Saving Huntley Meadows Park

1937 19542004
1937 19542004 (Courtesy Of Fairfax County Parks Authority - Courtesy Of Fairfax County Parks Authority)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009

The aerial photographs tell the story.

In the snapshot from 1937, it's hard to see where the boundaries of Huntley Meadows Park in southern Fairfax County lie, abutted as they were by farms and forest. In 1954, the wiggly grids of suburban boulevards have begun to appear. By 2004, one large, untouched tract of forest, ponds and marsh grasses remains: Huntley Meadows Park.

Except it is not untouched, say its stewards. Nearby development and its runoff have altered one of the last nontidal wetlands in Northern Virginia. Deposits of silt have transformed what had been a picture-postcard enclave of marshes into a muddy, often waterless expanse of debris. King rail, hooded merganser and pied-billed grebes no longer breed in what used to be a bird-watcher's dream. Murky, sediment-choked ponds have deprived once-abundant crayfish of their food supply.

The county is planning to restore the wetland by building an earthen dam, adding spillways and then controlling the flow of water into the area to reflect the natural ebb and flow of rainfall and drought.

"This is the crown jewel of the county as a natural habitat," said Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who grew up nearby.

But the project has skeptics, even among those who cherish Huntley Meadows. It is costly, with a price tag of nearly $3 million. And some said they think that nature is the best medicine for a damaged wetland, even if it takes 20, 30 or 40 years for the beauty to reappear.

"There are those in our organization who feel that this restoration may not be necessary," said Harry Glasgow, a member of the county Park Authority Board and also of the group Friends of Huntley Meadows Park. Glasgow leads bird-watchers through the park on Mondays. "It becomes a sort of conservation ethic. The conventional approach is that nature should be allowed to do what it is doing. Wetlands change constantly. Therefore, the evaporation of a wetland is not an unusual event."

Nonetheless, Fairfax plans to proceed with the project, and Glasgow said he supports it.

"It's the only significant freshwater wetland in Northern Virginia," said Glasgow, who lives in nearby Lorton. "We feel obligated to keep it. If that means intervening and adjusting it, so be it."

Charles Smith, a natural resource specialist with the county Park Authority, said planning for the project began nearly 20 years ago, when park lovers noticed changes that they associated with new development to the north, in the headwaters of Barnyard Run, which feeds the park's main wetland. Smith said there is little doubt that development runoff -- especially from neighborhoods begun in the 1980s, before the county imposed strict storm-water management standards -- hastened the disappearance of various plant and animal species.

"By the early 1990s, people were already concerned," Smith said. "But in the late '90s, it had really begun to change. And by this decade, 2000, 2002, there were only two plants left: rice cut-grass and cattails."

Smith agreed that the wetland could come back on its own, over the course of decades. He said that droughts in 2005 and 2007 have caused long-absent species of plants to germinate in the park, proving that dry spells are a healthy part of a wetland's evolution.


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