Monthly Archives: April 2016

Looking Forward to a Return to Springfest


A block of crushed cans. Ask me about Springfest, and I remember the cans first.

It was a contest. A vendor was asking people to guess how many flattened cans were crushed together in this big block of metal. I looked at the cube, counted the number of cans I could see in a one-foot area, did a little multiplication, and then added a few hundred because I usually guess low in these kinds of contests. Dropped my guess in a box and went on my way.

I received an email a few days later. I’d won. I have no idea how many cans were in the block, and I don’t remember how many I guessed, but the $50 gift certificate made for a nice evening out with my wife.

It’s one of those silly, lucky things we like to brag about, like winning an NCAA pool, but it also brings back some of that county fair feeling I reveled in when I was a kid growing up on the western edge of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Home was a cross between country and city, and Springfest captures that.

It’s also a hoot. I spent much of my first Springfest trying to hustle up votes for Colvin Run Mill in a social media contest that eventually earned the historic site a $75,000 grant. That was a blast, doing spontaneous, silly things to draw attention to the contest and Colvin Run. Last year I was shooting video and photos for the Park Authority, which gave me a chance to wander throughout the event and get a true feel for it. That’s a memory of smiles, loads and loads of kids’ smiles. They were on the wagon rides, at the petting zoo, on the backs of the ponies they rode, at the food vendors and, of course, at the Park Authority displays of crafts and animals.

Springfest Fairfax is Fairfax County’s official celebration of Earth Day and Arbor Day, a partnership of the Park Authority, Clean Fairfax and the Workhouse Arts Center. All year round, the Park Authority promotes care for the environment, volunteering, protecting native plants and wildlife, healthy lifestyles and quality of life. The festival is a celebration of those efforts. This year, that celebration is on Saturday, April 30, 2016, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton.


This year it’s built on the theme “Healthy People-Healthy Planet,” and SpringFest will host the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Healthy Strides Expo for the first time. The Expo makes fitness a family fun event with free fun runs for all ages, an obstacle course, fitness games and activities, a free-play zone, healthy lifestyle exhibits and more.

Springfest also will include the annual presentation of an Arbor Day Proclamation that ensures Fairfax County will continue to be a Tree City USA site. There will be a morning tree planting at Occoquan Regional Park for folks looking to participate in an Arbor Day Community Service event, and other Arbor Day volunteer opportunities will be available.

Springfest also brings a free day of family-friendly environmental and health-focused games, activities, exhibits and entertainment along with opportunities for residents of all ages to celebrate our natural environment and healthy lifestyles. In the previous years I’ve gone, I’ve yet to see everything in a single day.

The Park Authority, other county agencies and local organizations will have exhibit tents on the central lawn with activities that open the door to visitors to create, learn and explore all things environmental.

Make sure the kids pick up an Environmental Passport at the Clean Fairfax tent (while supplies last). They’ll earn stamps and stickers from the exhibitors as they explore different tents. Return to Clean Fairfax on the way out, share what you learned, and receive a prize.

Spring Fest_042515_0265There are always live exhibit animals, and there will be pony rides and a bounce house. Billy B., Team Green World, and Under the Sea will provide headline performances, and the Fairfax County Restoration Project’s Environmental Film Festival will run all day. You’ll find native tree saplings, flowers and vegetables available at the SpringFest plant sale, and popular local food trucks will sell healthy meals and tasty treats.

Last year more than 5,000 residents attended SpringFest at the Workhouse. I’ll be one of the thousands returning to it again this year.

For more information, for sponsorship and volunteer opportunities, and to sign up to be a vendor or exhibitor, visit The one-day event is presented by Clean Fairfax in partnership with the Fairfax County Park Authority and the Workhouse Arts Center, located at 9518 Workhouse Way in Lorton, VA.

Admission and parking are FREE.

Clean Fairfax is a 501 c 3 non-profit. The mission of Clean Fairfax is to encourage environmental stewardship and urban sustainability in Fairfax County, Virginia through education, programming, and community involvement. 

