Developer Ray Smith squinted to cut the glare of the morning sun and surveyed the woodland before him, more than 38 acres of upland forest that will soon be scraped clean to make room for the 530,000-square-foot village center he is constructing in the Ashburn subdivision of Belmont Greene.
Across the back of his SUV on Saturday lay a collection of shovels -- sharp, sturdy tools that, in the hands of another, might symbolize a readiness to clear the wilderness in favor of sidewalk.
But these shovels had a different purpose. They were to be used in a "plant rescue" that Smith had organized with the Belmont Greene homeowners association, a free-for-all opportunity for residents to dig up and tote home anything -- trees, shrubs, grasses, soil -- in the soon-to-be-razed woods.
Smith, president of Reston-based Dogwood Development Group, represents a different breed of developer, one that has become increasingly active in creating sustainable wildlife habitats. He is certified both as a habitat steward with the National Wildlife Federation and a master naturalist with the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, and he has a seeming encyclopedic knowledge of plants and birds. (He can easily identify birds by their chirp and trees by their bark and leaves.)
His interest in wildlife was sparked five years ago at an industry conference, when a Florida developer explained to him the concept of incorporating natural areas into development strategy.
"What developers are finding is that it's actually less expensive to maintain native plants, so they're increasing the natural areas and decreasing the heavily grassed areas -- and they're finding that the public likes that," Smith said. "Development is going to happen -- it's driven by demand. But we can do it in a much less invasive way."
Plant rescues are one way to save native plants from the steel blade of development and keep them in the local landscape. Local nurseries do not stock many varieties of native plants, and those they do carry may have been grown in locations several hours away.
"When you get plants from a plant rescue, you're guaranteed to get the exact kind of plant that fits in perfect harmony with your local environment," said David Majewski, head of the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. "Native species are also adapted to the rainfall and soil types, so you're not going to have to get into fertilizer or pesticides to keep them alive."
The concept of planting landscapes au naturel is unusual. Typically, when homeowners make plant selections, beauty trumps utility. Take trees, for instance.
"The eastern red cedar and the Virginia pine have much more food value than Leyland cypress," Smith said. "But the Leyland cypress is pretty."
Still, the notion of using native plants to build backyard habitats is taking root in Northern Virginia. In 2000, Reston, which is home to the National Wildlife Federation, was the third community in the nation certified by the federation as a "Community Wildlife Habitat" in recognition of its backyard habitats, education programs and other community environmental initiatives. South Riding and Arlington County are also certified, and Ashburn's Broadlands subdivision is only about 20 habitats short of achieving certification. Broadlands holds plant rescues twice a year.
Early last month, more than 60 residents of Belmont Greene, encouraged to pick out plants for their own use, turned up for a "tagging day." The trees were tagged earlier in the season so they could be identified by their leaves, but they couldn't be removed until Saturday, when they were dormant.
For Tim Doherty, whose tree tags included an eastern red cedar and an American beech, the plant rescue was a bonanza. He and his wife have been planning to landscape their back yard, which has been little more than a barren stretch of grass for the 41/2 years since they moved to Belmont Greene.
What might have cost as much as $5,000 at a nursery, Doherty said, "will cost us a little sweat equity and mulch but will probably cost us less than $4o0. They're not as sculptured or ornamental as some you would find in a nursery, but I kind of like that look. They're more real. And it's kind of nice because you save a few trees from getting bulldozed."
Phil Vanek, who has lived in Belmont Greene since 2001, took away a wheelbarrow full of small trees, including Virginia pine, eastern red cedar and American holly, intending to plant them on the periphery of his property, which backs up to woods.
"We're trying to encourage the habitat back there," he said. "For our purposes -- trying to re-create what was once there -- this is great for us."
Smith dug up some bluestem, a native prairie grass, to plant as part of a wildflower meadow in his back yard in Oakton.
"Before I put in my habitat, I had a list of 28 species of birds that came to my yard; now it's 68," he said. "It can really make a big difference."
But Smith and other proponents of backyard habitats understand that, no matter how many plant rescues, the sum of the parts will never add up to the whole.
"You're preserving the species, but you're not preserving the habitat," said Kevin Munroe, a staff naturalist at the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. "The forest is still gone. All the animals in that forest are not going to be helped by people replanting those plants in their yards."
But, he said, "with all the habitat that's disappearing in Northern Virginia, it's very important that people try to create even small patches of it on their property. With all the land that gets developed, if there's nothing you can do to save the property, then it's sort of the only thing left that you can do."