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Alien Plants Invade Local Park

Freedom Hill once repelled Confederate troops … only to be overthrown by kudzu?

Since she moved in 12 years ago, Patricia Gaul of the Westwood Towns neighborhood in Tysons Corner has been watching the woods behind her house be swallowed by kudzu. The woods are part of Freedom Hill Park, which has its entrance on Old Courthouse Road but backs up on two sides of Westwood Towns.

Gaul said she and her neighbors have made several efforts to control the vines and have contacted the Fairfax County Park Authority and Hunter Mill District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins’ office about the problem, but the blanket of kudzu continues to spread. She said the county will not consider using herbicides to control the plants.

“We’re not just expecting the county to come out and take care of it,” she said, noting that residents are willing to pitch in. “But I think it needs something more aggressive.”

Gaul said she and her neighbors are now sending a petition to Hudgins’ office. “There’s so little green space in Tysons,” she said. “It would be a shame to lose this.”

Freedom Hill Park covers almost 11 acres just outside the Town of Vienna and features a small playground and a makeshift Civil War fortification. The fortification is a dirt embankment a few feet high, which probably once formed a ringed barrier around a small piece of Union artillery, said Michael Rierson of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management division. He noted that Freedom Hill once provided a commanding view of the Peach Grove staging area, which is now Tysons Corner.

The majority of the park, however, is undeveloped woodland, and this is where the kudzu patch is spreading. At least an acre or two of the woods behind Gaul’s house is almost impassable, thick with fallen trees and vine growth – kudzu, brambles and other. Poison ivy, normally found only on the edges of woods, grows everywhere as the sun shines through gaping holes in the tree canopy.

Kudzu is considered an invasive, non-native plant. It was brought to the U.S. from Japan in the late 1800s, and, being a hardy, fast-growing vine with no natural checks on its growth in this environment, it has a tendency to take over any area where it takes root. According to the Invasive.org Web site, kudzu can grow at a rate of up to one foot per day during the growing season. It out-competes native species, crowding them out and forming a dense blanket that allows little sunlight to reach the plants it covers, and it can eventually pull down trees by its sheer weight.

Heather Schinkel, manager of the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection section, noted that invasive plants can also impact fauna by destroying the native plants on which local wildlife feeds.

“Pretty much most of our parks have issues with invasives, especially invasive vines,” she said, adding that kudzu is not as big a problem as, for example, English ivy. This area, she said, is along the northernmost edge of the range in which kudzu grows. “My understanding is that it won’t get too much worse,” said Schinkel. “We’re not concerned that kudzu is going to take off and get extremely aggressive.”

She said the Fairfax County Park Authority does not currently have the staff or the funds for an invasive management program of its own. Last February, the Park Authority started a one-year pilot program, called the Invasive Management Area (IMA) program, to organize local volunteers to do battle with invasive plants. With this program, said Schinkel, “we’re asking volunteers to take on more responsibility than usual.”

THE EFFORT is managed by one seasonal parks employee, and it relies on a volunteer team leader at each site to organize and supervise a team of volunteers in the repeated efforts that are necessary to eradicate an invading plant. This typically involves four events — three for removal and one for the planting of native species. No heavy equipment or herbicides are being used at this point.

The program is being tried out at 20 sites around the county, based on local interest in the sites and the extent of their problems. Freedom Hill is not one of those. “No one came forward to be the IMA leader,” said Schinkel. She said the Park Authority solicited volunteers via its Web site, press releases, information sessions and advertising with its partner organizations, but Gaul said she had heard nothing of it.

"I feel pretty sure that there would be some people in the community who would be amenable to that if they knew about it," said Gaul.

Based on the results of this year’s pilot program, the Park Authority hopes to secure funding for the IMA program in coming years.

THE AGENCY CONTINUES to seek funding and staff for the effort against invasive plants, Schinkel said. “It’s arguably the number one threat to our natural areas, second to development.”

Gaul said she thinks herbicide will need to be used at Freedom Hill, as she understood it is used by Arlington’s Park Authority.

Indeed, Patrick Wegeng, landscape supervisor for Arlington Parks and Recreation, said a Bush Hog (an oversized mower) and chemical sprays may be used as warranted to remove invasive plants in his county.

Arlington has a volunteer program similar to the one being tried out in Fairfax County, but the parks employee in charge of it is licensed to apply herbicides and also works in conjunction with a Virginia Tech employee.

“Chemical application is generally the most effective means of eradication,” said Steve Temmermand, Arlington’s division chief for parks and natural resources.

According to a fact sheet distributed by the Virginia Native Plant Society and the state’s Department of Conservation & Recreation, “persistent eradication of all roots is the key” to controlling kudzu. However, because the plant can develop vast root systems that reach up to 12 feet deep, this can be problematic. The recommended prescription for heavily infested sites is herbicide applications over the course of up to five years.

Schinkel said park employees occasionally use chemicals around nature centers, and she added that if the Park Authority had an established invasive management program, herbicides would be applied to sites when necessary. This would be the work of a licensed employee, not of volunteers. "If the program gets going, that would definitely be part of it," she said.