After 18 years of worrying, planning, meeting, debating, designing and redesigning, the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) will restore and stabilize Huntley Meadows Park’s central wetland, Huntley Meadows Park manager Kevin Munroe said on a recent walk in the park.
Park officials will hold two public meetings to present restoration plans.
Park managers and the contractor, Wetlands Studies and Solutions, will explain the proposed design and purposes.
The “crown jewel” of the 1,500-acre park, according to many of its 200,000 annual visitors, is the 50-plus-acre, non-tidal wetland, the largest of its kind and a rarity in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Accessing it by the boardwalk that winds over the water, many visitors delight in seeing diving and dabbling waterfowl, snakes, turtles, beaver lodges, raptors and other birds, as well as wetland plants like cattails and button bush.
But the wetland is losing water depth and losing some plants and animals that prefer this type of habitat. The wetland is changing because silt washes in from adjacent neighborhoods and beavers are changing their activities. Beavers are nomadic, Monroe said.
An Evolving Marsh
In the late 1970s, beavers built a dam across Barnyard Run, which created a swamp and flooded forest that changed the shallow wet lowland into what is called a hemi-marsh. The hemi-marsh evolved into a lake marsh because of the beaver dam, and then eventually evolved into a dry marsh or wet meadow habitat because of droughts, siltation, beaver movements and natural marsh succession.
Park managers want to return to and manage the wetland as a hemi-marsh, which Munroe contends “provides the highest level and quality of biodiversity.” Biodiversity is, in short, the variety of life on Earth. A healthy, restored hemi-marsh could support species like the Virginia Rail, spotted turtle, green treefrog, beavers, muskrats, Eastern ribbon snake, American eels and crayfish and more plants like bladderwort, bur reed, blueflag iris and duck potato.
In planning the restoration, park officials opted for a type of wetland to support rare “habitat specialists,” like the King Rail, in contrast to a more common wetland habitat of dense cattails that attracts “generalists,” such as red-winged blackbirds. Park managers argue that since the U.S. has lost around half of its wetlands, preserving a hemi-marsh in Northern Virginia is important.
Munroe said that to sustain a healthy wetland, they would seek to have low water levels in the summer and higher water in the winter and spring.
“Both droughts and flooding are important parts of the natural cycle,” he told visitors.
A healthy wetland has ever-fluctuating water levels. Droughts consolidate silt and allow seeds to germinate. Flooding can control plant populations and expand wetlands into woods.
The restoration project will include an earthen dam with water control features to make the water go up and down, deep water pools, shrub islands and a new observation platform. When completed, managers will manipulate water levels and maintain a wetland of around half plants and half water.
Restoration work will start in July 2013 and will end in December before another breeding season begins.
“The disturbance associated with the construction phase can be difficult and painful because it is both a human and nature sanctuary, but I feel certain that the end product will be a huge plus for the Huntley Meadows community,” Munroe commented. People and animals will have to adapt to noisy construction activity and bobcats, the mechanical kind, he advised.
Staff and volunteers will try to move some plants and animals out of the work area. Construction vehicles will access the work zone via the South Kings Highway entrance. The park’s Lockheed Boulevard entrance and boardwalk will remain open the entire time.
A Brief History
Huntley Meadows is in a historic wet lowland carved out by an ancient meander of the Potomac River. Before European settlement, Native Americans lived and foraged throughout the area. In the 1700s and 1800s, descendants of George Mason owned and farmed the Huntley Meadows area. From 1890 to 1955, farms, especially dairy farms, flourished and in 1941 the federal government purchased the land and began testing asphalt for roads.
Between 1950 and 1959, the Virginia National Guard provided anti-aircraft protection for Washington, D.C. on the site and from 1958 to 1971 the Naval Research Laboratory conducted highly-classified radio communication research on two circular fields. In 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford authorized the donation of 1,261 acres “exclusively for public park or public recreation purposes in perpetuity.” Fairfax County paid $1.00 and later added 165 acres.
The public meetings will take place at the Huntley Meadows Park Visitor Center on November 29, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and December 8, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The visitor center is located at 3701 Lockheed Boulevard.