A new era dawning for a Virginia wonder

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When Thomas Jefferson first laid eyes on Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-high limestone arch that soars over a Shenandoah Valley creek, he was so impressed that he bought it and the land around it from the King of England for 20 shillings.

For the next 239 years, the Virginia landmark remained in the hands of private individuals. That long run will come to an end next month, when a conservation group is expected to take possession of what Jefferson called "one of nature's most sublime oddities." Natural Bridge, which lies about 45 minutes from Lynchburg and draws 200,000 visitors a year, may eventually become a state or national park.

The sale by the current owner, 88-year-old Washington developer Angelo Puglisi, opens a new chapter for the unusual geologic formation, whose glory days as a premier tourist destination are long behind it. Mr. Puglisi and minority investors had bought the property for $6.5 million in 1988.

Natural Bridge was ranked with Niagara Falls as one of the two natural wonders of the New World back in the late 18th century, and a parade of prominent Americans made their way to see it, including James Monroe, Sam Houston and Martin Van Buren. Long before he was president, George Washington is said to have carved his initials into the rock while surveying it for Lord Fairfax. But the bridge was eventually upstaged by the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone's geysers and other discoveries. And the mystery of its origins, which were key to its early allure, became the stuff of grade-school textbooks.

Today, though, it remains enough of a draw that other attractions have sprouted around it, including a wax museum, a safari park and Foamhenge, a plastic foam reproduction of Stonehenge. The attractions' owners and employees have come to rely on class trips and families out for Sunday drives for their livelihoods.

"Whatever happens to the bridge dictates what happens to all the other attractions," said Mark Cline, Foamhenge's creator and a Rockbridge County tourism board member. "We don't want to see it turn into a cheap tourist attraction."

Locals spent much of the past year in suspense over the bridge's ownership. The stone arch and about 1,600 surrounding acres were initially put up for auction, with the possibility that the property would be split into as many as 35 parcels, said Jim Woltz, president of Woltz & Associates, whose real estate firm is handling the sale. That prospect stoked fears of disjointed development schemes and landscape-marring mines and housing developments.

But preservation was the outcome that Mr. Puglisi said he wanted all along. The challenge was to find a buyer willing to take on the entire property.

But even as the Dec. 18 auction date loomed, Mr. Puglisi and Mr. Woltz quietly pursued conservation groups and public officials. In November, Mr. Woltz announced a tentative deal that would allow a regional nonprofit group with holdings in Virginia and other states to own the property.

The group has asked not to be named until it receives final government approval for the purchase, expected to close in early January.

Conservationists welcomed the arrangement as a way to stave off development and to preserve an important corridor for wildlife, including bears, coyotes and foxes, between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains.

Business owners and tourism officials also see opportunities to attract a wider audience if the bridge is rebranded as a state or federal park.

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