Commentary: Celebrating Huntley Meadows Wetland Restoration

Commentary: Celebrating Huntley Meadows Wetland Restoration

On May 10, more than 60 people gathered on the boardwalk at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria to celebrate the recently completed wetland restoration project.

This project was the culmination of over 20 years of dedication and support by dozens of people. It is a triumph in and of itself, but it also provides insight and emphasis on the need to commit funding to manage our natural resources.

Natural resources can also be considered natural capital: living organisms; non-living components, such as air, water, and soil; the ecosystems they form; and the services they provide. In the highly modified ecosystems of the 21st century, natural capital is not self-sustaining and requires human investment to keep it healthy and so that we can continue to receive the ecosystem services and quality-of-life benefits it affords us. The Huntley Meadows wetland restoration project is a great example of investment in natural capital.

Since its opening in the 1970s, a growing number of people discovered Huntley Meadows and fell in love with the resources there. Impacts in the 1980s including siltation from upstream development and the threat of a road being placed through the park galvanized supporters such as Norma Hoffman (for whom the visitor center is named) into protecting the park from human impacts. Meanwhile, the park master plan and resource management plan anticipated the need not only to protect the park's natural resources, but to manage them to maintain their health and support the many species, especially diverse over-wintering and breeding bird populations for which the park came to be known nationally.

To do this, the Fairfax County Park Authority led by then Park Manager Gary Roisum began exploring options for managing the central wetland in 1992. A detailed report was prepared by a consultant which not only assessed the current condition of the wetland, but provided a list of potential management options. The wetland changed through the 1990s, as evidenced by lower overall plant diversity and a drop off in bird breeding activity. Droughts in 2002 and 2005 and a corresponding let up in beaver activity resulted in the wetland drying up during those years, and there was significant public concern.

In 2006, a park authority staff team was formed to begin planning the restoration project. This process was complicated by the complexity of the project, as well as permitting and funding issues. In 2012, Wetlands Studies and Solutions Inc. was contracted to design the complex system of berms, pools and structures necessary to manage the wetland.

Final funding for project construction was approved as part of the 2012 park bond, and construction began in summer 2013 and was completed in winter 2014. Ultimately the project cost $3 million and took 22 years to come to fruition.

Despite the significant investment, much work remains. Just like buying a house or car, once you make the investment, you have to pay for the maintenance and upkeep. For Huntley Meadows, restoration planting, wetland monitoring and management of the water levels began in Spring 2014. Paid and volunteer staff as well as many partners will continue to be involved in the management tasks necessary to ensure that the resources at Huntley Meadows remain healthy and supportive of the animal species for which the management goals were designed.

As I stated numerous times during the project to fellow team members Park Manager Kevin Monroe and Natural Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, Huntley is the panda. It is the big, lovable resource that everyone gets. Everyone can see the value of the site. It is as clear as hummingbirds fighting for territory over the boardwalk or hundreds of over-wintering ducks cackling in the wetland or thousands of southern leopard frogs calling so loudly that you cannot hear anything else.

"We grieve for what we know, so, since we don't know the flora, we unknowingly and unnecessarily allow 'progress' to destroy it." - Aldo Leopold, from A Sand County Almanac.

People know Huntley Meadows. They have loved it and stood up for it for decades. But there are thousands of Huntley Meadows out there. Places with important natural capital that requires our attention and investment. Most of these places don't have the support that Huntley Meadows does. They are not the panda.

Not every site requires a $3 million investment; nor could we afford it. But we need to be aware of the resource needs and the common issues affecting natural areas. For most sites there is an ongoing need to protect them from direct and indirect human disturbances, browsing by over-abundant white-tailed deer which remove the native plants on which everything else relies, and non-native invasive species which out compete and directly impact our native species.

To address these larger issues all of us need to be aware and supportive and to participate in resource management. Volunteer efforts are often essential to protect and sustain preservation, but are rarely sufficient to complete long-term management. There is a need for trained professional as well as volunteer staff to define and assess the resources, determine their condition and what is impacting them, formulate plans and implement them. This requires an investment of private and public resources.

We need not only to celebrate the success of the Huntley Meadows wetland restoration project, but to emulate it. We must use this example: get people to know the resource and see their value, garner support, protect our natural resources, and fund the staff and projects necessary to plan for its management and carry out those plans. This is the investment necessary to maintain the natural capital that sustains and enriches us.

The writer is a member of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Prince William Conservation Alliance, and Friends of the Potomac River Refuges.