Too many deer eating too many plants. An unhealthy mix of trees. Invasive plants squeezing out natives. Development. Sludge. Climate change. People trampling the greenery.
All these factors pose dangers to Huntley Meadows Park in Hybla Valley south of Alexandria, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s largest park and wetland wildlife sanctuary. It is home to a diverse but endangered wetland, with a boardwalk over the water popular with hikers, photographers, and bird-watchers — one DC swamp no one wants to drain. But it would suffer that fate without ongoing efforts to protect it.
A 2018 count by FCPA found 246 species of birds in the park, mostly migrants passing through. Forty-six of the species need some protection to remain viable. By FCPA’s own telling, in the 1990s, some species of marsh birds stopped breeding there. Take a walk on the boardwalk and you’ll find bullfrogs, herons, endangered spotted turtles, teals, and too many Canada geese for the park’s own good.
The wetlands are primarily fed by stormwater runoff from street drains, which fill the bog with silt and debris as well as various nutrients and bacteria that hitch a ride with the flow.
Some efforts are helping manage species. Sharpshooters from the Fairfax County Police Department keep the deer population in check. Placing wooden birdhouses in the wetland is increasing the population of wood ducks. FCPA is planting desirable trees with fencing to protect them from deer and beavers.
“We are seeing a decline in oak trees because of climate change,” says John Burke, natural resources branch manager for FCPA. Park rangers also vary the water level annually to encourage diversity.
FPCA has counted 38 nonnative plant species in the park, notably Japanese stiltgrass, Chinese water chestnut, honeysuckle, and fig buttercup. “It sounds pleasant, but it can dominate some wet areas,” says natural resources manager Chris King.
To maintain the natural environment and prevent people from inadvertently bringing invasive seeds on their boots or tires, much of the park remains off-limits to humans — officially. Yet, people build “social trails,” to the chagrin of park staff.
“People find a box turtle and move it to Huntley Meadows,” park manager Karen Sheffield says. “It is illegal to bring an animal here and release it.” Continued development along Richmond Highway near the park will increase population density. “We anticipate usage of the park will increase over the years, but the park doesn’t include many amenities people want,” Sheffield says. “We don’t have swing sets. … There are no soccer fields. It is not for engagement parties.”
This story originally ran in our April issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine.