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Protecting oysters, conserving land

Posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2019 at 3:44 pm

As one of the largest oyster planters on the East Coast, Lake Cowart’s business is utterly dependent on the quality of the water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

There’s not much the Northumberland County native can do about rainfall which often determines if the baby oysters he puts overboard live or die. And, there’s not much he can do about the pollution that seeps into the Potomac River from the ceaseless development of Northern Virginia; but, he does enjoy a measure of control close to home.

That’s why he turned to the Northern Neck Land Conservancy to place his Mt. Zion Farm in a conservation easement. The easement, which is a legally binding document that Cowart and NNLC wrote together, prohibits Mt. Zion’s 310 acres of waterfront from ever being developed and permanently protects its woodlands that purify rainwater runoff from its fields before it drains into the Yeocomico River.

Cowart and NNLC completed work this year on the easement near Lottsburg at the corner of Rt. 360 and Rt. 624. The farm, about one-third forest and two-thirds fields, includes an historic 150-year-old house whose rooftop cupola is a distinctive landmark.

The farm’s location makes it an important protective buffer for the several thousand acres of oyster planting ground that Cowart shares with a business partner in the area.

“Everything in the oyster business is so dependent on what happens on the land,” he said. “We need to be careful with our acreage to protect this watershed.”

Having seen the link between water quality and land use, Cowart is turning his sights towards protecting additional farmland he owns on the banks of Coan River where his business, Cowart Seafood Corporation, is headquartered.

Cowart grows oysters on 1,200 acres in the Coan and is once again working with NNLC to protect another 300 plus acres around that waterway’s shore. “What goes on on the land,” he says, “affects the water.”

Since 2004, the Northern Neck Land Conservancy has worked with 32 conservation-minded landowners, like Cowart, to preserve 4,700 acres in the five Northern Neck Counties plus Essex. In Northumberland and Lancaster Counties, 12 owners have protected 1,700 acres, primarily farms and forests located within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Just this month, Northumberland resident Keith Harris and his son, Matthew, finalized easements on eight of their farm sites totaling more than 500 acres.   Easements provide countless public benefits. They protect open space. They support the region’s chief industries of farming, fishing and forestry.  They enhance wildlife habitat and protect the region’s quality of life.

Conservation easements will be highlighted at the NNLC’s annual Boots & BBQ this year on Saturday, Sept. 28 when the organization celebrates its 15th anniversary. Tickets are available at nnconserve.org.

For the full article, pick up the latest Northern Neck News 8/28/19

Al Withers, Lake Cowart, and Chip Minor all work to help conserve local land.