This month, another hundred-acre swath of old forest was reduced to mud in the blink of an eye for yet another development of huge houses on five acres of lawn grass in Fairfax County. We have a shortage of affordable housing here, and these developments are not addressing it. The forests were 50 to 100 years old, well established and biodiverse. The forests had successfully recovered from the industrial age and the farming age. They showed up as woodlands in aerial photos taken in 1937, but they are no match for the age of unsustainable suburban sprawl. Once these places are developed into neighborhoods, the natural spaces they used to be are gone forever. Asking builders to plant a tiny sapling to replace the 100-year-old oak tree is not good enough. Adding ornamental plants that are toxic to our wild birds is also not good enough.
Why do we feel justified in pointing our fingers at other countries tearing down their forests but turn a blind eye to what happens here?
We need to do everything we can to protect forested areas — especially those that are well established. Forested areas not only help cool the planet and trap carbon, but, thanks to their developed canopies, they are resistant to infestation by invasive species such as the Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive and Bradford pear, all of which outcompete our native plants and do not support our wild birds and bugs. (I encourage everyone to read “Nature’s Best Hope” by Doug Tallamy.)
During construction, wild inhabitants are inadvertently destroyed along with the habitat they have lived in for decades. The current “cut, bulldoze and shred the plot” method — and especially the rate at which it happens — does not allow the animals that live in those woods to escape, specifically turtles. Everyone has heard about canaries in the mine warning of dangers. I urge people to see turtles as harbingers of environmental irreversibility. Already listed as such in Maine, the eastern box turtle is rapidly on its way to being endangered. In Virginia, it was listed in 2015 as a “species of greatest conservation need.” How many new neighborhoods have popped up in the past six years?
The cost to our environment is too great to continue this way of clearing land for houses, strip malls and data centers. Each of us has a role to play. Potential home buyers need to demand better stewardship from builders and land developers or make it clear that they’ll take their cash to another community. Local officials need to reexamine existing zoning and environmental laws and regulations and — as a matter of urgency — make the necessary changes to stop out-of-control destruction of our natural environment. Voters need to hold elected officials accountable and vote out of office anyone who fails to take the necessary, common-sense steps that our communities need. Finally, builders and land developers must do better:
1. Be selective with the trees taken out. Cut only the trees necessary and leave as much land as possible undisturbed, especially older trees. Our government should reward any efforts to do so.
2. Care about the displaced animals and help them find their way out. (Why is it that wildlife rescue organizations don’t get calls from construction sites?)
This juggernaut of constant development is huge and hard to slow down, but time is running out.
We should encourage good stewardship of our land. We should look at our environmental zoning regulations to ensure that they adequately consider irreparable harm to wildlife, which does not seem to be the case at present, before granting permission to developers. This should include ensuring that developers adequately consult the community, including groups who advocate for locally threatened wildlife, as part of their due diligence and planning.