The nearly 11,000 acres overseen by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority include three 18-hole golf courses, five water parks, dozens of miles of shoreline, several historic sites and too many biking and hiking trails to count.
After taking over the authority last week, Executive Director Paul A. Gilbert spent two full days visiting each of its 19 parks, which stretch across Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church. He met with park managers and staff, listening and learning about their programs, needs and vision for the future.
Gilbert sees the authority's mission as twofold: preserving the land and finding ways for people to enjoy it. That's also what he did in his previous job as president of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, a private nonprofit that tries to preserve land from development through easements and donations. The trust's 1,300 acres are in the same jurisdictions as the park authority's, plus Prince William and Stafford counties. Virtually all of that land -- including 800 acres buffering public parkland -- was conserved during Gilbert's leadership.
"At the trust, we conserved a lot of land, and we did it with very little capital," said Gilbert, who emphasized that one of his primary goals will be finding ways to expand the park authority's holdings. He said he will look for cost-effective ways other than buying the land outright to connect trails and increase the "parklike areas" around existing parks.
Gilbert, 41, is practically a lifelong resident of the area. His family moved to Fairfax when he was 1, and he has always considered it home. He's a certified kayaking instructor who regularly takes his 5-year-old daughter on kayak expeditions and is counting down the days until he can take along his 14-month-old daughter.
Gilbert's predecessor, Gary Fenton, resigned in December to become director of personnel services for the National Recreation and Park Association in Ashburn. The park authority's previous executive director, David C. Hobson, emerged from retirement to serve as interim director while a permanent replacement was found. Hobson, who spent more than 30 years with the park authority -- including five as its executive director -- said in an interview that it must respond to the changing needs and desires of the residents in the region.
"The park authority as a whole needs to take a fresh look at itself and to some degree to reinvent itself in order that it can provide better services to the public," said Hobson, who suggested surveying members of the public to get a better idea of the facilities and recreational activities they want. He said visitors who used to be satisfied to swim laps or dive into a rectangular pool now want such amenities as slides and waterfalls.
"The public's interest in recreational activities has changed. . . . It certainly affects the way young people spend their time," he said.
Attendance -- and park revenue from visitors -- has not kept pace in recent years with the increased costs of running the system. The park authority took in $10.2 million in fiscal 2005, $300,000 less than in fiscal 2002.
More than three-quarters of the authority's $14 million operating budget comes from user fees. This spring, the authority laid off three employees, and Gilbert did not rule out further reductions in a staff of 120 full-time workers and 400 lifeguards and other seasonal employees.
"We're looking at all of our options at how to make the park authority a really solid operation," Gilbert said.
Another challenge Gilbert probably will confront is the authority's sensitive relationship with Dominion Virginia Power, which owns an easement along the authority's 47-mile Washington and Old Dominion Trail for such electrical infrastructure as power lines and substations, including about 33 miles of transmission lines. In April, the authority and Dominion reached an agreement regarding trees alongside the trail. The authority, which had been limited to planting trees no taller than 15 feet, now will be able to plant some up to 100 feet high in some places, according to Gilbert.
"Every location has a size tree or shrub that would be appropriate," he said. "We can really make it a much more beautiful resource than it is today."
Despite the accord, some residents have trepidations about Dominion's plan to build a 14-mile transmission line in western Loudoun. Although Dominion backed away from a proposed route along the W&OD trail last year, the State Corporation Commission, a regulatory agency, could nevertheless instruct Dominion to build there anyway, and Gilbert said he sees the situation as unresolved.
"We're tracking the situation very closely and doing everything we can to protect our park," he said.
In the long term, Gilbert said, he hopes to provide visitors with new and different ways of experiencing nature. For example, the authority is creating a "water trail" along the Occoquan River between Fairfax and Prince William counties. By providing maps, signs and historical and environmental information for those in canoes, kayaks and small boats, the river can serve as much as a trail as the one on the ground, he said.
Gilbert said he also plans to increase the options for guided trips along land and water routes, as he did during his tenure at the conservation trust.
"A lot of people go to [the] Appalachian Trail to go hiking, and they don't realize there's this really beautiful scenic nature trail right here in Northern Virginia," said Gilbert, referring to the 17.5 mile Occoquan trail between Bull Run and Fountainhead parks in Fairfax.
"When people understand about their environment, then they value it," Gilbert said. "And when they value it, it makes it easier to preserve."