Tag Archives: Trees

Tree Commission Celebrates Fallen Champion

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On the night of June 29, 2012, a line of intense thunderstorms known as a derecho charged across Fairfax County with winds gusting up to 80 mph. The ferocious winds leveled hundreds of trees and left thousands of residents in the dark and without power. Among the trees found in the storm’s wake was a former national champion Virginia pine (pinus virginiana), an impressive specimen that had towered 106 feet above the Reston South Park and Ride lot. Upon learning of the tree’s demise, members of the Fairfax County Tree Commission set out to commemorate the fallen champion.

Robert Vickers, chairman of the tree commission and Dranesville District representative, first noticed the great pine in 2009 while waiting at a traffic light at the corner of Reston Parkway and Lawyers Road. “Once I measured the tree and checked the Virginia Big Tree website, I realized it was the new state champion,” he recalled. The massive tree had an 82-inch circumference and its crown spanned 39 feet. Vickers invited Virginia Tech professor and keeper of the Virginia Big Tree database Jeff Kirwan to confirm the measurements. To their surprise, not only was the giant pine a Virginia state champion but it was the tallest tree of its kind in the country. It was then included in the National Register of Big Trees, a publication produced by American Forests, the country’s oldest nonprofit conservation organization.  Fairfax County was home to the national champion Virginia pine for two years until a larger tree was found in West Virginia in 2011. However, the tree remained the state champion until the powerful derecho uprooted it in 2012.

The fallen giant lay where it fell for more than a year until Vickers shared his story with fellow tree commissioner Jerry Peters, who suggested cutting a few “cookies” or cross sections of the tree to be displayed at various county offices. Luckily, the tree had fallen on parkland and hadn’t caused any property damage, so it had remained untouched since the storm. Peters reached out to the Reston Association for permission to do the cutting and the organization was excited to participate. “The Reston Association was delighted to hear that we had a national champion pine on one of our natural area parcels,” said RA Environmental Resource Manager Claudia Thompson-Deahl. “To think that these champion trees have been around to survive development, disease and storms is quite a feat.”

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Meanwhile, recognizing the need for experts with a big saw, Vickers contacted another tree commissioner, Everett “Butch” Loughry, who is also the Fairfax County Park Authority’s forestry crew chief. “Our crew is glad to help surrounding jurisdictions whenever needed,” Loughry said. The four-man crew removed the trunk from the stump to prevent it from rolling and then used a heavy-duty chainsaw to cut five “cookies” on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. Commemorative plaques made from the large wooden discs will be given to the tree commission, the Park Authority, the Reston Association, the Fairfax County Government Center, and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. According to Vickers, each plaque will list the tree’s official measurements and the years in which the tree was recognized as a state and national champ.

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Tree Commissioner Peters counted at least 125 rings on one “cookie,” which means the tree had stood in the same place for parts of three centuries. To put this in perspective, it began growing when the U.S. flag still had only 38 stars and stood sentinel throughout two World Wars, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, and the explosion of technological advances in the first decade of the 21st century.

One hundred twenty-five rings were counted in this cross-section of the tree. Photo by Sean Bahrami.

One hundred twenty-five rings were counted in this cross-section of the tree. Photo by Sean Bahrami.

For years Fairfax County boasted three national champion trees. But with the loss of the Virginia pine and the discovery of another tree that dethroned a champion chestnut oak in McLean in 2010, the county is down to one, an ancient paw paw growing along the Potomac River in Great Falls. Let’s hope it can withstand nature’s fury and stand tall long into this century and beyond.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer, Fairfax County Park Authority

Deer and Forest; Balance and Management

Fairfax County Deer Management Sign

If you visit a park in fall or winter, you may notice orange archery signs popping up along trails and in parking lots. September signals the start of the white-tailed deer management season, and with that program come many questions from park users about the need for deer management and about the safety aspects of a deer management program.

First, a bit of background.

The Fairfax County deer management program originated in the late 1990s after a local librarian was killed in a deer-vehicle collision in Great Falls. The program is overseen by the Fairfax County wildlife biologist, who serves within the Fairfax County Police Department. Deer management takes place primarily on parkland with the coordination and consent of the Park Authority.

What started as a public safety response to deer overpopulation has expanded for several reasons. There is greater evidence and awareness today that deer browse is one of the top threats facing the county’s forested natural areas. Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimate that there could be more than 50,000 deer currently living in Fairfax County. This is more than 100 deer per square mile, and that is six to ten times higher than a healthy ecosystem can support.

Deer have become over-abundant because we feed and shelter them. Our suburban ecosystems, including our fertilized lawns and gardens, create sumptuous buffets for deer. Many does give birth to twins each year. Large predators, such as resident bears or packs of wolves, are gone from this area. Humans are the only remaining predators of deer, and hunting pressure has steeply declined over the past few decades.

In many of our parks, there is no native vegetation growing between six inches and six feet above the ground because of browsing deer. This summer, our natural resources team measured browse levels at 140 plots countywide and confirmed ongoing, severe browsing in most of the surveyed parks. Many local biologists and naturalists are concerned about the future of our forests, and citizens also have cause for concern. As mature trees die or fall during storms, what replaces them? Under current conditions, very few native seedlings will survive, and invasive species, which the deer aren’t able to eat, often take hold in their place.

Over the long term, forests will degrade and will fail to provide the air quality, water quality and stormwater management benefits we rely on. On a personal level, the property values of homes next to parks may decrease, and the quality of life will diminish as there are fewer places to escape into the cool and quiet of a summer woods. The loss of native shrubs and trees also contributes to a broad decline in native insects, migratory songbirds, and so on up the food chain. It’s like a house of cards. Pull out the right card at the bottom, and the whole pyramid is coming down.

The deer management program relies on several different methods of population reduction including archery, managed hunts, and sharpshooting. There are currently no feasible alternatives to controlling deer populations other than lethal means, in both effectiveness and expense. Archery is the least imposing and most cost-efficient method currently in use because parks can remain open and volunteers can be recruited to hunt on behalf of the county. We recognize that some residents oppose lethal deer control, so we continue to provide public education and to address specific concerns regarding safety. For example, new signs include the international symbol for archery for those who may not be able to read the text.

2013 is the fifth year that we are allowing archery in the parks. In 2012, archery was implemented in more than 30 parks, and there were no safety incidents with people or with pets. This includes heavily-visited parks such as Burke Lake Park, Lake Accotink Park, Huntley Meadows Park, Riverbend Park, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, and Wakefield Park. The 2013 archery program has expanded to over 40 parks, including several inside the beltway. Each park has been marked with orange signs.

Hunting is confined to tree stands in specific areas of the parks, with hunters at least 50 feet from a trail and at least 100 feet from a property line. Each site is reviewed for safety. All of the volunteer archers must abide by strict rules to participate in the program. They must have superior ability with the bow and must qualify at a range to participate. Modern archery equipment is extremely precise and effective, and the program’s wounding rate has been less than four percent each year.

The next time you see a sign during one of your visits, take a minute to search for an oak, maple or hickory seedling. Do you see any? The future of our forests depends on fewer deer.

Author Kristen Sinclair is the senior natural resource specialist in the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch.