Alexandria Celebrates Women: The Eagle Lady: saving bald eagles

Alexandria Celebrates Women: The Eagle Lady: saving bald eagles
Elizabeth Hartwell, also known as the ‘Eagle Lady.’ (Photo/Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge)

By Gayle Converse

At one location along the Mount Vernon Trail during the recent Alexandria Celebrates Women “Making History to D.C.” Walk, I couldn’t help but marvel at a pair of golden eagles circling overhead.

The duo is one of two varieties of the majestic bird found in the Commonwealth – the other, the symbol of our nation – the bald eagle.

According to the Center for Conservation Biology, the largest population of bald eagles, in what is now the continental United States, was once found in the Chesapeake Bay region. As development grew, the population declined. Some of the highest levels of DDT – an insecticide developed in the 1940s and banned in the 1970s – and other pesticides for any bald eagle population in the U.S were found in the food chain of Chesapeake birds in the 1970s.

Thanks to the efforts of one Fairfax County woman – in a time when women’s voices largely went unheard – the numbers of bald eagles are again soaring.

Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell, a 1950s “housewife” and native Virginian, moved with her husband and two sons in 1960 to sparsely populated Mason Neck, Virginia. The boot-shaped peninsula lies approximately 13 miles south of Alexandria.

The land – documented by Captain John Smith in 1608 and originally referred to as Dogue’s Neck after its Indigenous population – was formed by the Potomac River to the east, Pohick Bay on the north and Belmont Bay on the south in what is now southern Fairfax County. The area was renamed to honor the family of author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason. The Masons owned nearby Gunston Hall.

The Hartwell’s had relocated about the time a developer desired to build a 20,000 resident satellite city and airport on Mason Neck. In 1965, Hartwell discovered the plans for the new community, plus pending applications to use the land as a deep-sea port and for an outer beltway through the Great Marsh.

Hartwell knew the area’s bald eagle habitat, other wildlife and natural beauty would be at risk should the proposed construction be approved.

Under the umbrella of the Mason Neck Conservation Committee and against additional odds – including increasing land values, strong protests from developers and several landowners – Hartwell and her colleagues rallied citizens and communicated their concerns to county, state and federal bureaucrats via letters, phone calls, personal office and site visits. In 1966, Hartwell bought a canoe to take conservationists, elected officials and journalists on trips into the far reaches of the Marsh. She often claimed, “I’m a born swamp rat.”

Knowing that in 1960s Virginia women were still not immediately accepted, as she was often referred to as “that ‘busybody’ down on Mason Neck,” Hartwell chose a man to publicly head the Mason Neck Conservation Committee – but she didn’t stay behind the scenes very long.

Using the 1966 new federal Endangered Species Preservation Act, the rich colonial history of the peninsula and her enthusiasm and talents in communicating, strategizing and working both sides of the aisle, Hartwell’s efforts resulted in the 1969 establishment of the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge – the first national haven created specifically for the protection of the bald eagle – and earned her the nickname, “The Eagle Lady.” In 2006, Congress approved a name change in honor of Hartwell for the refuge. The following year, which marks 17 years this month, the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated in her honor.

Today, the Refuge contains 2,276 acres and boasts the largest freshwater marsh in the region. Along with sheltering one of the largest flocks of Great Blue Heron, it is also one of the premiere locations in the country to see bald eagles, hosting approximately 30 eagles in summer to more than 60 in winter.

Hartwell’s three decades of additional efforts resulted in permanent protection of more than 5,000 acres on Mason Neck. Today, more than 6,600 acres are protected. After moving to Alexandria, Hartwell continued to campaign for land conservation until her death in 2000 at age 76. Like many of the feisty and fearless women of Virginia, “The Eagle Lady” rose to new heights – in this case, to protect our environment.

Like we marvel at the eagles overhead, we can marvel at the soaring accomplishments of Elizabeth Hartwell.

The writer is a founder of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history.