Encroachment Threatens Natural Areas in Parks

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

The Fairfax County Park Authority is the largest landowner in Fairfax County, holding 22,500 acres in more than 385 parks. That represents 8.6% of the county’s total land area. Some parks have active recreation amenities, such as ball fields, trails, nature centers or recreation centers. But other parks are natural areas, wooded hills or fertile stream valleys.

The Park Authority maintains the land surrounding recreation and nature centers, fertilizes and mows ball fields, and keeps the trails clear and safe. But natural areas also need care. Surrounding development threatens the health of natural areas through stormwater runoff, air and water pollution, invasive plants, and encroachment of adjoining property owners.

In 2004, the Fairfax County Park Authority adopted a Natural Resource Management Plan to guide the agency in preserving and managing natural resources on parkland. The plan identifies 15 issues in seven topic areas which include planning, vegetation, wildlife, water resources, air quality, human impact and education. The plan proposed strategies to address each of the issues. You may review the plan online. Every five years, the plan is revised and public comments are accepted. For more information, contact the Resource Management Division at 703-324-8674, TTY 711.

The conservation district has a keen interest in the Park Authority's Natural Resource Management Plan because it impacts our mutual goal of clean streams and protected natural resources in Fairfax County. One noteworthy issue in the plan is encroachment, which is a human impact that is often harmful to our parks.

Encroachments include activities such as mowing, plantings, trash dumping and construction of varied structures. It is common for homeowners to extend their backyards into parks by clearing native vegetation and creating additional lawn area. Many other homeowners dump grass clippings or yard debris, sometimes thinking such composting helps the natural environment. But clearing, mowing, and dumping debris all promote the spread of invasive plants and harm natural vegetation. Many homeowners see no reason why they shouldn’t erect play equipment or storage sheds on parkland. In the worst cases, encroachments can destroy wetlands, mature trees, native vegetation, and wildlife. When viewed individually, some encroachments seem trivial. However, since virtually all Fairfax County parks suffer from encroachments to a greater or lesser degree, their collective impact is enormous.

What does the conservation district recommend to prevent encroachment?

  • If you don’t own the land, then don’t put anything on it. It’s that simple. If you see a neighbor encroaching on parkland, talk to him or her about it, or call the Park Authority Resource Management Division at 703-324-8674, TTY 711.
  • Don’t mow past your property line. High grass and other vegetation buffer streams and provide animal habitat. A buffer will slow down the flow of stormwater runoff thus lessening the chance for stream bank erosion. A buffer also will trap many pollutants which otherwise would end up in the stream.
  • If poison ivy is growing on the park side of your property line, leave it alone. Poison ivy, a native plant, is a wonderful food supply for birds and other wildlife.
  • Don’t dump grass clippings and other yard debris on parkland. If you want to compost the grass, do so within the borders of your property. Other options for your grass clippings are to bag them for collection or to leave them on your lawn. Phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium—found in fertilizer, sewage, detergents, and animal wastes—are not harmful to the environment in low doses. However, when these excess nutrients are washed into a stream, they can cause an overgrowth of algae. Eventually the excess algae plants die and decay. The decaying process depletes oxygen in the water, leaving less for aquatic animals and the remaining plants. Too much algae also reduces the amount of light that reaches aquatic plants, which affects their health and growth rate.

Fairfax County has beautiful parks. Treat them as treasures so they will be sustainable for generations.

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