Tag Archives: Laurel Hill Park

Trail Planner Liz Cronauer Discusses Park Authority Trail Development

Trail Program Manager Liz Cronauer speaks at the 2010 opening of the Clarks Branch Crossing bridge in Riverbend Park.

Liz Cronauer, trail program manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority, recently updated members of Fairfax Trails and Streams (FTAS) on the agency’s Trail Development Strategy. Cronauer visits the group at least once a year to discuss completed trail projects and future connections. FTAS’s primary focus is on trails in Great Falls and McLean, but they’re also interested in seeing the completion of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (PHNST) in southern Fairfax County, which, according to Cronauer, could be completed within the next decade. “This is a good crowd of people to talk to. They’re all pro trails, and members have lots of ideas,” she said.

Trails are consistently ranked as the most popular park amenity by Fairfax County residents. According to Cronauer, the reason trails are liked so much is because trails appeal to such a wide range of people. “You can use them for walking, cycling, and bird watching. All ages use trails, and they’re free,” she said. “There is a big demand for passive recreation,” she continued. (Although most recreational pursuits on trails are considered active, trails are officially classified as passive recreation. Organized facilities such as ball fields and swimming pools are classified as active recreation areas.)

Flooding from remnants of Tropical Storm Lee ravaged trails throughout the county last September.

In September 2011, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee ravaged Fairfax County, and some areas within the Park Authority’s stream valley trail network were washed away. “Significant damage remains,” said Cronauer. She said the damage was so extensive in some places that the short term goal of the Park Operations Division was to simply make the trails functional again rather than restore them to their original condition.  In certain places the damage was severe.  It will take a little longer to restore functionality in those areas.  “Long Branch Stream Valley was hit hard, specifically the bridge.  A bridge needs to be replaced and plans are now in place to move that project forward in the next 12 to 18 months. Part of the trail along Difficult Run has also been severely damaged. Parks Ops has done a tremendous amount of work and replaced tons of stone,” Cronauer said. Repairs to trails throughout the county continue.

The Cross County Trail connects the Potomac River in the north to the Occoquan River in the south.

Although the Park Authority is always trying to add new trails, Cronauer said it’s important to “improve areas that we already have.” She’s always looking for ways to forge new connections to the Cross County Trail (CCT), the 41.5-mile trail which links Great Falls Park in the north to Occoquan Regional Park in the south. In 2010, the Park Authority completed the Barbara Lane connector trail, which made it easier for people in the eastern Mantua neighborhood to access the CCT.  Cronauer said future trail connections include “fixing the footpath within Mount Vernon District Park along Fort Hunt Road.” Once this trail has been improved, people will be able to safely walk and bicycle to Mount Vernon RECenter. There are also plans to improve the South Run Stream Valley trail by paving the section that traces the north side of Lake Mercer and connecting it to South Run RECenter. “Any time you can create ways for people to bicycle to a RECenter is just great,” Cronauer said.

The Lake Fairfax trail network continues to grow.

The 2012 Park Bond, still to be authorized and then potentially approved by voters, allocates additional funds for trail improvements. The Park Authority Board will decide where to spend the money if Fairfax County citizens pass the bond.  Cronauer hopes to see funding for some particular trail projects noting, “Pohick Stream Valley is one of the last major stream valley trail areas that hasn’t been completed. That would be a high priority for me because we could make a really good connection to the Cross County Trail. Additionally, we would like to finish the trail network at Lake Fairfax Park.”

The Park Authority is regularly approached by volunteers with an interest in trail building and maintenance. Cronauer said “The best way for them to be involved is through a trails group. The Park Authority coordinates with trails groups such as M.O.R.E. (Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts) and FTAS, and they manage volunteers and coordinate with area managers to identify projects. Together they get a lot of work done.”

Cronauer was hired as the trails program manager in October 2005, when the Park Authority created the position. She leads a small team of two project managers.  

As a resident of Prince William County, Cronauer spends a lot of time in majestic Prince William Forest near Quantico, but she has her favorite trails in Fairfax County, too. “I really love the section of the CCT in the Pohick Stream Valley and all the Riverbend Park trails. I also like the single track trails we built in Laurel Hill,” she said.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer

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