Under the Boardwalks

Under the Boardwalks

McLean High School student builds boardwalks in Turkey Run Park for his Eagle Scout project.

Barely visible to the naked eye, amphipods are never noticed by the many hikers that traverse through Turkey Run Park in McLean. That is precisely why Brian McElhaney's recent Eagle Scout project was so necessary.

"This is a pretty small-scale project compared to some of the others that we have going on, but no less important," said David Dadurka, Senior Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy. "It's kind of cool because these creatures are only between 2-55mm in length, so

they are really hard to see. You could be walking right over them andnot know it."

McElhaney, a junior at McLean High School, was in need of an EagleScout project – the last and hardest task required to attain the highest advancement rank within the Boy Scouts of America.

"It's the hardest thing you do, and basically, it's anything that will help the community in some way," said McElhaney.

The Potomac Gorge is a 15-mile stretch of river that runs between Great Falls and Georgetown. It is home to more than 200 rare plant species and natural communities, including several rare groundwater invertebrates such as amphipods and gastropods. As the Potomac Gorge Habitat Restoration Manager with The Nature Conservancy, Mary Travaglini is responsible for helping to protect the tiny groundwater animals in the Gorge.

"We believe they eat microorganisms that feed on decaying leaves, and then another invertebrate eats them, and they are subsequently eaten by another species. They are low on the chain, but like a lot of things that are low on the chain they are important to the support of the whole ecosystem," said Travaglini.

Ed Pickens, President of Fairfax Fields and Streams, works withTravaglini to protect the Potomac Gorge and knew that McElhaney was looking for an Eagle Scout project. When McElhaney learned of the precarious situation of these tiny creatures, he consulted Pickens and

Travaglini about a way to protect them without altering their natural environment. Together, they decided that the solution was to build wooden boardwalks over their habitat as a way of shielding them from human traffic. In order to carry out his proposed project, McElhaney had to acquire the approval of several organizations – the Boy Scouts of America, The Nature Conservancy and Fairfax Trails and Streams.

"He [McElhaney] had to write a three or four page proposal detailing exactly what to do for his project, and he had to convince Home Depot to donate $200 worth of materials," said Pickens.

McElhaney was able to get gift cards from the Home Depot in Seven Corners and from the Home Depot in Merrifield. When he approached the manager of the Home Depot in Fairfax, he was given lumber rather than a gift card.

"He let us take the lumber we needed, so I was very happy about that," said McElhaney.

Travaglini helped McElhaney to acquire the necessary approvals, and both she and Pickens assisted him with the design and implementation of the boardwalks.

"The lumber doesn't have any treatment in it because we weren't sure how that would affect their habitat, so there is a chance that it won't have the same life span as treated wood, but the way the boardwalks are designed, it will be easy to replace them," said Travaglini.

A PROJECT THIS SIZE required the help of others, so McElhaney recruited the help of approximately 25 fellow Boy Scouts. On a cold Saturday morning just before Thanksgiving, the group of McLean high school and junior high school boys gathered on a shoulder of the George Washington Memorial Parkway to haul the heavy boardwalk building materials down to the Potomac Heritage Trail.

"We've got a lot of hands here, but we actually needed most of them to carry everything down," said Travaglini.

Fortunately, the group of volunteers was able to obtain special permission to access the site from the parkway. The regular route would have required them to carry the lumber and equipment on a

1.5-mile hike. McElhaney says that getting to Potomac Heritage Trail was one of the hardest aspects of his project.

"It's not easy to access this site," said McElhaney. "Planning for this I had to come here four or five times, and each time it takes about two hours of my time. As a junior this is your hardest year and I play a lot of sports, so it was hard to find the time to come out here."

Despite the stress and time crunch, McElhaney says he has an appreciation for the underlying principles of his Eagle Scout project.

"It's a lot of hard work, but I like to do it because it's real and because you get to work with guys like this," said McElhaney. "It's different than being with your friends because when you are with them you don't do things in a group and you don't do much with nature. It's more of a chance to realize what is out there."