Rapidan Institute

Eastern Rivers and Landscape Resilience Through Education, Outreach, and Landscape Design

The vision of the Rapidan Institute is to tackle agricultural, habitat, and land-use problems in a systematic, multi-disciplinary manner that results in profitable enterprises and measurable improvements in water quality, habitat availability, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The Rapidan Institute was created in 2020 to enable ACP to focus on comprehensive fisheries and floodplain habitat restoration in the Rapidan and Robinson River Valleys. The Institute’s operational strategies include the enhancement of soil, plant, and animal biodiversity, river reconnection and whole floodplain restoration, and development of emerging conservation-friendly agricultural and environmental markets.

Contact Jeff Waldon to learn more.

Rapidan Fish Passage Project

This film chronicles the demise and triumphant return of the American Shad, highlighting the citizens who refused to let them fade away.

J.B. Birdsall

Micheal Collins

Monte Gingery

Tommy Hill

Don King

Mark Kington

John MacFarlane

David Perdue

Al Weed

What do a bucolic community and an old dam –  which have together renewed and redefined themselves many times over – and a river  – always there – have in common?  The answer lies in the new Rapidan Partnership’s vision – which is to restore free flow to the Rapidan River by alteration of a dam at the village of Rapidan. 

A consortium of local, state, and federal partners have all become advocates for the Rapidan Fish Passage Project (RFPP). The vision motivating so many organizations is the potential restoration of 541 miles of the river.  Why does this matter?  Fish such as the American Shad spawn in rivers of the Virginia Piedmont but can’t climb up and over dams. These once plentiful fish were an essential food source for early American colonists. 400 years later, this project to bring them back has the potential to be nationally significant.  

According to Project Lead, Jeff Waldon, “The successful Shad fishery recovery in the Potomac, Rappahannock, and James Rivers leads us to believe that a solid Shad and Striper (i.e. Rockfish) fishery can be restored well up the watershed to Madison Mills and possibly farther. ” Before dams and river pollution, they were the most valuable and important fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. Today, larval and juvenile Shad are a source of food for Rockfish. Rockfish are the most popular commercial and recreational finfish in the Bay, generating roughly $500 million in economic activity related to fishing expenditures, travel, lodging, and so on each year. In 2019 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) found that the Rockfish population was in trouble. Stocks have been in decline for some time, as has spawning success. Through this project, the Rapidan Community has an opportunity to be at the forefront of positive improvement for the village and the greater regional community and environment. According to ACP Executive Director Michael C. Collins, “in preparation for restoration of the fishery, ACP has begun planning for a future Rapidan Fishing Club – a permit fishing system created for residents of Madison, Culpeper, and Orange Counties. We hope to begin rollout of the system in 2021”.  

A 501 c-3 charitable organization, the American Climate Partners launches enterprises to improve the health of people and wildlife in Central Virginia. ACP is now raising funds to execute the due diligence phase of the project. If you are interested in more information about the Rapidan Fish Passage project, please contact Jeff Waldon at 540-230-2854 or jeff@americanclimatepartners.org.  


Perdue Experimental Station

The Perdue Experimental Station is an applied research facility located at the home of Elizabeth and David Perdue at Liberty Hill, at Liberty Mills, Virginia. Liberty Hill is located roughly 20 miles upstream of the Institute’s headquarters in Rapidan, Virginia. The Station provides a location to study strategies and practices to improve the resiliency of a low elevation headwater floodplain ecosystem. Since 2016, staff from the Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative, with the financial support of the Perdue family, have been conducting trials on a variety of annual and perennial grasses, legumes, and forbs to reduce the energy of flood events and thereby help to reduce scouring of the river in-stream system.

