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Column: County Failing to Preserve Natural Resource Areas

Fairfax County has done a pretty good job of setting aside parkland for public use for athletics and recreation, but gives short shrift to preserving and protecting natural resource areas so vital to a healthy environment. While the county has set a worthy but modest goal of setting 10 percent of the land as parks or open space, to date it has achieved about 9.4 percent, very little of which is natural area.

Why do we need more natural resource parks? Here are some basic and troubling facts. 1) Eighty percent of county streams are in poor to fair condition—meaning that they are poor habitat, severely limiting biodiversity as well as impacting human health; 2) Fairfax County does not meet federal ozone standards for air quality. In 2009, the American Lung Association gave the metro region an F rating for smog, the 14th worst area in the U.S. for smog; 3) The county’s tree cover declined from 75 percent in the 1970s to about 46 percent and declining today. Trees have an amazing capacity to cleanse carbon and polluting particles from the air. Their loss directly impacts air quality; and, 4) Non-native invasive plants are a growing problem in the county. Non-native plants are not adapted to the food needs of local living things, from insects to birds to larger mammals.

Preserving land in a natural, undisturbed state or restoring degraded lands in parks can play an important role in making Fairfax County a more healthy place for all living things. Actions the county should take now include correcting the current imbalance in parklands—i.e., sharply increase the area managed in a natural state or restored to a natural state. The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) has standards based on population for determining how much land it needs for athletic fields. The same should be done for lands preserved in a natural state.

The FCPA should inventory the natural resources in the county, especially plants and animals, and assess their condition. Trend data should be made available to the public and serve as the basis for improved natural resource management in the years ahead. The amount of land which can be acquired is shrinking, especially undisturbed natural areas, in our increasingly densely populated county. Hence, a focus should be on restoring degraded areas, even in small, pocket parks to natural condition. FCPA should work with NGOs and property owners with land bordering parkland to create buffers for parkland to be preserved as natural areas. Obviously, county agencies should also work to be models of sustainable environmental stewardship.

To learn more and find out what you can do to help, check out the websites of organizations like the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN).