Reflections on Beginnings at Huntley Meadows

Former Fairfax County Park Authority Board Chairman Carl Sell recently teamed with the Park Authority again for a journey back to the creation of Huntley Meadows Park. Sell contacted the agency to arrange the taking of a formal photograph of himself and his wife, Marti, with the proclamation that granted ownership of the land to the Park Authority. Sell was the sports information director at George Mason University and the chairman of the Park Authority Board when that transfer took place in 1975. His return to the park gave us the chance to look back at how this marvelous wetlands park came to be.

The wanderings of Potomac River oxbows and fortunate beaver dam construction in forested wetland during the 1970s and 80s led to the appearance of Huntley’s wetlands. In 1971, President Richard Nixon initiated the Legacy of Parks Program to transfer surplus federal land to state and local governments for natural, cultural and recreational uses. The Park Board sought to acquire a tract of that land in Hybla Valley. Two years later, the General Services Administration declared the tract surplus, and the county applied for the land. Joe Downs, then the director of FCPA, stated in an interview that plans for the area were tentative but included a nature center, treetop observation tower, and stables.

In June of 1974, Representative Stan Parris, running for re-election, shared the donation news as part of his campaign. A week before the White House planned to make the announcement, Parris told constituents about the approved donation of land, which was valued at $10 million. A Washington Post article said the FCPA director was caught off guard by a reporter’s phone call. The FCPA had not been informed. In his speech, Parris described active recreation development for the park, prompting a Washington Star editorial that strongly supported the philosophy of keeping the park natural.

Sell, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. of Virginia, and Joe Alexander of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors were part of the negotiations that led to the land transfer. Park staffer Dick Jones and naturalist Susan Allen also played support roles in the work behind the scenes. Senator Byrd, who Sell said had walked the property several times, was the moving force behind the Sense of the Senate resolution that approved the transfer. Following Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974, President Gerald Ford’s signature appeared on the Legacy of Parks commemorative document dated April 26, 1975. A copy is on display in the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center at Huntley Meadows Park. The official quitclaim deed and conveyance are dated November 26, 1975.

 In 1978, Gary Roisum was the first FCPA employee assigned to Huntley Meadows Park. His office was at the new Greendale Golf Course. He later moved into the Bureau of Public Roads buildings at the site. These four small buildings dating from the 1940s were renovated for an office, maintenance shed, storage building and a rental house. The buildings still stand and now house the park’s resource management operations.

John Zuiker, Rick Grinberg and Olin Allen were early employees who helped with the park’s initial development. Interpretive staff members were added later. Lee Stephenson and Ken Garrahan were the first teachers, although all staff members were naturalists and did some instruction.

Huntley Meadows today has a reputation as one of the premier wildlife viewing locations in Fairfax County. We enjoy those views and the park’s signature boardwalk because of the foresight of that group of people 46 years ago.