Tag Archives: Elklick Preserve

Controlled Burning as a Management Tool for Fairfax County Parkland

One of the characteristics of human culture is our control and use of fire. But even though it is an essential tool, unplanned fires can take human lives and damage property; so fire suppression has been a common practice for over 100 years in the United States.

Although most people don’t realize it, almost every ecosystem in North America is fire adapted – it has species and processes that rely on periodic fire to maintain their health. This is true of forests as well as fields.

The Fairfax County Park Authority began using fire in 1997 to manage meadows. These grass-dominant systems flourish if burned as regularly as every one to three years.

Controlled (prescribed) burning is a common management practice throughout Virginia. As stated by the Virginia Department of Forestry in Virginia’s Smoke Management Guidelines, “The use of prescribed fire as a resource management tool has long been regarded as indispensable.” The Virginia Department of Forestry, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Department of Conservation and Recreation, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, etc. – in short, almost every entity that owns and manages natural areas in the state – all conduct prescribed burns annually in forest and field environments. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, over eight million acres each year are managed using prescribed burns in the southern United States alone. Burning is considered a standard, highly-effective maintenance practice.

Most eastern ecosystems evolved with fire as an integral part of their lifecycles. In meadows, fire removes accumulated plant debris, heats the seed-bank in the soil, and exposes soil to sunlight.  These actions allow native plant seeds to come in contact with the soil, make nutrients available to the plants, remove old material that inhibits new growth, and promote and allow new plants to sprout. Fire also helps to suppress many invasive, non-native plants (e.g., tall fescue) that did not evolve with fire as part of their lifecycles. The result is a healthier plant community that supports a greater diversity of plants, animals and other organisms. No other maintenance method can provide the habitat benefits that fire does in meadow systems.

Given the fact that meadows are the fastest disappearing habitat type inFairfax County, preservation of the few remaining large meadow complexes through proactive means should be a priority. Burning is considered the best way to manage meadows for the health of the system and to prevent future fires by eliminating fuel that cannot be properly removed by mowing.

The successful burns at Riverbend Park in 1997 and Ellanor Lawrence Park in 1999 demonstrated that fire can be used safely in Fairfax County without adverse effects on human property or activities. In both of those cases, well-planned fires were conducted in partnership with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and the Virginia Department of Forestry in small meadows in relatively close proximity to homes and public roads. The fires not only were accomplished without complication, but there were no complaints from neighbors and the public who responded positively to educational materials and programs which discussed the controlled burns.

The Park Authority formalized its prescribed burn program in 2006. The controlled fires support state rare species that rely on meadow habitats and a great diversity of wildlife including grasshopper sparrows, eastern meadow voles, black racer snakes, red foxes, owls and northern harriers. Each year fields ranging in size from a few acres up to 40 acres are burned at multiple parks. The most recent burns occurred in February and March 2012 at Laurel Hill Park in Lorton, Elklick Preserve west of Centreville, and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Centreville.

Written by Charles Smith, manager, Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch

Heather Schinkel Leaves Natural Resources Well-Managed

Heather Schinkel leaves the Fairfax County Park Authority feeling good about where natural resource management is headed.

“We have strong policies; a well-educated public, staff, and leadership; and we’re moving towards active management,” she said.

Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Heather Schinkel mingles with colleagues at her going away party.

Heather and her family are heading west for other opportunities in Fort Collins, Colorado. Schinkel, the agency’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Manager, left the Fairfax County Park Authority last month after eight years of service. She joined the Park Authority shortly after the organization broke new ground in January 2004 by establishing an agency-wide Natural Resource Management Plan (NRMP). She remembers that, at the time, most people did not know what invasive plants were and how “incredibly important and threatening they are.” The agency had its dual mission at the time, but it was not as well integrated as it is now.

Today, the stewardship ethos and application is better distributed throughout the agency and park planning, development and maintenance processes integrate natural resource concerns. In addition, the agency has strong partnerships with the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, Department of Forestry, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Earth Sangha, REI and other organizations to protect resources and educate county residents. “We’ve done a good job in getting the word out,” said Schinkel.

“And we are finally actively managing on the ground. That’s what the NRMP is all about, restoring and maintaining our natural areas,” she said. That management takes the form of projects such as those at Elklick Preserve, Old Colchester, and Laurel Hill, where there are site-specific natural resource management plans in place and funding to implement at least some management activities.

Then there’s the Invasive Management Area program.  

“IMA has been incredibly successfully,” Schinkel said. In its six years, the program has drawn more than 5,000 volunteers who’ve donated more than 20,000 hours on over 1,000 workdays. IMA will hopefully get another strong boost this spring from its Take Back the Forest campaign, an initiative to host 500 volunteers at 40 IMA sites. Agency personnel recently selected the winner of a t-shirt design contest that is tied to the program.  

Schinkel also sees success at Old Colchester, where a resource assessment and planning project was fully funded and timed well before the master plan to allow proper planning for the park. Funding for natural resources and stewardship awareness activities is difficult to come by in this time of austerity and Schinkel says the solution to properly managing resources ultimately has to be big. She estimates some $8 million and dozens of staff would be needed to fully manage natural resources on all of Fairfax County parkland. In context with current funding opportunities, the need is quite daunting. 

Though fully funding the NRMP is not foreseeable any time soon, the Park Authority continues to seek funding for at least a first phase of NRMP implementation. In addition, a key step is an upcoming demonstration forest management project at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park that is funded in part with 2008 bond funds.  This project will set the stage for the anticipated bond referendum in November. Passage of the yet to be approved park bond would fund a larger scale natural resource renovation project for the Sully Woodlands park assemblage. It would be one more significant step that would follow the many significant steps the Park Authority took while Schinkel was managing and protecting the agency’s natural resources.

Written by Dave Ochs, stewardship communications manager and ResOURces editor