County will let an owner build. Until recently, the county said that Bowers probably had room for 100 houses on his 260-acre property. But then the county changed the rules. A new zoning ordinance said Bowers could only fit eight – not 100 – houses on his land.

Bowers says his property lost about 90 percent of its value.

"It took my breath away. It was staggering," he says.

McCauley, the refuge manager, says the zoning change deterred Bowers and some other property owners from giving the refuge easements on their waterfront land. Still, he says, it's a double-edged sword; the zoning changes are important for protecting habitat for the eagle because many landowners never consider easements.

'I Want to Get My Value Back'

After the zoning ordinance change, Bowers fought back. He asked the county to let him divide his land into 50 lots, and he started entertaining offers from developers.

"A year ago, I wanted to do my conservation easement right, now I want to get my value back," Bowers says.

The county board of supervisors considered his request last month at a meeting packed with eagle lovers.

McCauley, the refuge manager, and biologist Bryan Watts both spoke against Bowers' proposal. Watts said Fones Cliffs should never be developed.

"[The Fones Cliffs habitat] is so incredibly important to eagles along the entire Atlantic Coast," Watts said at the meeting, that "it rises to the level of some of our most prized historic sights... We should consider it a national treasure."

The board listened, and then rejected Bowers' request.

"There are people out there who are so passionate about eagles that they lose sight of people," Bowers says. "They don't acknowledge that there is a right to do something with your land."

But Bowers doesn't blame the eagles.

"It's not the eagles, it's the people," Bowers says. "They just holler so much about it that finally you get tired of hearing it. It's like it becomes a symbol not of liberty but of government bureaucracy gone awry."

Sharing the Waterfront

Bowers says he doesn't know what he'll do. But the experience has turned him into an advocate for private property rights. He says it is wrong for society to expect landowners like him to bear the financial burden of providing habitat for eagles.

"If the federal government wants a park," he says, "they buy the land and put a park on it... And if the county wants to preserve all this land, then they need to buy it. And if they're not willing to buy it, then they ought to allow you to do what you want to do with your land."

Conservationists concede there is not enough money to buy all the land that eagles use. But they say unless society finds ways to make it worthwhile for landowners like Terrell Bowers to preserve the bird's most important habitat, the eagle's dramatic recovery will be short lived.

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