Kara Ball is executive director of the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, a privately owned, 894-acre nature preserve along the Appalachian Trail in western Loudoun County that is open to the public. Ball, a consultant and conservationist who began the job earlier this year, is presiding over a period of financial difficulty for the center, which just laid off much of its staff. Ball spoke with Washington Post reporter Michael Laris about the challenges of overseeing one of the largest environmental resources in the fast-growing county.
QWhat's at the site, and what do you do there?
AIt's comprised primarily of forest land and some old agricultural fields. We have on-site, open to the public, campgrounds and over 10 miles of trails. We host public events. We have a building that people can rent [for] scheduled activities. . . . We have over 30 archaeological and historical sites, old buildings and so forth. But within that we also have what's called an entire open community neighborhood. Back in the 1700s and 1800s, when communities developed, they . . . developed slowly. Your brother might put a house in next to yours. Neighborhoods expanded that way, and they were naturally bounded by either creeks or ridges. [That's] very rare in Loudoun County, and, as you can imagine, it's getting even rarer. We've had field schools on-site for the past five years -- historians, archaeologists, biologists and actually chemists helping us to identify our cultural resources. Our next stage is going to be working to interpret that for the public, via something called public archaeology, and our hope is to work with the leading universities in Virginia to do that.
Why did you have to cut staff?
The Blue Ridge center began as a program of the Robert and Dee Leggett Foundation. It was started in 2000. In 2004, the Blue Ridge center incorporated as its own not-for-profit, which made us eligible to receive funds from a wider variety of sources. At that same time, the Leggett foundation began reducing its pledged commitments to support the center. . . . We needed to reduce our staff so we could continue to keep our pledge to the community to keep our doors open, albeit with reduced staffing. So we've made a commitment to engage the community in a way that can help us continue our operations into the future. We were in a little under $100,000 deficit, maybe in the $80,000-to-$100,000 range. In terms of staff, full-time staff that were laid off, it was three staff folks. Two were in our agricultural programs, and one was our director of operations and administration.
What would volunteers do to help keep things going?
What we're really looking to do is form a task force [of] people who are committed to a vision of the future of the center and helping us determine how to make that vision a reality. . . . We need to have to get a strong financial base. We have ongoing needs for things like trail maintenance.
Why do you believe this is an important place to preserve?
It's between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Short Hill Mountain. It's called South Mountain in Maryland. You can see forest, and you can see fields and you can see great blue herons flying overhead. There's a great blue heron rookery just a couple miles upriver. Just to see that, and know that land will be there -- when we come and go -- for others to have it and experience, is very powerful for me. . . . Other creatures have that opportunity [too.] We have on-site a rare creature called a wood turtle, which is a threatened creature. . . . This property was going to be developed, before it was bought by the Robert and Dee Leggett Foundation. It came to their attention because it was actually going to be put into a luxury residential development. . . . They bought the land, and they've put it into conservation and they've opened it up to the public. . . . The idea that this land also provides homes for other creatures is very compelling.