Please visit the site to sign up for volunteer opportunities.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

ECLP is Buzzing about an Outstanding Volunteer


John Shafer,ECLP Manager; David Gnilka; Kiersten Conley, ECLP Visitor Services Manager

David Gnilka keeps things buzzing at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) — literally. Despite some nasty stings he suffered as a boy while helping his beekeeper father, Gnilka was drawn back to beekeeping in retirement like the bees are drawn back each year to the flowers at the park.

Now a volunteer beekeeper at ECLP, Gnilka was honored in February with the park’s Donald F. Early Award for Volunteer Achievement for his outstanding efforts in caring for the park’s hive and resident bees. So, what’s his attraction to bees?

Gnilka says bees are a “highly socialized insect,” and it can be fascinating to watch them cooperate to accomplish their goals. “There’s a lot of teamwork involved,” he notes, adding, inside a hive, “younger bees are busy taking care of the hive, taking care of the queen, building a new comb, processing pollen and nectar, and taking care of the new brood as they come along.” There’s a lot of labor that goes on that most people don’t get to see. Beekeeping gives Gnilka an opportunity to get that inside peek. “It’s really kind of cool,” he says. “It’s like breaking into somebody’s house, and we do it.”

From a safe distance, visitors to the park may get to see some of the action going on outside the hive. For instance, Gnilka says it’s possible to see younger bees taking part in training flights to orient themselves to the hive. The newbies will fly out 15 to 20 feet at a time and then come back to practice landings until they learn to find their hive. The more experienced foragers take off immediately, going practically vertical in their flight path.

Gnilka got back into beekeeping after signing up for a class through the Northern Virginia Beekeepers Association. The group assigned a mentor to work with him, but after he discovered the hive at ECLP on a visit to the park, he dropped his original mentor and started working with ECLP beekeeper Karen Waltman. He found beekeeping is much more labor intensive today than it was during his father’s era.

“We have a lot more pestilence and disease,” Gnilka says. “We didn’t have the mites that are a big issue. We didn’t have the hive beetles and things like wax moths. The bees are under attack from a lot more things that actually get into the hive.” He notes the bees need constant monitoring, especially in the warmer months when there’s a lot more bug activity.

Much has been written in recent years about the survival problems of bees, and Gnilka says there’s an easy way for Fairfax County residents to help. “Generally, if you just plant more flowers. Plant more vegetables. The bees will travel looking for pollen or nectar. So, if you have space in your yard, plant some flowers or vegetables and they’ll pollinate them for you and you may actually get something out of it.”

Waltman and Gnilka offer bee programs for various ages at ECLP, and Gnilka says the groups that seem most enthusiastic are the young people who get the chance to be a bee and assemble their own hive from boxes. It’s about as “hands on” as the casual visitor can get with bees, he says, because “there’s kind of a limit to the ability to play touchy-feely with bees.”

Gnilka is careful to wear protective gear when he works with the hive, but he does get the occasional sting. Sometimes when he comes to check on the bees he’ll find people getting a little too close for their own good, but he uses those occasions as teaching opportunities to let people know about the ways bees come and go from the hive.

Both Waltman, and now Gnilka, have been recipients of the Donald F. Early Award, which was named in honor of a past beekeeper volunteer at ECLP. Gnilka jokes, “Maybe the bees vote. You get a lot of votes that way.”

Still, he calls this a “really nice award” and hopes the recognition inspires other volunteers. Reflecting on the honor, Gnilka says he’s visited a lot of parks over the years, and his time at ECLP has taught him a lesson. “What I’ve come to learn in this job is that working at the park is not the same as a day at the park. There’s a lot of work that goes into this to make it pleasurable for the people who come here.”

Of course, when it comes to ECLP’s beehive, Gnilka says a visitor’s experience will be more pleasurable if they don’t mess with the bees too much!


Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.


Do You Know Your Invasive Reptiles and Amphibians?

redsliderWe’ve got a little quiz for you about invasive reptiles and amphibians. You hear a lot about invasive critters when they first arrive, like the snakehead fish a few years back. But once they settle in and the damage they cause becomes routine, they may drift out of the headlines. That’s the case with some of these animals.

Give the quiz a whirl. Winners, feel free to treat yourself to something sweet and healthful!Bullfrog

  1. What are the four most common ways that non-native reptiles and amphibians are introduced to an area?

Ships: Ships can carry aquatic organisms in their ballast water.

