Thirty years ago, a group of naturalists came together to preserve one of the Greater Washington Region's most precious natural resources — Dyke Marsh. Located along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River just south of Alexandria, this 380-acre natural habitat was under attack from both humans and nature.
Known as the "Friends of Dyke Marsh," their primary purpose is to preserve this tidal wetland once referred to by naturalist Louis Halle as "the nearest thing to a primeval wilderness in the immediate vicinity of the city (Washington)." They have grown to a force of several hundred and work not only for Dyke Marsh but also to preserve natural resources in various venues.
On March 21, a new documentary film entitled, "On the Edge: The Potomac River's Dyke Marsh," premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center. It will be shown a second time at Alexandria's Old Town Theater, 815 and a half King St., on March 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Produced and directed by local filmmaker Dave Eckert, Virginia Village Productions of Fall Church, the 40-minute digital film with a 10 minute "afterword" and didgeridoo music, is sponsored by the Friends of Dyke Marsh in conjunction with the U.S. National Park Service and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"This film points out how we need these types of natural environments, as was brought home by the New Orleans situation, and we need to take immediate action to preserve them. In some ways it is a very complex film. I don't think many people will completely get it the first time they see it. They need to see it several times," said Eckert.
By his own admission, Eckert, the creator of four other watershed films, was given a free hand by the organization to create this cinema. "We got together and got a handle on what the issue really was. They (FODM) also wanted to stimulate new interest in their cause to get new blood into the organization," he said.
"But, it's really Dyke Marsh, not the organization, that needs revitalization. Because of dredging in the past, the marsh is subsiding and sliding into the Potomac," Eckert said.
That loss of the marsh was echoed by Ed Eder, present president of FODM. "At one time the marsh was twice as large as it is now. Our organization has put in over 50,000 hours of volunteer work over 30 years to preserve the marsh and its wildlife," he said.
"On the Edge" examines the wetland's birds, fish, plants and other natural resources, as well as the marsh's vital role in the ecological system. It highlights threats to the marsh such as invasive species and air and water pollution and even dumping. It challenges viewers to capitalize on opportunities for conservation and restoration.
ONE OF THE FIRST LEADERS of the organization, who has served two terms as president, is Hollin Hills resident Jeb Byrne. "When we found out that the Corps of Engineers was planning to do some dredging, many naturalists in the area were concerned. That's when we decided to form the Friends organization," he said.
"We were afraid it would disappear. And, it probably would have if we hadn't gotten the attention of the federal government," Byrne said.
There is a boardwalk across the marsh for nature lovers to not only birdwatch but also observe all manner of wildlife in the area. The present walk was built after Hurricane Isabel. The original was destroyed by the tidal surge that occurred the night of that storm, according to Byrne.
"We keep good statistics on birds and wildlife. Sunday mornings are a particularly favorite time for many to bird watch from the boardwalk," Byrne said.
Friends of Dyke Marsh also fund various ecological research efforts. Studies have been conducted by George Washington and Georgetown universities as well as the University of Maryland, according to Eder.
"We have three primary purposes. They are to constantly monitor the marsh and its condition; maintain a dialogue with the National Park Service, elected officials and the media; and promote scientific research," said Eder.
Two of those elected officials participated in the film — U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA) and U.S. Representative James Moran (D-8). "Both Senator Warner and Congressman Moran speak extremely passionately about the marsh in the film. Overall there are 23 speaking parts by scientists, local conservationists, and supporters of Dyke Marsh," Eckert said.
"I even had a developer speak very passionately about the need to preserve the marsh. That really surprised me," he said.
"I'm hoping we can really galvanize people with this film. [When] people see themselves on the big screen, that often helps," Eckert said.
"A lot of things need to be done concurrently. Some people have said wait. We don't have time to wait. This is the last marsh land in view of the capital. A marsh protects itself by its size. Dyke Marsh is growing smaller and more vulnerable. This can't be on the back burner," Eckert insisted.
"ON THE EDGE" is part of a two-week Washington environmental film festival. The Kennedy Center showing was free. However, there is a $5 fee for the Old Town Theater showing.
"We expect a big turnout by all the local leaders as well as from the Friends of Dyke Marsh, the director/producer, members of Congress, and local conservationists. It's a great opportunity to show something that is truly local with national significance," said Roger Fons, owner, Old Town Theater.
At the Kennedy Center showing the National Park Service presented the Friends of Dyke Marsh with a plaque commemorating their 30 years of stewardship of this national treasurer. It is one of the largest naturally-occurring freshwater tidal marshes in the national park service system, first preserved by Congress in 1959.
"On the Edge" is a wake-up call to a nation that has lost almost half its wetlands. This film challenges us to act now to restore the nation's wetlands and do more to protect nature's precious biodiversity," Eder said.