Tag Archives: Resource Management Division

Doing Something About Invasive Plants

Tired of looking at ugly, amorphous greenery masquerading as a park near my home, I decided that something had to be done about it. Years ago children used to play in Vienna’s Borge Street Park, but now the only people willing to fight their way through the jungle of brambles were hooligans – some of them potentially inebriated, judging by the caches of empty beer bottles there.

I contacted the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area (IMA) Program and asked if I could volunteer to clean up the park. I had some credentials, as I had majored in environmental conservation and management, and had recently completed Fairfax Master Naturalist training. But the reality was, aside from occasionally volunteering at Meadowlark Gardens, I knew little about native plants or gardening. And, although I didn’t admit this to anyone at the time, no one had ever trusted me with a sharp pair of clippers before. My boyfriend says he’s too fond of my fingers to let me anywhere near them.

Luckily, you don’t need an impressive resume to be a site leader. Erin Stockschlaeder, the volunteer coordinator for the IMA program, gives you a short training session, comes out to the site, identifies the invasive plants, lends you some tools, and finds volunteers to help you. All you need is the willingness to work, the time to lead four workdays during the course of a year, and – if your area has thorns – a slightly masochistic temperament.

The brambles at Borge Street Park – a mix of Himalayan blackberry, Japanese honeysuckle vines, oriental bittersweet and binding weed – were reminiscent of the thicket protecting Sleeping Beauty’s castle. After several weeks of chopping and clipping, I looked like I had been wrestling with a barbed-wire fence – and this despite wearing long pants, sleeves and leather gloves. The reward, though, was undeniable. Underneath that mass of invasive plants I discovered trees – Black walnut, sassafras, redbud – all a bit straggly and limp, but still very much alive. Even better, I unearthed a field of milkweed. I had never seen so many milkweed in one place. And what an aroma! I never knew milkweed flowers could be so fragrant.

The butterflies thought the same. For me, nothing could be more satisfying than to see a mother and her young daughter chasing swallowtails through the newly opened field, knowing that a few months ago the park had been filled with only the more adaptable denizens – the ubiquitous deer, squirrels, mice, sparrows, and blue jays. Other flowers, long held captive by the invasive plants, began to free themselves from the undergrowth. I stared down a deer eating the yellow flower of the evening primrose, and the Velcro-like seeds of the tick-trefoil glued themselves to my clothes.

Of course, I didn’t do this on my own. An unexpected benefit of this endeavor, other than the increased muscle tone in my arms, is that I met so many interesting people and made so many new friends.  First came students seeking service hours or experience to add to their resumes. Some showed up once or twice; others came long after they no longer needed the hours. James, a good-looking, affable young man, came equipped with a machete. He told me he lived on raw meat, raw eggs, and unpasteurized milk. Bianca was the daughter of diplomats, and she told me of her life in Honduras and of the trees that grew there.

Other volunteers included a gay-rights activist, theatre kids, and occasionally a youngster who was actually interested in the environmental field. I reconnected with an acquaintance from my son’s elementary school days.  She’s a Cornell graduate who wrote a book on learning how to use tarot cards. And then there’s Al, an elderly gent, long retired, who used to work as a nuclear physicist. He’s become an avid supporter, helper, and cheerleader of my efforts. We’ve bonded, and I have spent several pleasant afternoons at his house, sipping tea and doing jigsaw puzzles.

The park has become my passion. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “Which one? The one I get paid for? Or the one I prefer?” I’m at the park every week, even in the snow.  A neighbor says that whenever he strolls past the park on the way to the playground and I’m not there, his toddler demands to know where I am. My park project gives me the chance to be outside and teach about the environment, another of my passions. I explain to the students, volunteers, and curious passersby about the dangers of invasive plants and the need for biodiversity. I suggest that they read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that explains the correlation between native plants, native insects and other wildlife.  I also mention The Ecology of Lyme by Richard Ostfeld, in which he relates his findings on biodiversity and Lyme disease.  His work suggests that the more biodiversity an area has, the fewer cases of Lyme disease will occur. But mostly I hope that the park will look so pretty and so full of wildlife that other people will be inspired to adopt their own local park.  Our parks need lots of help. Everybody’s help.

Learn more about invasive plants and the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area program here. Receive a free t-shirt by volunteering to help IMA Take Back the Forest during April and May, 2014.

Author Jennifer Pradas is the Invasive Management Area Site Leader at Borge Street Park in Vienna, Va.

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority

Certified Interpretive Guides Connect Residents to Resources

“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
Baba Dioum, African environmentalist

Although Fairfax County boasts a vast wealth of cultural and natural resources, it’s the naturalists, historians, and senior interpreters from the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division who connect people to history and nature through programs and tours.  Interpreters plan, present, and evaluate educational programs throughout the year, providing a vital link between the county’s resources and the community.

Certified Interpretive Trainer Mona Enquist-Johnston leads a CIG class at Green Spring Gardens.

What exactly is interpretation? The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) defines interpretation as “A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.” Starting in 2004, Resource Management Division staff began earning credentials through the NAI’s Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) program. Recently, 11 new CIGs completed the NAI training course at Green Spring Gardens, bringing the total of certified professionals in the Resource Management Division to 85. Among the interpretive corps are CIGs, Certified Interpretive Trainers, Certified Interpretive Managers, and Certified Heritage Interpreters.  This talented group of employees and volunteers is dedicated to making every visit to a resource-based park memorable.

Mona Enquist-Johnston, a former Park Authority employee and current Certified Interpretive Trainer said, “Certified interpreters enrich the recreational experiences of park visitors and plant the seeds of stewardship. Interpretation generates connection and action, moving individuals from awareness to caring,”

The CIG program combines the theoretical foundations of the profession with practical skills in delivering quality interpretive programming to visitors. Certification is open to students, docents, volunteers, and anyone who is at least 16 years old and has a desire to increase their knowledge and skills related to interpretation. The 32-hour course covers the history, definition, and principles of interpretation. Participants learn to make programs purposeful, enjoyable, relevant, organized, and thematic. The course also focuses on presentation and communication skills.

“Interpreters are front-line staffers, who are in constant contact with the public. We want these individuals to be comfortable, confident and competent in their interactions with the public,” said Enquist-Johnston.

Certified Interpretive Trainer Tammy Schwab added, “Interpreters make park users into park supporters by helping them understand the value of what Fairfax County has preserved for them.”

The Park Authority employs three credentialed Certified Interpretive Trainers (CIT) who are sanctioned to teach CIG courses. The agency saves almost two-thirds in instructor fees by having its own CITs teach each course. Having certified professionals on staff also increases the agency’s credibility to accrediting organizations such as CAPRA (The Commission for Accreditation of Parks and Recreation Agencies) and the American Association of Museums.

NAI is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization professional organization dedicated to advancing the profession of heritage interpretation. 

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

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