Historical Landscape of James Monroe’s Highland

Property managers at James Monroe’s Highland recently conducted preservation work on the estate’s tree canopy using cost-share funding from the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF). With more than 100 ash trees on the property, Highland has not been insulated from the effects of the emerald ash borer (EAB)– an invasive pest that damages and eventually kills native ash species. To maintain the overall health of their tree canopy, they’ve removed several ash trees that were infested with EAB, trimmed trees damaged by pests or storms, and began a cycle of EAB treatment on select individual trees.

You may know the property as Ash Lawn-Highland – President James Monroe’s estate in Albemarle County, Virginia The property was originally known simply as Highland, with the “Ash Lawn” descriptor as a more contemporary addition from a subsequent owner, likely in honor of the many beautiful ash tree specimens on the property. In recent years, the property’s name has returned to its historic roots.

Still, the ash trees on the property are no less iconic. The driveway leading up to the estate is flanked by rows of ash trees and frequently serves as a backdrop for photographers, particularly for wedding parties. The Peacock Yard, another frequently photographed site, also features stunning ash trees. 

Driveway at Highland. Photo Credit: James Monroe’s Highland

Many of the trees on the property are white ash and are likely 80-100 years old. While these trees don’t date back to the origins of the estate, they do contribute to the beauty and function of the property. Trees, of course, don’t live forever. As they age, they may become weak or susceptible to disease, damage, or pests. 

The EAB infestation has been devastating to ash trees in many parts of the U.S., including Virginia. Treating healthy ash trees to prevent infestation is one option, but it can be costly. Cost-share programs like the one offered through VDOF are one way that property managers can mitigate the costs associated with tree care. 

Nancy Ocasio, Highland’s Business and Operations Manager, says that maintaining healthy trees on Highland is critical to preserving the overall aesthetic and use of the property, so treating the ash trees was ultimately a business decision – it may be costly, but they couldn’t afford the loss of the trees and their benefits.

But not all trees can be saved, and some may need to be removed for safety reasons – trees affected by EAB damage may become hazardous over time. VDOF’s EAB cost-share program gives landowners funding to remove ash trees and replace them with other native species. Nancy says they’re considering American elm or hackberry as replacement options for the trees they’ve had to remove; these species can have a similar branching pattern that will visually match the remaining ash trees.

Broken or pruned limbs from trees on the property are given to local craftspeople who create functional works of art displayed and sold at Highland. Woodworkers have created items such as pens and bowls from ash wood. Other items may be crafted from trees on the property that are significantly older than the ash, including limbs from a white oak and a hemlock that are each more than 300 years old.

During normal operations, Highland is open to the public. Photo Credit: James Monroe’s Highland

These historic trees demonstrate the property’s deep connection to our nation’s rich history. Nancy says that the estate is one of the most interesting places she could imagine working, in part because there’s always so much new to learn, even about events that happened long ago.

During Monroe’s time, and for several generations beyond, enslaved people lived on the Highland estate. The interpretive materials for Highland acknowledge the legacy of slavery inextricably tied to the property, the people who lived there, and the generations of descendants now dispersed throughout the country.

The Highland staff are collaborating with the Highland’s Council of Descendant Advisors to curate and reinterpret displays and exhibits on the estate that share a more comprehensive story. For example, while many displays in the Presidential Guest House have focused on the furniture, art, and use of different rooms, the updated displays will center more on sharing stories of the individuals associated with these spaces. The Highland webpage explaining the engagement with the Council states: “Our collaboration makes the stories more relevant to our community and more truthful.” [Read more about the Highland’s Council of Descendant Advisors.]

A rustic trail system weaves along the Highland property, installed by Boy Scout troops decades ago. Volunteers have performed extensive work and dedicated many hours to restoring the trail system. These trails, though not necessarily historic, allow visitors to appreciate and experience the property in a different way. Even the trails benefit from the full lifecycle of the removed ash trees on the property; when the cut trees are chipped, they are used for mulch along the paths.

Ultimately, giving ongoing care to the tree canopy at Highland bolsters the preservation of an historic space that holds the stories of many and diverse generations of Virginians. 

