April 17, 2013

Conservation and the Constitution Meet at James Madison's Montpelier

  • By: David Weible
Exterior of Montpelier, a Site of the National Trust. Credit: Peggy Harrison
The front of Montpelier, a Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When most people think of James Madison’s Montpelier, they think of it as the home of America’s 4th president and the birthplace of what was to become the Constitution of the United States. But there’s another side to this bastion of American democracy that sits near the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 90 minutes southwest of Washington, D.C.

More than just the iconic mansion, Montpelier sits of 2,650 acres of land that includes gardens, archaeological sites, forested trails, and old-growth forests. Much of the landscape is nearly the same as it was when Madison actually lived here, and that’s by design. Madison himself would be proud.

“To call him a conservationist for the 1810s and ‘20s is probably accurate, but not by our standards today,” says Christian Cotz, director of education and visitor engagement at Montpelier.

Still, as a plantation owner, he needed to make his land profitable. Madison was very interested in the science of agriculture and went to lengths to perform crop rotations and maintain wooded lots on his property, as opposed to farming the entire plot. As the 19th century wore on, he also watched the once heavily-forested Blue Ridge degrade as timber men and tanneries moved in to claim them.

"Of all the errors in our rural economy,” Madison once wrote, “none is perhaps so much to be regretted, because none is so difficult to be repaired, as the injudicious and excessive destruction of timber.”

Viewshed from front of Montpelier, a Site of the National Trust. Credit: Peggy Harrison
Viewshed from Montpelier's front porch.

Today, Montpelier, a Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, carries on Madison’s legacy with conservation projects of its own. The vast majority of the estate’s 2,650 acres have been placed under conservation easements, ensuring that the viewshed that Madison once saw from his own front porch is largely maintained for generations to come. The estate also practices active forest management to allow old stands of trees to regenerate and thrive.

Montpelier also offers educational programs for children and adults, such as Mud Camp, a two-week day camp serving rising 3rd-6th graders in June. The idea is to bring children closer to nature by studying creek critters and invertebrates or learning survival skills. The estate also plays host to roughly 5,000 school children a year who come on field trips to learn about old-growth forests and forest management in the property’s groves of tulip poplars, red and white oaks, and white ash, some stands of which have been left untouched since the 1810s.

“As stewards of Montpelier, we, like Madison, must nurture and protect our property from outside forces -- invasive species, development, pollution, etc.,” says Cotz. “Educating future generations about ecology and conservation helps ensure Montpelier’s protection in the years to come.”

More recently, Montpelier’s new President and CEO, Kat Imhoff, has spearheaded an effort to open the estate’s grounds to the general public, free of charge, six days a week, something that not only adds to Montpelier’s rich conservation heritage, but its democratic heritage as well.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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