Despite Skeptics, Dam Set to Rise

A Huntley Meadows Park dam will be the centerpiece of a wetlands project to protect the painted turtle and other animals.
A Huntley Meadows Park dam will be the centerpiece of a wetlands project to protect the painted turtle and other animals. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Beavers are busy, but it turns out they are unreliable.

So the Fairfax County Park Authority is getting ready to spend nearly $2 million on work beavers should be doing at Huntley Meadows Park: building a low, earthen dam that will preserve the county's largest freshwater marsh.

The dam, to block Barnyard Run in the southern end of the park, will be the centerpiece of an extensive wetlands restoration project. Authority officials said the dam will allow park officials to maintain a standing pool of water -- something created by beaver lodges in the past, before they took a break for some unknown reason -- thereby preserving the wetlands and its unusual diversity of life. Without intervention, the marsh would drain and fill with silt, causing an especially valuable habitat in the area to vanish, said Kevin Munroe, the park's manager.

"We do not want to create a pond or a lake," Munroe said. "We want this to stay as a wetland ecosystem."

Groundbreaking could begin as early as November.

Regular visitors to the park have given cautious support for the project. Some also express skepticism and worry about the scope of a project that involves using huge earth-moving equipment to remove silt, create several five-foot-deep pools above the dam and replace invasive plants with native species.

"That's great, but this isn't a garden out here," Marianne Mooney, a Friends of Huntley Meadows Park board member, told Munroe during a recent tour of the site. "What you're doing is gardening."

Mooney said some people worry that if the water is stopped, wetlands downstream might be harmed.

"I'm not opposed to restoring the wetlands. But there are different theories of restoration," Mooney said. "It almost sounds more destructive than not doing anything. There is a lot of ambivalence about this project."

Park officials and their consultant, Burgess & Niple, recently unveiled a 28-page, tentative site plan for inspection online and at the park's visitors center. A public presentation on the project is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at Groveton Elementary, 6900 Harrison Lane, Alexandria.

Munroe has had several informational meetings, including an evening stroll along the park's boardwalk in July. During that walk, about 40 people joined Burgess & Niple employees and Munroe. Many raised questions about the necessity of the project, especially because the marsh had a good amount of water that evening. Even the beavers had gotten busy again, building small "check" dams just a few feet from the boardwalk.

"Look around; you'll see the thing is doing pretty well," said Rod Simmons, 43, a botanist from Falls Church who visits the park regularly. "Once you put the ponds in, you're going to lose diversity. It's more diverse now, in my opinion, than if it's ponded."

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