Forty Years at Huntley Meadows Park
In 1975 Huntley Meadows Park was born - in 2015 it settles into middle-age as it turns a comfortable and accomplished 40. It was four decades ago that the federal government transferred 1,261 acres to the Fairfax County Park Authority as part of President Gerald Ford’s Legacy of Parks Program, “This property will be used in perpetuity for public park, recreation, or wildlife purposes.” 40 years later the park has grown to 1,554 acres, is nationally known for resource protection and environmental education, holds the only ADA accessible wetland boardwalk in Northern Virginia, and is home to several regionally rare habitats and their imperiled flora and fauna.
The population in Fairfax County nearly doubled 1960 to 1970 from approximately 275,000 to 455,000. Many new housing developments were being planned and built all over the county including in the immediate area: Vantage, Stoneybrooke and Hayfield.
The county started to make plans for the Naval Research Laboratory’s Hybla Valley Research Station in case the property were to become available. In 1968 the Fairfax County Office of Comprehensive Planning’s new Planning Land Use System (PLUS) addressed future transportation needs. PLUS proposed a road through the Hybla Valley Research Station which would connect Franconia, Rose Hill and other new housing developments to Route 1.
In addition OCP conducted a feasibility study to determine if the site was suitable for a sanitary landfill. The answer was negative due to the high water table. This property must have been on a list of potentially surplus federal lands, because at this time the Veteran’s Administration requested the site for use as a national military cemetery as well.
Meanwhile local citizens were unofficially using the periphery of this vast natural area to walk, explore and ride motorcycles (there was a popular racetrack in southern part of the property). In 1971 the US Department of the Navy and the Fairfax County Park Authority signed an agreement allowing citizens to officially use 400 acres of the property’s perimeter for passive recreation. It was called “Hybla Valley Trails.” No transistor radios were allowed as they might disrupt the NRL’s sensitive electrical equipment.
In 1971 President Richard Nixon initiated the Legacy of Parks Program (LPP). LPP promoted the transfer of surplus federal land to state and local governments for natural, cultural and recreational uses. The Lee District Representative on the FCPA board soon thereafter requested that the FCPA seek acquisition of the NRL Hybla Valley tract. Finally in 1973 the General Services Administration declared the tract surplus and the county submitted park development plans as part of its application. Joe Downs, then director of FCPA, stated in an interview that the plans were tentative, but included a nature center, tree top observation tower, stables, 2 equestrian show rings and a cross country horse course (however, no mention of a road).
In June of 1974, Representative Stan Parris, running for re-election, shared this good news as part of his campaign. A week before the White House planned to make the announcement, Parris told constituents about the approved donation of land valued at $10 million. A Washington Post article stated that the director of FCPA was caught “off guard” by the reporter’s phone call – the FCPA hadn’t been informed yet. In his speech Parris described active recreation development for the park prompting a Washington Star editorial response that strongly supported the philosophy of keeping the park natural.
Along came Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974, so President Gerald Ford’s signature is on the Legacy of Parks commemorative document dated April 26, 1975. A copy is on display in the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center exhibits. The official quitclaim deed and conveyance are dated November 26, 1975.
In the 1978 addendum, the map shows a less intrusive alignment for the Lockheed Boulevard Extension. Text in the original master plan indicates that FCPA did not “recognize” the road. However in 1978 the FCPA clarified its support of the road as long as certain conditions were met. There were outside pressures requiring the FCPA to add the addendum and support the road. Master Plan development involved public meetings, and while many citizens wanted a road, others like Norman Hoffman were very much against it. She started the Citizen’s Alliance to Save Huntley in 1975 with Bob Sawallesh. Eventually the organization would have more than 600 members.
Gary Roisum was the first FCPA employee assigned to Huntley Meadows Park in 1978. His office was at the brand new Greendale Golf Course. Later he moved into the Bureau of Public Roads buildings. These four small buildings dating from the 1940s were renovated for an office, maintenance shed, storage building and a rental house. The buildings still stand and now house the park’s resource management operations.
Gary eventually was able to hire a few staff members. John Zuiker, Rick Grinberg, and Olin Allen were early employees who helped with the initial development of the park. Later interpretive staff members were hired. Lee Stephenson and Ken Garrahan were the first teachers at the site although all staff members were naturalists and did some teaching.
Evidence of past federal uses was much more prominent then. The NRL’s Block house was still standing and had to be taken down. It stood next to the NRL’s access road which became the park’s Hike-Bike trail.