Wood products: Animals can get into wood, shipping palettes and crates that are shipped around the world.

Ornamental plants: Some ornamental plants hide reptiles and amphibians that can escape into the wild and become invasive.

Pet trade: Some invasive species were pets released intentionally or accidentally.

  1. Name an invasive amphibian that is native to Fairfax County but is impacting the west coast. What are some of the possible ways it was introduced there?

American Bull Frog: Possible ways it moved west are accidental introduction during trout stockings; through the aquarium trade; for sport hunting; for pest control. Garden Centers around the United States sell bullfrog tadpoles.

  1. What are some of the negative effects invasives cause on our native reptiles and amphibians?

Invasive species harm wildlife in many ways. When a new and aggressive species is introduced into an ecosystem, it might not have any natural predators or controls.  It can breed and spread quickly, taking over an area.  Native wildlife may not have evolved defenses against the invader, and they may not be able to compete for food and shelter with a species that has no predators to control its population.

  1. Name the only nonnative reptile in Fairfax County that has made some of the 100 most invasive species lists.

Red Eared Slider. This turtle is now found in every body of water in Fairfax.

  1. How can local establishments who sell animals help prevent invasive problems? What are some of the ways you can help prevent nonnative reptiles and amphibians from being introduced to Fairfax County?

Local businesses can educate buyers about the life expectancy of animals (turtles live a long time), the size they’ll reach, and review with customers the state law that forbids the release of pets. Don’t purchase reptiles and amphibians as pets. Educate yourself about native wildlife. The CDC has information about turtles and disease.


Author Tony Bulmer is a naturalist and the senior interpreter at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. Anne Cissel, the Deputy Public Information Officer for the Fairfax County Park Authority, contributed to the blog.

Spring Clean-up at Lake Accotink Park

image001Spring Clean-up at Lake Accotink Park was just one of the activities at Fairfax County Park Authority parks during Watershed Cleanup Day on April 2. Undaunted by gray skies and drizzle, 178 enthusiastic volunteers turned out at Lake Accotink – and there were likely others who may not have been counted.

In just a few hours, the local residents and former local residents who converged at the marina dove into tasks along the lake shoreline, up the creeks and along stormwater channels that flow into the lake. They also worked the park’s border areas near industrial properties. The day’s work amassed an estimated 975 pounds of trash, much of which was collected in 65 trash bags.

Among the items removed:

  • 580 plastic beverage bottles
  • Lots and lots of foam pieces – small, but deadly to wildlife
  • 135 beverage cans
  • 140 food wrappers/containers
  • 130 glass beverage bottles
  • 120 bottle caps (plastic)
  • 30 bottle caps (metal)
  • Balls – many, many tennis balls
  • One rusted hibachi grill

Most of these items originated elsewhere in the Accotink Creek Watershed and were washed into the lake via storm drains and creeks as a result of improper disposal. Thanks to generous volunteers who pitched in and took action, the lake and the park are much cleaner — and thousands of pieces of trash are now where they belong.


Author Julie Tahan is the Park Supervisor at Lake Accotink Park

Park Authority Marks Ten Years of Invasive Management

IMA Nottoway-4You can pull a lot of weeds over ten years.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s national award-winning Invasive Management Area (IMA) program.

The hugely successful stewardship effort started in 2006 with 454 volunteers donating just over 1,600 hours to remove non-native invasive plants from 21 places on park land. Three of those original volunteers are still with the program. Jan Meyer is the volunteer site leader for IMA at Fred Crabtree Park, Bryant Bullock is the site leader at Brentwood Park, and Philip Latasa is the site leader at Lake Accotink and Americana Park.

Program growth has led to about 2,000 volunteers pitching in during each of the last four years. REI, Inc. has donated $55,000 in grants through the Fairfax County Park Foundation in the past four years to support the program and an annual spring event called Take Back the Forest.

“REI’s support through the Park Foundation for Fairfax County Park Authority’s IMA program spans well beyond their valuable financial investment,” said Park Foundation Executive Director Roberta Longworth. “REI staff and members get personally involved by volunteering to remove invasive plants that are detrimental to the environment.  We are grateful for REI’s partnership with Fairfax County parks,” she said.

