City’s biodiversity faces uncertain future

City’s biodiversity faces uncertain future

 To the editor: 

Rod Simmons’ decision to retire this month after 27 years of public service means that the city’s biodiversity will no longer have a dedicated advocate for its stewardship in Alexandria. 

As the city’s natural resources manager, Simmons has fought tirelessly to preserve the city’s native plants and their habitats. 

His expertise comes from decades of practical experience as a conservation biologist. He is widely respected regionally for his knowledge and leadership positions as past president of the Botanical Society of Washington, the Maryland Native Plant Society and board member of the Virginia Native Plant Society. He has worked closely with both the Virginia and Maryland Natural Heritage programs, which focus on the science-based conservation of our natural heritage. 

Simmons has led hundreds of public field trips to endangered natural areas. As a private citizen, he helped lead efforts to get the state of Maryland to purchase the biologically rich, old-growth Chapman Forest along the Potomac River near Mattawoman Creek. 

I first met Simmons in the mid-1990s when he was curator of plants and the plant ecologist at the Winkler Botanical Preserve, which was before the conservation battle that led to his current job with Alexandria’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. The fight to save the preserve’s ecological integrity was chronicled in a 1996 article in the Washington City Paper titled “A Preserve of Incivility.” 

Simmons’ hiring was fortuitous because he brought with him the tools to begin a nearly three-decade campaign to protect, preserve and restore the city’s diverse biodiversity. 

The fact that the city had been abusing and neglecting its natural heritage for decades is not surprising. In 1996, no one in his department had any experience in conservation biology, ecological restoration and natural lands management. There was no appreciation for – or understanding of – natural resource conservation. So, Simmons set about to change that paradigm. 

As the city’s only ecologist and its de facto environmental watchdog, Simmons has accomplished a great deal during his tenure here. His surveys of the town’s biodiversity have unearthed an exceptional variety of habitats and native plant communities for such a small town. As a result, we now know a lot more about the flora, geology, watersheds and landscapes of Alexandria, knowledge that is essential for its stewardship. 

Simmons and his colleagues have developed the city’s first comprehensive Natural Resource Management Plan, which encompasses habitats from Dora Kelley Nature Park through the Coastal Plan to Jones Point Park along the Potomac River; however, he said if we want to preserve and help restore Alexandria’s natural heritage, this plan must be fully funded and supported with the right staff. 

Unfortunately, the city’s efforts to conceal or ignore the environmental impacts of their actions and that of developers has sometimes created an ugly and contentious working environment for Simmons and the environmental community at large. 

This was the case when citizens tried to prevent a developer from clear-cutting the Karig forest off Seminary Road to make room for million-dollar townhomes. It was the case when the city chose to put the new Potomac Yard Metro station in a wetland located in a city park along the George Washington Memorial Parkway. And it was the case when the city initially pushed to “restore” several streams in Alexandria in order to meet the city’s pollution reduction targets for the Chesapeake Bay. 

Simmons’ passion for native plants and his dedication to good conservation science has contributed significantly to what we know about Alexandria’s natural heritage. Without this knowledge the preservation, protection and restoration of the city’s long under-appreciated natural resources would not be possible. 

With Simmons’ departure, the city’s remaining natural habitats and the biodiversity they support face an uncertain future once again. We cannot allow this to happen. 

-Andrew Macdonald, Ph.D.; former vice mayor; chair, Environmental Council of Alexandria