Restoring the Jewels of Nature

The untrained eye might easily miss them, they blend so easily into the cityscape. But all across Colmar Manor, Cottage City and Bladensburg are little ecological gems--a rain garden here, a small reconstructed wetland there--that are attracting the attention of people far beyond the Port Towns of the Anacostia River.

Last week, the National Awards Council for Environmental Sustainability and Renew America, a national nonprofit environmental organization, recognized the Prince George's County Department of Environmental Resources' programs and planning division for its part in the Port Towns Revitalization Program, a six-year-old tri-community effort aimed at urban renewal.

The Port Towns initiative has been cited before, with accolades for its emphasis on smart growth, community involvement and private-public sector partnerships. But the two latest awards highlight a lesser-known aspect of the project: investment in the environment that is helping pave the path to economic renewal.

"People care about the quality of life as it relates to the natural landscape," said S. Ali Abbasi, head of the capital projects section of the department. "All this comes from a mission statement the community put together. They said they wanted a new waterfront and a cleanup of the Anacostia River. They said, 'We don't just want more businesses, we want a better natural environment.' "

And so it came to be that Abbasi's group helped draw up plans for projects including wetland restoration at the historic Bladensburg waterfront and small "rain gardens" that help retain and purify water before it enters the storm-water drainage system.

At the waterfront, the county has joined with the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create a 10-acre tidal wetland park, hoping to bring life back to what is now a barren stretch along a silted river.

There are also nascent plans for a $300,000 EcoGarden, a community facility that will provide a year-round nursery for growing plants and trees native to the Anacostia region and a job training and educational center, Abbasi said.

But most basically, by taking over what is an old, vacant pumping station, it will beautify a rusty corner of Bladensburg.

There also are myriad streetscape and water quality improvement projects, pollution prevention and waste minimization efforts that will be applied to the industrial sections of the Port Towns, creating what will be called an "EcoIndustrial Park."

"Everything that's been done has had an environmental component," Abbasi said, noting that solar-powered streetlights are on the way.

-- Susan Saulny


At Turtle Races, Creeping Excitement

It was a fine day for a derby. The jockeys were poised and loose, the crowd ready to cheer for their picks and the turtles--yes, turtles--ready to trot.

For young "jockey" Rebecca Bonomo, 4, and her turtle, Winnie, it was their first time out.

"We named her Winnie," said Rebecca, whose mom recently rescued the turtle from an unwise attempt across a busy thoroughfare near their home in Fort Washington, "because she's going to win."

About 18 palm-size turtles raced for the gold, silver and bronze medals in several heats at the 12th annual Turtle Derby at the Clearwater Nature Center in Clinton on Saturday. It was a BYOT--or bring your own turtle--affair, with about 70 people cheering on the shelled reptiles.

The turtles were placed at the center of a painted red ring in the parking lot, and a park official put a rubber ring around them.

The rubber ring then was lifted, and the turtles took off.

The winner was the first to dash--well, crawl--to the circle's edge.

"Position is everything," 13-year-old Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, of Greenbelt, an eight-time veteran of the turtle trot, said as he watched Winnie and her competitors Speedie and Bolt sit still as stones, facing inward and glaring at each other.

"Hello, are you going to race today?" park naturalist Lisa Bierer-Garrett asked the troubled trio. Soon, though, Winnie did indeed win the day by plowing over the timid turtles and moving at a quick creep to the finish line 10 feet away.

An uncanny number of turtles froze at the finish line, stretching out their elastic necks to glimpse the chanting crowd, giving new meaning to a neck-and-neck race.

"I think it's too much pressure," Jesse said as his turtle, Ben, blinked his red eyes at him from a dead stop.

"Oh my, it's going to be a photo finish," said Maryalice Bonomo, of Fort Washington, as her 6-year-old daughter Meghan's turtle also slowed at the line.

Although the main purpose of the derby is a good time, the event also is an attempt by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which runs the park, to educate the public about the care of turtles and their declining population.

Caring for turtles is much more complicated than people think, Bierer-Garrett said. They require a sophisticated diet of vegetation and meat and need access to warm and shallow water at all times. Turtles bought at pet stores often are suffering from bacterial infections such as salmonella, which is particularly dangerous for young children.

In fact, turtles should generally not be kept as pets at all, Bierer-Garrett said, encouraging the derby participants to free their turtles after the race. Helping them out of precarious situations, such as crossing a road, is a good idea, but the turtles should then be released so they can breed in the wild, she said.

The most common turtle in Maryland is the box turtle. They grow to be about four to six inches long, can live 120 years and are found in temperate forests or in open fields near marshes.

The box turtle population is declining locally primarily because of the pet store demand overseas, where Old World turtle supply is growing scarce because of protections and over-harvesting.

Upcoming events at the Clearwater center include a butterfly-species count and a bat and owl hunt. For more information, call 301-297-4575.

-- Mary Louise Schumacher

If you have an item for Prince George's Towns, please let us know. Susan Saulny coordinates the municipal coverage. To reach her, call 301-952-2036; e-mail to saulnys@washpost.com; fax to 301-952-1397; or write to Prince George's Towns, Prince George's Extra, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772.

CAPTION: S. Ali Abbasi has helped lead an effort to preserve tidal wetlands at the historic Bladensburg waterfront.

CAPTION: And they're off! Contestants in the 12th annual Turtle Derby, top, at the Clearwater Nature Center in Clinton begin crawling. At the finish line, Dorothy Watkins, 7, left, Christina Watkins, 8, and Edward Watkins, 10, cheer as their turtle crosses the finish line. The race, hosted by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, is also a way for park officials to educate the public about the care of turtles.