A Soaring Tribute

A Soaring Tribute

Mason Neck State Park hosts Elizabeth Hartwell Memorial Eagle Festival on Saturday.

Elizabeth Hartwell spent most of her life working to save the natural habitat favored by bald eagles along the Potomac River, becoming an activist who helped get the Mason Neck State Park preserved as a wildlife habitat.

On Saturday, April 22, the park will host the sixth annual Eagle Festival in honor of the woman who kept the area from being developed.

"My mother spent most of her life fighting to protect Mason Neck and the Potomac River," said her son, Rob Hartwell. "She served on the state agricultural board and worked closely with lots of politicians ... to preserve some of the most beautiful areas in the country."

Hartwell said his family established the Elizabeth Hartwell Foundation to continue his mother's legacy of environmental conservation and community activism, which extends up into preserved marine areas of the river in Maryland and a scholarship program for area high school students.

"We're currently working on a water monitoring program with students from George Mason University," Hartwell said, which will study the species found in the water to make sure nutrient and pollution levels are within a safe range to keep the ecosystem viable for fish and feathered creatures alike.

To further honor his mother's legacy, Hartwell said legislation is in the works that would rename the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refugee in his mother's name.

"What we're ultimately trying to do is make sure local politicians and citizens know about her efforts and continue to preserve the Occoquan and Belmont Bay areas," Hartwell said.

DURING THE DAY-LONG event, which runs from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., at Mason Neck State Park, tours of the Great Marsh Trail and Great Blue Heron Rookery will be made available, said Mason Neck Park Chief Ranger Beth Fischer.

"We'll have pony rides, live music, lots of food, hay rides, all sorts of fun things," Fischer said.

And, of course, the eagles that call the park their home.

"In the 1960s, this area was threatened by developers who had all sorts of proposals for Mason Neck," she said. "[Elizabeth Hartwell] lobbied to have this area set aside as a nesting area."

Eagles are seen flying overhead at the park nearly every day, Fischer said, but having the celebration on Earth Day seemed to be a perfect way to bring Elizabeth Hartwell's passion for their protection to the forefront.

"We have people who come from all over to see the birds and other animals who live here," Fischer said.

Last year, over 1,500 people attended the event, which also features live animal shows from Reptiles Alive!, the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia and Under The Sea, billed as an "interpretive sea creature program."

New for this year's event is a bird migration route that people can walk on to understand flight patterns over the course of a year, she said, along with a feeding station, obstacle course and a bird banding station.

"I think the afternoon is my favorite part, there's so much going on," said Greg Weiler, manager of the Mason Neck refuge. "The raptor show is usually the biggest draw, but so are the reptiles."

Weiler said he never met Liz Hartwell in person before her death in 2000, but he worked with her via phone calls for several years.

"She knew who I was before I knew who she was," he said.

The park has long had a "strong educational component" in its programs, and hosting the Eagle Festival is another extension of that, he said.

"There are stories to be told here which can be both entertaining and educational, especially for the younger generation," Weiler said.

On Saturday, at 8 a.m., registration for the fourth-annual David Klinghard 5-K Run/Walk begins. The race, named after a close friend of the Hartwell family, will begin at 8:30 a.m.

"David was an enthusiastic volunteer with the youth conservation corps at the park," Hartwell said. He was killed by a drunk driver a few years ago, shortly before the second Eagle Festival was held.

Following the race, tours of the park will begin, along with a welcoming ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m.

Honoring the memory of Elizabeth Hartwell can serve as an inspiration to many people, a reminder that "one person can make a long-lasting difference," said Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon).

"She helped to preserve one of the gems of Fairfax County," Hyland said of the 800-acres contained within the Mason Neck park and refuge. "For me to continue to remember a person that made such an impact is appropriate."

For Hartwell, spending a day in the park is almost like spending a day with his mother.

"Every ceremony we've had, there have been eagles flying overhead," he said. "At one point last year, two eagles flew out of the woods and locked talons and were playing together. Only about 30 or 40 people saw it, but it was so cool."