When you go to the polls on Nov. 5, one of the elections on your ballot will be for seats on the board of your local soil and water conservation district. This is an area of government that doesn’t attract much media coverage or conversation, but it’s a lot more important than you might think.
I never thought too much about land use. Having been raised in a rural area, I deeply appreciate green space and scenic landscapes. When a new housing development or strip mall would pop up on a plot of razed farmland or forest, I’d roll my eyes and express my distaste, but it would end there. I never thought to advocate on those feelings, because land development seemed inevitable with the uncontrollable sprawl of people and not enough places for them to go.
But, my nihilistic perception was turned on its head when I met Nicole Anderson Ellis, an inspiringly passionate environmentalist. She puts that passion to work and dedicates herself to preserving land, proving that you don’t have to be a career politician to make a difference in your community.
She’s the incumbent Vice-Chair of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District and has served two consecutive four-year terms since she was initially elected to the board in 2011. She’s running again this year, as one of five candidates vying for three open seats on the board.
Nicole Anderson Ellis (right) with Kristen Larsen (left) and Amanda Chase (center)
I talked with Ellis about her career in public policy at her small, stuffy office in Harris Hall on a hot day last May. Though her windowsill was lined with potted plants in various stages of death, that’s only a testament to how busy she is as a professor, local government employee and mother—not an indication of her level of commitment to loving nature. She’s just more concerned with the vegetation outside of her window than the seeds she bought at a nursery.
“I believe, as human beings, we need wild spaces to achieve our full potential,” said Ellis. “But for me, it’s really about habitat. That’s my thing. Ethically, animals deserve a place to raise their family too, and I believe that trees have unique value as individual lives.”
She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from UCLA and taught environmental education on a 400-acre farm in Alabama, before moving to Church Hill to attend VCU for her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing. She’s an award-winning author and journalist, which landed her a teaching job in the Department of Focused Inquiry here at VCU.
But when she’s not giving lectures, grading papers or parenting her young daughter, Ellis is busy saving the environment in Henrico County. One of her most notable achievements on the board is the establishment of a land preservation committee that works with Capitol Region Land Conservancy to provide conservation easements.
A conservation easement is a promise granted to private landowners that an agreed-upon amount of their property will never be used for development, even if they end up selling it in the future. Since Ellis helped create the committee, about 530 acres of rural land in Henrico have been permanently preserved.
She also had a firsthand role in the creation of Cornerstone Farm at Fairfield Middle School in Henrico and remains an active participant in overseeing its operations. It’s a working farm where students grow and sell produce to learn about horticulture, sustainability and small-business commerce.
Nicole Anderson Ellis at Tree Hill Farm in Varina, VA
Ellis made a name for herself in the local government of Henrico County several years before she decided to run for public office. She lead a grassroots campaign that succeeded in the protection of 531-acre Tree Hill Farm in her hometown of Varina, which is located in the east end of Henrico County.
The county’s board of supervisors had unanimously approved a re-zoning proposal to develop the farm into a high-density subdivision, which very few residents of Varina were excited about. Ellis proved that by creating a petition and biking to every house in town to get signatures. She even stood outside her local 7-Eleven for hours at a time. After exhibiting such a fearsome commitment to land preservation and achieving her goal, it’s no surprise she was later elected to the soil and water conservation district board.
If you’re registered to vote in Henrico County, you’ll have three candidates on your ballot for the Henricopolis SWCD Board. The incumbents running for reelection are Nicole Anderson Ellis and James Beckley and they’re being challenged by Anne-Marie Leake, Michael Phillips and Claiborne Yarbrough.
Election day will be here before we know it and while voting is better than not voting at all, voting informedly is the most constructive way to participate in our democracy. Do a quick internet search on who’s running for your local soil and water conservation district board. The results of the election could mean life or death for those rolling, green hills you love to drive past or that lush forest that you love to explore.