The Rapidan Partnership

The Rapidan Institute is the product of a multidisciplinary partnership between the following entities and individuals:

Jeff Waldon, Rapidan Institute Director, American Climate Partners

Alan Weaver, Fish Passage Coordinator, Department of Wildlife Resources

Jessie Thomas-Blate, Director of River Restoration and Most Endangered Rivers Manager, American Rivers

Bryan Hofmann, Deputy Director, Friends of the Rappahannock

Tony Arnold, Director, Professor, and Boehl Chair in Property and Land Use, University of Louisville

Kat Imhoff, Piedmont Environmental Council

Rapidan Watershed Resiliency Plan

Confluence of Rapidan and Rappahnnock Rivers via Friends of the Rappahannock

To address the larger watershed issues in the Rapidan (including the Robinson and tributaries), an initial plan has been drafted to guide the work of the Rapidan Institute going forward. The plan is designed to meld human economic and nature-based functions that support communities in the watershed using strategies that can be measured. The most recent version of the plan is available below.

Switchgrass + Grain Bioenergy

Cereal Rye via MSU Extension

Create projects which integrate winter grains with switchgrass to build soils and create greenhouse negative energy fuel for the Rapidan Mill buildings and surrounding communities.

Fish-Friendly Hydropower and Renewable Energy

Ecosystem Restoration via Natel Energy

Design and construction of high-efficiency, restoration hydropower system at Rapidan Mill. This concept includes installing solar panels and a greenhouse negative biochar HVAC system at the old mill building in Rapidan.

Heirloom Grain Milling

Another ancient grain, Spelt, via Organic Authority

In partnership with Rapidan Hay & Grain, we hope to once again mill flour from annual and perennial heirloom grains at historic Rapidan Mill, like ancient, perennial rye.


The rich lands and waters of the Rapidan River watershed have supported our people and communities for almost 400 years. At settlement, the Rapidan was teeming with shad and herring. Timber was plentiful, and the soils along the bottomlands were immensely fertile. Beavers dammed small streams into beaver meadows that slowed flood waters and captured sediment. Regular fires resulted in mixed fields of native species where bobwhite quail and other species thrived.

Since then, battles have been fought, a future president was born and lived at Somerset, and mills and mill dams were built and eventually fell away. The beavers were trapped out for hides, and the bottomlands cleared and drained for fields. Much of the timber was harvested to build cities to the north and south. Streams were choked with sediment. Bobwhites were diminished to a small fraction of their former abundance. Shad runs were terminated with dams. Our use of fossil fuels has resulted in a warming climate and a higher likelihood of extreme weather events.

Even so, the Rapidan River Valley fared better than watersheds in other parts of the Commonwealth, and the opportunity still exists to recover much of what was lost. There are still shad trying to make it up river. There are still beavers trying to make a living in banks and ponds. There are still bobwhites calling in a few places. Soil fertility has declined, but it’s not so far gone it can’t be recovered. New technologies are becoming available to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Art by Maria Pace

It’s up to us to try and steer the Valley towards a balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the natural systems that support the quality of life we have come to expect for ourselves and future generations. Time and money are short, so the best strategies are those that achieve multiple objectives. Each strategy needs to work for people and landowners aesthetically and profitably.

Enter the Rapidan Institute

The Rapidan Institute was formed in 2020 to attempt a new collaborative approach to improving the Valley while producing profitable livelihoods for the residents. The Rapidan Institute is an associated organization with the American Climate Partners headquartered at the old mill building in Rapidan, Virginia. The river runs by the back door and ties together the history, biology, and livelihoods of the residents in the Valley.

The Rapidan Partnership was created in the Spring of 2020 by The Rapidan Institute. The Institute is a program of the American Climate Partners, located in the old Rapidan Mill in the village of Rapidan. Through the support of generous local fishermen, the Board of Directors of ACP gained control of the dam and adjacent property earlier this year. Members of the Partnership currently include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, American Rivers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Friends of the Rappahannock, and the Piedmont Environmental Council. To restore the fishery, the Institute and Partners are now studying the alteration of Rapidan Mill Dam. The 11 foot dam spans the entire width of the river and blocks the migration of American Shad, Hickory Shad, Striped Bass, Blueback Herring, Alewife, American Eel, and Sea Lamprey. The dam is the last remaining obstacle for these species to return to their spawning grounds close to the Blue Ridge Mountains.