Mayflies among the Blackwater attractions

Published 6:22 pm Tuesday, July 23, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Billy Holleman wasn’t kidding when he said the mayflies were bad.

Easily a dozen covered each of the outside mirrors of his truck as Holleman provided a tour this month of the county-owned Blackwater property. 

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The Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors recently gave the green light to the Blackwater Task Force’s recommendations to develop the roughly 2,500 acre property for public use. 

The Board is now considering three bids from hunt clubs to hunt and maintain the property. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

In addition to hunting, other uses being developed are hiking, canoeing and kayaking, bicycling, horseback riding and wild animal and plant life observation  — which is why the mayflies, which can render a painful bite, are notable. 

In addition to the flies, other wildlife observed that morning included a wild turkey, buzzards flying overhead and a box turtle. About 200 acres had been logged recently, leaving a clear-cut landscape devoid of trees.  Another area is scheduled for clearing this fall. Mostly, it’s a quiet place. 

“I enjoy coming out here. It’s so peaceful,” said Holleman.

Holleman, 77, grew up near the Blackwater tract and continues to own property in the middle of it. He was a founding member of the Mill Swamp Hunt Club in 1965 and shot his first deer on the property when he was 11-years old. 

Mill Swamp, along with the Isle of Wight Hunt Club, have kept up the “paths” that run throughout the property, although to most people they look like dirt roads. Numerous “paths” lead off into various directions and are unmarked.  

However, the process, permits and requirements necessary to open it for public use are proving to be a challenge, said Isle of Wight County Director of Parks and Recreation David Smith. 

It was thought it could open, by permit only, this month, but that’s not happening, said Smith. 

Holleman said they have learned that some of the agencies that assisted the county with the purchase of the property have certain conservation rules, such as the county not being able to cut new paths. There are parking lots to be made and those require clearance from various agencies, said Holleman.

Add to that the need to put up signs and mark the paths so people don’t get lost, he said.

“You can’t turn people loose until you mark the property,” said Holleman and advises waiting another year to get everything in place before opening it to the public.  

Another restriction on the deed is allowing the timber to be harvested for up to 40 years after its sale in 2010. Once the timber is harvested, Isle of Wight will be released from the deed restriction. 

The property is large, located in a sparsely populated area of Isle of Wight County off a gravel road and is not easy to find. Rather than direct access to the Blackwater River, it fronts Rattlesnake Swamp, said Holleman. While that feeds into the Blackwater, it’s not easy to get there from the swamp, plus access will be difficult, given the distance from the proposed parking lots and the swamp, he said. 

When the hunt clubs go out during deer season, the members are accounted for and most stay on the paths, said Holleman. Much of the forest fronting the paths are rather dense. Holleman is concerned with members of the public, not familiar with the property and not under the auspices of a club, hunting out there. 

When you see 10 cars in the parking area and you don’t know where they are, that’s a concern, he said. 

Holleman defends the hunt clubs, saying that accusing them of having exclusive access isn’t fair. 

“We were never asked to share (previously),” he said, adding that he’s in favor of opening it to the public, but wants the property to be safe and well marked. 

The Blackwater property was purchased in 2010 to preserve the county’s rural character, promote the conservation of old-growth plant life and wildlife and protect drinking water sources. The $3 million purchase was aided by funding from the federal Forest Legacy Program Fund, the Virginia Land Conservation Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  {/mprestriction}