Also still in evidence was the Naval Research Laboratory’s circularly disposed antenna array at the Coast Guard Station. This double ring of antennae was the first US tracking station to compile data on the path of the Russian satellite Sputnik just five hours after its launch (Sputnik was already on its third orbit by then!).
Two other NRL antenna arrays were in the park. The most prominent remnants of these arrays are two large circular meadows – the southern most one is now the park’s central wetland.
Park Manager Gary Roisum obtained two grants to construct trails with the help of Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) -- high school students, and Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC)-- 16-23 year olds. The boardwalk structure rested on creosote treated railroad ties. It looks like it was hard work, but fun, too. Gary always spoke very fondly of those times and I remember YACC kids returning to visit staff years later. He would have continued to apply for YCC/YACC grants, but the program was cut early in the Reagan administration. Later, Clinton instituted Americorps, a similar national volunteer program. The boardwalk, tower, Deer Trail and Pond Trails were built during this time. The parking lot was what is now the Area III Maintenance material pad (which was part of the Bureau of Public Roads test track in the 40s.) The Lockheed Boulevard Entrance and Cedar Trail were constructed in 1983 when the Visitor Center was constructed.
Beavers had been constructing a long low dam in the south meadow, and by 1981 there was open water habitat without having to build a water control device or use explosives (as suggested in the master plan). The wetland had a detritus bottom rather than the current deep layer of silt sediment.
Construction on the new visitor center began in 1982. Many tons of fill were required due to the high water table. The builders found old clay pipe (old water line?) in the ground. Construction was completed in 1983 and we moved into our new digs that summer while frantically planning, designing and fabricating exhibits.
The informal grassroots organization CASH (Citizens’ Alliance to Save Huntley) incorporates into the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park (FOHMP)
The alarming deterioration of the house caused the History Commission and citizens (aka Norma Hoffman) to apply great pressure on elected officials to save the house. Using 1988 bond referendum funds, the house, outbuildings and 2.88 acres were purchased from the current owners (Shapiro and Kellogg) for $460,000 in 1989. Thus begins Park Authority ownership and twenty years of limited public access with buildings protected behind a chain link fence, until 2010 when restoration and site development began. Historic Huntley was officially opened to the public in May 2012.
Many trail improvements were made in the late 80s when Rocky Ventrella was hired as the Resource Manager. The bane of Rocky’s existence was the boardwalk. These were the high water years and Rocky and crew constantly had to shim up the boardwalk higher and higher until finally whole sections were floating. In 1990 after a section of the boardwalk gave way under the feet of program participants, ½ the boardwalk was closed. The boardwalk would not be completely open again until January of 1994! Fortunately, years prior the park manager had requested capital improvement money for boardwalk replacement. Incidentally, he anticipated the need for wetland restoration and requested CIP funds at this time as well.
In 1989-1990 the Huntley Meadows Visitor Center was doubled in size. It was dedicated on October 26th, 1990.
Starting in 1992, several species of locally-rare marsh birds began to disappear from the central wetland. Visitors still saw them during brief migration stops in spring and fall, but they ceased to nest, breed and raise young in the park as they had since the 1970s. By 1999 we saw the last record of successful breeding in the park from any of these birds. These species included Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Common Moorhen, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and King Rail. It’s believed that a combination of siltation from local development, decreased water quality, changing water levels from shifting beaver activity, expanding Canada goose populations, decreased crayfish populations, hurricanes and nation-wide population declines in many wetland birds lead to the gradual disappearance of these species as breeders in Huntley Meadows Park. Plans for a wetland restoration project, focused on wildlife habitat improvements, began during this decade with the goal of hopefully bringing these marsh birds back.
In 1994 the boardwalk was re-built with steel anchors, safety railings and a slightly different route. It could now survive storms and changing water levels, hold more visitors, meet Fairfax County building codes, and became fully ADA compliant – the first such wetland boardwalk in Northern VA.
The central wetland became the place to be for two duck species that are tree cavity nesters – this means they naturally nest in tree holes, usually created and left behind by Pileated Woodpeckers or storm damage. Boxes made to the correct dimensions and given an entrance hole of the right size will also be used by these two ducks when natural tree cavities are in short-supply. In 1996 Hooded Mergansers nested in the park’s constructed nest boxes for the first time, joining Wood Ducks as nesting box tenants. These boxes are monitored every year, March-July by dedicated park volunteers and have been now for over 20 years, making sightings of ducklings and their attentive mothers a common and much anticipated spring site at Huntley Meadows Park.
