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Southside’s new jewel / May 05, 2021
Let’s pick up an item from last week’s front page ...

In the news: Southside Virginia will soon become home to the largest state park in the Commonwealth with the donation of 7,300-acre Falkland Farms by its current owner, tech billionaire Tim Sweeney, to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Sweeney is founder and CEO of Epic Games, best known for introducing “Fortnite” to the world. Don’t really know much about Fortnite? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a moment.

First, about Falkland Farms: If you’re a hunter, it’s probably a place you’ve heard of: this vast property, located in the Scottsburg area of Halifax County, once served as a turn-of-the-century hunting preserve under its then-owner, Philadelphia industrialist Col. Ira Vaughan. (In Halifax County, Falkland Farms is still widely known as the Vaughan estate.) It has endured for years to now reign as one of Virginia’s largest private land tracts, uniquely positioned among state and federal conservation areas -— including the Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve and Staunton River State Park, managed by Virginia DCR, and Kerr/Buggs Island Lake, owned of course by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Across these lands, rare species of flora and fauna thrive, an unbroken ecosystem yielding benefits too great in numbers to fully count here.

One benefit (speaking partly from a selfish perspective) is that the soon-to-happen state takeover of Falkland Farms will result in a vastly expanded Staunton River State Park, which becomes part of DCR’s new Southside Virginia Conservation and Recreation Complex, encompassing 10,000-plus acres. While it remains to be seen how much of Falkland Farms will be deemed off-limits to the public as natural conservation area, there is something on the order of 60 miles of existing nature trail on the property that can be quickly converted over for State Park recreational use. Sixty miles of trail! Looks like yours truly needs to get in shape for some backwoods biking (and buy a new bike ...)

Sweeney’s generosity in deeding over Falkland Farms to the Commonwealth deserves all the praise that anyone wants to give. True, the Epic CEO is worth billions of dollars, and the $11.5 million that he paid for Falkland Farms and now will write off may be the equivalent of a spent lottery ticket buried deep in his wallet, but still ... compared to many big-dollar philanthropists, Sweeney is distinguished by an utter lack of any need for attention (he did not seek out the spotlight at an Earth Day announcement of the donation by Gov. Ralph Northam), and by the careful thought he puts into his cherished cause: natural area conservation. Sweeney is a longtime, dedicated conservationist who has used his fortune to help save irreplaceable habitat lands in his home state of North Carolina. Falkland Farms is his first big foray into Virginia. We’re all luckier for him having taken notice of Southside.

Having Virginia’s biggest state park — with river and lake access, hiking, biking and equestrian trails, bird-watching opportunities galore and so much else to love is a huge win for the entire region. (Falkland Farms also features a stately hunting lodge that DCR envisions putting back into use as guest quarters and event venue space.) Situated at the mouth of Buggs Island Lake, the Southside Virginia Conservation and Recreation Complex instantly becomes one of the many jewels of the Lake Country. And that’s a big deal for us all.

“Fortnite,” in case you don’t know, is a worldwide computer gaming craze on a scale that’s difficult to even describe. Hundreds of millions of players worldwide, for one thing. You might be asking yourself, “How does something that’s free to play earn billions of dollars for Epic Games and Mr. Sweeney?” Good question. Let’s head over to “While most [gaming] console releases make money from selling a hard copy or digital version of the game itself, Fortnite’s revenue comes entirely from microtransactions.” According to the site — basically the investment world’s Wikipedia — these “microtransactions” derive largely from players purchasing “skins” for their virtual characters, a.k.a. avatars. (Don’t feel bad, I had to get my kids to explain this stuff, too). So to recap, the Epic Games profit model is based on players throwing loose change at the company to make fashion choices for characters that don’t really exist. One word comes to mind here: huh.

Also, dancing is a huge deal in the wacky world of Fortnite. One dance, demonstrated for me by a recent college graduate, resembles the motion that one sees from those air sock people flapping around in the wind out front of automotive dealerships. Because youth is wasted on the young, I was asked by a late millennial to pose a question to Northam when he visited Halifax County on April 22 to announce the donation of Falkland Farms: When he received the exciting news of this donation by Fortnite’s titular founder, did he break out into a Fortnite dance? I’m pretty sure this question came with full knowledge of the governor’s fraught relationship with the dance floor: Moonwalk anyone?

Alas, no such cheek and guts are to be found in this reporter, as the question went decidedly unasked. Discretion (and being a total chicken) shall remain the better part of valor ....

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