Centreville Looking at area residents having fun at E.C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly — and seeing its lush, green forest — it’s not immediately apparent that anything needs fixing. But the experts know better, and they’re doing something about it.
Sully District Park Authority representative Hal Strickland asked his fellow members of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board to support a pilot project, and staff to prepare its scope. Then, he said, “I proposed Ellanor C. Lawrence Park as the ideal site to develop a model of how to manage our forests. It will begin this summer and continue through at least 2014.”
Charles Smith, manager of the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch, will oversee the work. On Saturday, May 5, he explained the details to residents gathered there for the 30th anniversary of that park’s Walney Visitor Center.
“It’s a recognition that our natural resources have tremendous value for us, resulting in better air quality, stormwater management, quality of life and even property values,” he said. So the Park Authority is now creating a blueprint detailing how best to manage its natural systems — such as forests, meadows, plants and streams — that comprise the habitat enjoyed by both wildlife and people.
The catalyst for this action is threefold — people, “over-browsing” by deer and invasive plants, said Smith. The forest’s ecological health has been declining, he said, because of “human disturbance and excessive deer eating too many of the natural plants. When that happens, we don’t get any new plants of that type — only the non-native, invasive ones. These plants out-compete the natives and don’t provide the same natural benefits for humans or wildlife.”
In January, the Park Authority received $340,000 from the 2008 Park Bond — $300,000 coming from sewer-utility fees and $40,000 from developer proffers — so it’s now able to kick off this new, forest-protection project in E.C. Lawrence Park.
“Hal was instrumental in identifying and securing those funds for us,” said Smith. “He also challenged us to come up with a plan to better manage the forest. So we came up with a great concept — we’re developing a model for managing our forest systems. We’ll define our goals, gather physical information from the landscape and formulate plans to achieve our goals.”
He said the Park Authority will accomplish these tasks with help from partners. And at the same time, said Smith, “It will give these partners the opportunity to learn how to manage whole ecosystems. Meanwhile, it’ll give us the knowhow and methods we need to do this at other parks. And as we go, we’ll educate the public about it, too.”
The partners will include the county wildlife biologist, the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the county’s Urban Forest Management department and the Virginia Natural Heritage program.
“We’ll learn how much it costs because we only have limited staff and financial resources,” said Smith. “So the partners will provide expertise and additional manpower, and we’ll become an outdoor classroom for them.”
With the current funding, he said, those involved envision this endeavor as being a three-year project. “We want to help the forest help itself and restore its healthy, natural, native ecosystems, including the plants, animals and soils,” said Smith.
“As you lose the native plants and animals, you lose all the old seed beds, root systems and genetic biodiversity within the soil and the ecosystem,” he said. “So this work will protect the things people can see and not see.”
For example, said Smith, “With the current deer problem of over-browsing the acorns and plants, we’re losing our oak trees — which support over 500 species of butterflies and moths. Their larvae are eaten by 90 percent of migrating bird species as their food sources. So there are still enough butterflies and moths left, but not enough to destroy the plants.”
But if the deer remove the oak trees, he said, the butterflies and moths will disappear from E.C. Lawrence Park and the birds there will have no food. “So we’re trying to restore all the pieces of those systems,” said Smith. “The way the forests are now, in 100 years they’ll be gone if we don’t remove these stresses on them so they’ll be able to regenerate themselves and be healthy.”