Alexandria students work to save Winkler Botanical Preserve

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

An unlikely force in Alexandria has come out against a proposed transportation development for the new federal buildings at the Mark Center: public school students. And they're preparing their own environmental assessment to support their stance.

The youngsters are fighting a proposed ramp off Interstate 395's HOV lanes that would carry about 6,400 federal workers to three buildings under construction as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process known as BRAC, That ramp would destroy about a third of the 45-acre Winkler Botanical Preserve, a private educational facility built for the city's public school children.

"The students are really saving this place," said Jodie Smolik, executive director of the preserve, which is visited by 120 elementary school students each day. The preserve also hosts middle school and summer programs.

Of the 1,200 comment cards filled out about the project, about 25 percent have been from youngsters, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Students have played major roles at rallies against the ramp and created a Facebook page to help save the preserve. Seventh-graders at George Washington Middle School are preparing to present an environmental assessment to the Alexandria City Council on April 17.

"This is 75 to 80 minds working together toward one goal," said Mary Breslin, the George Washington students' science teacher.

The federal workers driving into the Mark Center will "pollute the lake, shut down the camp and scare away all the nature," twice a day beginning in September 2011 when the buildings open, said Brendan Alarcon, one of Breslin's students.

Students in Breslin's classes were divided into committees focused on water quality, air and noise, rare and endangered species and other areas. Each committee researched its issue, contacted city and state officials for information and is writing papers that will be compiled into one environmental assessment.

Hope Lawson, with the public relations committee, said the water quality committee is running tests to explain how the water will be affected by the paved surfaces and runoff.

Riley Arnold's rare and endangered species committee identified all of the native and nonnative plants and animals found at Winkler, including trumpet creepers and white trilliums, of which only about 300 of each were found.

"In this environment," said Kathleen Leonard, habitat and conservation committee director, a little bit of land "taken away from Winkler would devastate the population" of the plants and animals the endangered species committee members listed.

In addition to science and art classes that the students have enjoyed at Winkler, they said, rope courses and camps teach confidence, responsibility and teamwork.

"It is irreplaceable," student Maya Alcala said of Winkler.

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