Saving a sanctuary

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It’s 7 am Wednesday and as bleary-eyed motorists guzzle coffee and make their way down the George Washington Parkway to high-pressure, high-powered jobs in the nation’s capital, most seem oblivious to the teeming activity of thousands of animals and birds in the mudflats and marshes out their side window.

It’s a Federally-protected, 380-acre wetland, the centerpiece of a Tuesday night presentation by the National Park Service at Belle View School, which brought out impassioned voices intent on saving it from the forces of environmental degradation and suburban sprawl.

About every other morning of the week, Elizabeth Ketz Robinson and her husband Don plunk one of their Old Town /Shenandoah canoes into the tranquil waters of the Potomac off Southdown Road and paddle through Dyke Marsh, their three Golden Retrievers in tow. 

“It’s so serene, the beauty of it is just astounding,” said Elizabeth Robinson, who like Don works as a clinical social worker and therapist at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. “Every morning out here we find something new and wondrous. We like to monitor the ospreys building their nest or check in on the American Bald Eagle habitat…It’s almost a spiritual experience.”

Every Saturday morning the Robinsons volunteer as paddlers for an expert birder conducting a survey of breeding birds attached to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, a longitudinal study funded by the Smithsonian. So far the researcher has documented about 180 different species of birds living full-time at Dyke Marsh: Wood Ducks, Buffalo Heads, Least Bitterns and Prothonatary Warblers, brilliantly-colored birds which bird trackers travel “hundreds of miles” to view through their binoculars, she said.

“I’m interested in about 300 birds migrating or resting there,” said Edward Barrows, PhD., a biologist and research scientist with the Center for the Environment at Georgetown University. “It’s so rich in life. It’s got a wonderful tidal flow and about 18,000 different species of plants, animals, birds and bacteria to study. I began biological monitoring at Dyke Marsh in 1996 and published my first scientific paper on it a few years later. It’s a rich place, teeming with biological diversity. It’s just sad so little is left.”

Wetlands like Dyke Marsh are transitional zones where the water meets land and forms one of nature’s most dynamic ecosystems, said Glenda C. Booth, president of Friends of Dyke Marsh. “It is the last freshwater tidal marsh in the Upper Potomac Zone,” Booth said. “Rivers used to be lined with marshes like this.”

In a film produced by the group in 2005 and screened at the Kennedy Center, nearby resident and U.S. Senator John W. Warner (R-VA.) called Dyke Marsh a “magnificent little oasis.”

Congress designated Dyke Marsh as part of the National Park system in 1959, affording it needed federal protections.

But that did not slow the stresses on it with ensuing decades of suburban creep, situated just a mile from the City of Alexandria, one of the area’s most densely-populated cities. “People used to look at marshes as dumping grounds,” said Booth. “You can see big chunks of construction debris as well as the occasional bathtub or refrigeration we hope will get eventually removed. Fortunately, these days we have an enlightened view.”

The roughly 100 homeowner hunters, fishermen, bikers, hikers and assorted environmentalists who gathered Tuesday were keen on hearing the views of the National Park Service, which held a public scoping meeting for the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve Environ-mental Impact Statement (EIS). Questions and comments were not taken during the three-hour park service presentation, but written comments were accepted Tuesday and during the 45-day public comment period which ends May 23.

“Our objective was to provide information on the EIS and the planning process,” said Jon G. James of the National Park Service, acting superintendant of the George Washington Parkway. “Dyke Marsh is one of the last remaining tracts of tidal freshwater marsh along the Potomac River in the Washington area. It has existed for about 5,000 years.”

Brent Steury, Natural Resou-rces Manager for the GW Parkway said that from 1940 to 1972 Smoot Sand and Gravel Corp. dredged the marsh for sand and gravel, which caused big sinkholes and resulted in the loss of 270 acres of marshland. In 1974, Congress passed legislation calling for Dyke Marsh’s restoration, so that fish and wildlife development and its preservation as a wetland wildlife habitat would be “paramount.”

The increased river traffic from National Harbor, its upcoming Yacht Show and a souped-up tourist boat called the “Seadog” will only serve to exacerbate the wakes and disrupt the Dyke Marsh’s fragile ecosystem. “All the stresses of suburbia are serving to kill Dyke Marsh,” Booth said. “Small trash, herbicides, pesticides, oil runoff from highways — 80 percent of the streams in Fairfax County were rated fair to poor in last year’s stream assessment survey by the county. This must be saved.”

Added James, “It’s our mission to preserve a place like this. I think it has been threatened in the past, and if we don’t go through a process like this now, it will become more threatened. This is very important. This is one of our charges.”

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