Learn more about James Monroe’s Highland.

Featured Image: Ash in Peacock Yard. Photo Credit: James Monroe’s Highland

Restoring Canopy at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) helped Camp Kum-Ba-Yah give some much-needed care to their campground’s forest. The wooded property in Lynchburg, Virginia is owned and operated by the Lynchburg Covenant Fellowship. Camp Kum-Ba-Yah was founded in 1950 by Reverend Bev Cosby. Along with the camp, the property houses the Church of the Covenant, The Lodge of the Fishermen, Common Grounds Café, and Chrysalis Interfaith Retreat Center.

Ash trees on the campground had been impacted by an invasive pest, the emerald ash borer (EAB). The sick trees needed to be removed to restore the health of the camp’s forest canopy. However, the trees will soon be replaced by native tree plantings. Camp Kum-Ba-Yah received funding assistance from VDOF to remove and replace the infested ash trees through the EAB cost-share program.

On January 30, VDOF area forester Bill Perry and crew members from several local tree companies visited the campgrounds. The crews cut down eight ash trees that had been infested with EAB. 

VDOF area forester Bill Perry fells an ash tree at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Though they’re sad to see their forest of ash diminished, the camp’s operations manager Amy Bonnette said they’re “making lemons into lemonade”; removed ash trees have been milled for use in future projects around the campgrounds.

Milled wood from trees removed from the Camp property.

Camp Kum-Ba-Yah has some historical significance in the Lynchburg area, dating back to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, when city pools were closed to the public rather than desegregated, the camp’s founder opened their integrated pools to Black families in the area. 

The Lodge of the Fisherman on the campgrounds .

The following year, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his way to speak at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, he ate at The Lodge of the Fisherman on the campgrounds – one of only two non-segregated dining options in the city. Reverend King would go on to give his well-known “American Dream” speech at E.C. Glass. Listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “American Dream” speech, or read the transcript.

The restaurant in the lodge, now called Common Grounds Café, is still in operation and stands as a small piece of American history. Read more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to The Lodge of the Fisherman.

A Christmas Present for Stony Creek

The walking track in Sussex County’s Stony Creek Park is a well-used community resource. Citizens use it for exercise, and for years, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) has used it for firefighter pack tests.

Walking the open track in the summer heat gave Zach Dowling, Senior Area Forester for VDOF’s Waverly work area, an idea. Last summer, Zach mentioned to town council member Mike Moody that shade trees would be a great addition to the park. In addition, planting trees in the park would be the first step in establishing a riparian buffer along Stony Creek, which flows into the Nottoway River.

The town didn’t have the money for trees, but VDOF’s Urban & Community Forestry (U&CF) program offered Water Quality Impact Assessment (WQIA) funds to support the planting project. Zach presented the idea at a town council meeting in August, and the members unanimously approved it.

Lara Johnson, VDOF Urban & Community Forestry Program Manager, came up with a plan for spacing trees through the park surrounding the track. Species were chosen for site suitability, shade potential, and seasonal color. They included willow oak, baldcypress, downy serviceberry, Eastern redbud, sweetbay magnolia, river birch, eastern hophornbeam, and black gum. The grant not only paid for the trees, mulch, stakes, and cages, but also allowed for a contractor to pre-dig the planting holes.

VDOF planters at work

On December 2, a team of local VDOF staff planted 25 balled and burlapped trees purchased from a Richmond nursery. The planting crew consisted of Zach Dowling, Travis Tindell and Austin Babb (Area Foresters), Jim Blackwell and Jay Bassett (Forest Technicians), Lara Johnson, Molly O’Liddy (U&CF Partnership Coordinator), Brian Lacy (Pine Resource Specialist), Jim Schroering (Southern Pine Beetle/Longleaf Pine Coordinator), and Bryant Bays (Eastern Regional Forester).

A cage helps protect a newly planted tree from deer and mowers.

The group planted, mulched, staked, and caged all 25 trees in three hours, creating an early Christmas gift for residents of Stony Creek to appreciate for years to come. Future VDOF pack testers will also breathe a little easier in their shade!