TBTF-logoTake Back the Forest is a recruiting tool for IMA. It’s a one-month long effort that emphasizes volunteering in the spring when invasive species are readily attacked and volunteers don’t have to fight through summer forest growth to pull out invasive plants or to plant native species. Take Back the Forest annually coincides with national volunteer days such as Earth Day, National Volunteer Week, Potomac River Watershed Cleanup Day, and Arbor Day.

Take Back the Forest will run from April 15 to May 15 this year. The Park Authority will have many volunteer opportunities available during that time, and volunteers who lend a hand during the Take Back the Forest promotion receive a free T-shirt as thanks.

IMA has received multiple awards during its existence, and in 2013 the National Association of Government Communicators named Take Back the Forest the top communication-with-the-public initiative of any government agency in the nation. Through 2015, since the program’s debut, some 13,441 volunteers have donated 43,442 hours during 2,108 workdays to remove 8,706 large bags of invasive plants from 68 park sites.

IMA plans to highlight its tenth anniversary with a ceremony and workday on National Public Lands Day, Saturday, September 24, 2016, at Nottoway Park, 9537 Courthouse Road in Vienna, Va.

More information about the Invasive Management Area program, when and where work sessions are held, and how to become an IMA volunteer, is on the Park Authority’s website at Information also is available by contacting IMA Coordinator Leslie Gerhard at 703-324-8681 or

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority

On the National Register: Colvin Run Mill

The Fairfax County Park Authority is taking part in the National Park Service’s (NPS) Preservation 50 celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s protection of America’s historic places by posting a series of blogs about county historic places on park land. The National Register of Historic Places, a part of NPS, was established in 1966. This series is based on information that appears in each FCPA site’s nomination to the National Register. The nomination forms give us a chance to look back and learn why the sites were considered to be significant historic places.


Want to see how the third patent ever issued by the United States Patent Office was put to use? That patent was issued to Oliver Evans, a man with intelligence as sharp as a French buhrstone. And it was his invention that improved the design and manufacturing of millstones so they could be balanced and sharpened to grind any size of grain. His work gave a huge boost to American manufacturing, and he later became known as the “father of mechanized flour milling.”

Today, 218 years after his patent was issued, millstones are still grinding grain at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site in Great Falls, Va.

Colvin Run’s application for the National Register of Historic Places was submitted on August 16, 1977. The application noted all the basics – “a four-story brick and frame structure constructed between 1810 and 1820 and repaired and restored between 1969 and 1975,” although today we know that the construction took place between 1802 and 1811. The nomination noted that the mill was rectangular at 50 feet, three inches long – 41 feet, eight inche wide – and 47 feet, six inches high. At the time, more than 125,000 of the 200,000-plus bricks used in the building were original, and the replacements had been made by methods used to make the originals.

The Park Authority acquired the mill, a miller’s house, an old shed, and the remains of a millrace in 1965. Shortly thereafter, the decision was made, according to the nomination, “to restore the mill as a representative sample of the pioneering work of Oliver Evans, the inventor and technologist who helped bring the idea of the production line to America.”

Evans published a book in 1794, The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide which became a manufacturing milestone. It showed that a single, continuous, automated process could grind grain. Flowing water provided the power. A machine doing the work of people. At the four-story mill, the waterwheel is on the first floor, the millstones are on the second, the boulting chest where flour and meal are sifted is on the third, and the freshly ground meal cools on the fourth floor. Conveyor belts and hoists, powered by the waterwheel, move the flour from floor to floor.

When the Park Authority acquired the mill, much of the structure was deteriorated and had to be replaced. Nearly every major subsystem was specially constructed according to Evans’ instructions, including the types of wood – oak for high stress areas, redwood and cypress for areas that touch water, maple for pins and cogs.

During reconstruction, the mill foundation was reinforced because researchers learned that the original west wall had collapsed. The nomination notes that collapse occurred in the mid-1800s, but we’ve since been able to date it to the early 1900s. The building had been constructed on a soft clay, so it was unstable to start, and vibrations from the moving machinery were transmitted through a wooden frame that touched the wall. The rebuilding of that wall is where most of the 75,000 new bricks sit and, of course, the new cog pit framing doesn’t touch the wall.