By the late-nineties park staff grew to meet the demands of 100,000 visitors a year (now 200,000 a year!) and many resource protection challenges. Staff includes a Resource Manager, Volunteer Coordinator, Program Director and Maintenance Crew Chief, all working with dedicated weekend naturalists, school and camp programmers, summer interns, administrative staff and over a hundred volunteers to care for this increasingly popular wildlife-viewing destination for the Washington, D.C.
Two wonderfully large, broad-branched Swamp Chestnut Oaks (Quercus michauxii) grace the northeast corner of the park just a few yards from the entrance sign off Lockheed Blvd. County foresters aged the trees at approximately 200 years, probably more. So one can imagine these ancient oaks as witnesses to the Civil War, as well as a time when the park was a series of agriculture fields. In 2004 these impressive trees were pruned to remove several large pieces of dead wood.
2005 - park turns 30! Huntley Meadows Park celebrates 30 years of environmental education and resource protection, and Wetlands Awareness Day (the park’s largest public event) brings in 1,000 visitors!
In 2007 the park held its first managed meadow burn to help encourage the growth of native grasses and wildflowers in our meadows of the Hike-Bike Trail. Burning helps remove last year’s plant growth, prevents trees from taking over meadow habitat, returns nutrients to the soil and uses the natural force of fire to create diverse wildlife habitat. All managed burns require a permit from the state, and are run by park staff trained as burn managers.
2009 - first wagon rides offered on the park’s “Wild Side” – the Hike-Bike Trail off South Kings Hwy. A fun and unique way to see the park’s meadows and the wildlife that live in these fire-managed habitats.
The wetland boardwalk, first built in 1981 and then completely redesigned in 1994, is given a face-lift in 2011, with all new surface boards, including the two observation platforms. The new boards are made from 100% high density poly-ethylene (HDPE), 90% of which comes from recycled milk jugs – 1 million recycled milk jugs from Chicago to be exact. This is the most environmentally friendly, non-toxic plastic “lumber” product on the market and is used nationwide by parks and wildlife refuges. The scale of this project was large, requiring one million screws and 1000 truck trips from the parking lot to the boardwalk. Project costs were $ 600,000 and funding was provided through the voter-approved 2008 park bond.
Historic Huntley Restored! This 19th century architectural gem is located at 6918 Harrison Lane in Alexandria, near the main entrance to Huntley Meadows Park. Thomson Francis Mason was a five-time mayor of Alexandria and a grandson of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He lived at the federal period villa, which was built for him in 1825. Historic Huntley was used as a summer retreat, troops of the 3rd Michigan infantry camped there during the Civil War, and later the property was farmed. Historic Huntley is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Virginia Landmarks Register and the Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites. Since the Park Authority obtained the house and its surrounding two and a-half acres in 1989, it had been open only during semiannual events and for school and scout tours before undergoing recent renovation.
The grounds are open dawn to dusk, but buildings are only open for scheduled programs and tours. Interpretive signs and brochures are being developed – keep coming back to the site over the next few years to see how the site’s story is unveiled. Learn more about Historic Huntley online, and learn about Friends of Historic Huntley (FOHH) at www.historichuntley.org. FOHH has spent 20 years advocating for and supporting this site.
An Outdoor Classroom Teaching Pavilion is built! Fairfax County Park Authority and Huntley Meadows Park would like to thank the following donors for their help in creating this structure. Construction was funded entirely by donations, creating a partnership between civic-minded donors and the Park Authority that provides a unique experience for visitors. Thousands, including children, scouts, families and civic associations participate in environmental education and are given a unique “classroom in the forest” experience.
The visitor center is named in honor of this renowned park advocate and volunteer who fought to protect the wetlands since the park was acquired in 1975. Norma Hoffman stopped a four-lane highway through the park. She has inspired three generations of local environmental activists, co-founded the park’s two Friends organizations, taught thousands of children and adults about the value of wetlands, and also worked to ensure the preservation of Historic Huntley. Norma Hoffman reminds us all of the power of one.
In 2013, the Wetland Restoration Project that took 22 years to plan, 3 environmental engineering firms and over 60 public meetings was completed! At least the construction phase - now park staff and volunteers will spend every year monitoring, managing and learning from this ecological restoration project, so the work has just begun. Adaptive management, ground-truthing and the long-term goal of sustainable local biodiversity will all guide the project as we move forward. Visit the restoration project web page to learn more. To learn about the wetland’s new weather station (visible from the boardwalk loop) please visit www.huntleymeadows.org