The parks, forests and clean drinking water of Fairfax County are under siege from something called encroachment.
In response, the Fairfax County Park Authority created the Park Encroachment Education Project. This project, seeking to instill a sense of stewardship in a new generation, calls on Fairfax County students to raise awareness about the damage caused by encroachment. The project goal is to encourage young people to monitor and prevent encroachment in their communities. Volunteer organizations such as the Lake Braddock Going Green Club already are involved with the effort.
“Encroachment happens when someone uses someone else’s land as if it was their own,” said Kim Schauer, a naturalist with the Park Encroachment Education Project. “In our case, encroachment is the unauthorized and illegal use of publicly owned parkland. There are very few, if any, parks that are not affected by some kind of encroachment.”
The Fairfax County Park Authority’s website notes that people encroach by building structures, mowing to extend yards past property lines, dumping yard waste and garbage, or blazing new trails outside of the trails system established by the Park Authority.
Encroachment destroys natural forest, and that “threatens the source of our drinking water supply,” Schauer said. “It causes erosion, reduces the land’s ability to slow down runoff and absorb non-point source pollution, fragments wildlife habitat and affects the floodplain, which can change flood patterns.”
Besides the harmful effects that encroachment imposes on the environment, Schauer said there are fairness issues because “encroachers are stealing land for their own use without owning or paying taxes on it, keeping other people from enjoying it, and taking away the ecosystem services provided by undisturbed land.”
Schauer says the Park Authority does not have the resources to tackle the problem alone. Park officials have been aware of parkland encroachments for years, but Schauer said stopping it involves a “significant amount of staff time…to investigate reports of encroachment, enforce encroachment law and mitigate encroachment-related damages.”
This is why the county has turned to students for assistance.
“Students have the power to make a huge difference just by spreading the word in their communities,” Schauer said. “Most homeowners don’t even know they are doing anything harmful when they mow into the park or dump yard waste in the woods. Once they know, they stop, and everyone benefits.”
“We hope to reach neighborhoods and local communities on a personal level, and we recognized that students with out-of-the-box ideas would exponentially spread the word to our neighborhood families,” she said.
Schauer’ s team created an online tool, the Find Your Borders Mapping App. This free app allows anyone to enter their Fairfax County address and see a satellite picture of their home. Overlaid on this image are approximate park boundaries and property lines for the entire county. Schauer also encourages kids to share this app with their friends, parents and neighbors and tell them about the impacts of park encroachment.
Eco-friendly organizations are another way to contribute. For example, the LB Going Green Club at Lake Braddock Secondary School is “looking to help by planting strips of green around the school’s paved areas such as the parking lot and blacktop,” sponsor Jane Gordon said. “This will decrease the future impact of erosion at our school.”
The county’s best hope of resolving environmental issues like encroachment is “to ignite the passion of students to support the cause and strengthen our ability to change public opinion,” Schauer said.
Try the Find Your Borders Mapping Application. Learn more about parkland encroachment by visiting the Fairfax County Park Authority’s website. For more information call the agency’s Park Operations Division at 703-324-8594.
Author Lauren Delwiche is a seventh-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School. A version of this article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of the Lake Braddock Middle School student newspaper, The Bruin Times.