Colvin Run’s nomination for the National Register also notes the park’s two-story house, which architectural historian Blaine Cliver described as “early nineteenth-century style” and said probably was built around the same time as the mill. The park’s offices are in the house today. An old dairy shed was adopted for use as a carpentry shop and an interpretive area. The 1890 Cockerill general store at the site today was moved to the park in 1973. It originally was across from the mill on Colvin Run Road.

Flour-milling was a critical part of Virginia’s economy in the late 1700s well into the 1800s. Look at all the Northern Virginia roads named after mills. Tobacco, the major Virginia product in colonial days, exhausted soils, so corn and wheat became farming staples, and the merchant mills arose. Millers began grinding grain not just for local use, but for shipping to other places. Flour was cheaper to transport than grain, and the mills appeared along turnpikes that reached west to the Shenandoah Valley and that had easy access to ports along the Potomac River. Colvin Run Mill saw its most prosperous years under the ownership of Addison Millard and his family from 1883 until 1934.

The restoration of the mill received much acclaim. In 1973, the Washington Metropolitan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects presented a first-place award to Colvin Run “for achievement of excellence in historic preservation and architectural design.” Two years later, the American Institute of Architects presented the Park Authority with an Honor Award for Craftsmanship “in recognition of the distinguished accomplishment in preservation craft technology in the program of restoration of the Colvin Run Mill.

The mill, established on the success of that third U-S patent and now safeguarded by the Park Authority, continues to grind grain and sell its flour today.


The Fairfax County Park Authority acquired Colvin Run Mill in 1965. It is located at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls. More information is on the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site website.

As part of Preservation 50, visitors to the Fairfax County Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax can see an exhibit case in the building’s lobby. The exhibit, a partnership of the Fairfax County Park Authority and the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ), showcases some of the 59 county properties and districts that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Park Authority and DPZ host two symposia this year on the impact of the National Historic Preservation Act on Fairfax County. The first, “Setting the Stage for Local Preservation,” will bring together historic preservation professionals who have played roles in the National Historic Preservation Act on a federal and/or state level. It will be held on April 16, 2016, at the James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Road in Falls Church, Va. The second symposium will explore grassroots results of how the Act has affected local historic preservation.  The date and place of that fall symposium are not yet confirmed. 


Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

2016 Envirothon Begins

Envirothon Team SittingHidden Pond Nature Center began defense of its state Envirothon title on Wednesday, March 30 by advancing to round two. The annual Envirothon is North America’s largest environmental education competition for high school students. Some 500,000 people from 4,000 public and private high schools across North America participate annually.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale hosted the squad from Hidden Pond and teams from Langley, Thomas Jefferson, George Marshall, Fairfax and Madison High Schools in the first-round competition. Thomas Jefferson placed first and Hidden Pond second. The top two teams advance to Area competition on April 20 at Bull Run Regional Park. Area winners advance to the state final on May 15-16 in Harrisonburg. State and provincial winners compete in the North American championship, which will be held in July at Peterborough, Ontario.

The Virginia Dominion Envirothon is sponsored by Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Students involved in the competition have already participated in several trainings presented by science, park and government professionals in fields relating to environmental sciences.

Hidden Pond has placed in the top two four times in the past five years at the Virginia state championship, winning the title in 2013 and 2015. HPNC placed 9th out of 52 teams in the North America finals last year.

This year’s Hidden Pond roster:

  • John Abalos-Green- Burke, Va., Freshman at Lake Braddock HS
  • Aaron Abalos-Green- Burke, Va., Freshman at Lake Braddock HS
  • Noah Goldfarb- Burke, Va., Freshman at Robinson HS
  • Annabella Massimino- Springfield, Va., Junior at West Springfield HS
  • Stuart Murdoch-  Springfield, Va., Junior at West Springfield HS
  • Jennifer Ochs- Springfield, Va., Freshman at Lake Braddock HS
  • Sofia O’Connor- Springfield, Va. , Sophomore at West Springfield HS