2011 Annual PWCA Conservation Forum: Public Access to Public Lands
March 21, 2011 at the McCoart Government Center
PWCAs 2011 Conservation Forum attracted a full house. With more than 100 people attending, it was close to standing room only in the Board Chambers.
Last year's Conservation Forum highlighted opportunities and challenges associated with land acquisition in Northern Virginia. This year our focus was on Public Access to Public Lands, an important topic for the Prince William area, where more than 1,500 acres of publicly-owned natural areas are closed to the public.
Three publicly-owned natural areas with no public access were highlighted. Although all these sites are closed, all are actively used by squatters, poachers and ATV users whose unregulated activities are damaging the resources.
The 800-acre Lake Manassas, owned by the City of Manassas, was closed to public access more than 10 years ago as a result of a dispute between the City of Manassas and the landowner who leased the property used as their public access point.
The 225-acre Dove's Landing was purchased by the Prince William County Board of Supervisors 15 years ago to block a residential development. Supervisors said preservation of this site was critical to protect the Occoquan Reservoir and promised the community a passive use park. However, the County put a "No Trespassing" sign at the entrance and the site has never been opened to the public.
The Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge has been owned by the U.S. Government for more than 40 years. Proposed for use as a landfill and sewage treatment plant, this site was acquired when Elizabeth Hartwell turned from her campaign to protect Mason Neck and initiated efforts to create the Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge. Although her efforts resulted in refuge status for this important site, the refuge has never been opened to the public.
The first speaker was Rob Hartwell, Chairman of the Elizabeth Hartwell Environmental Education Fund and a Commissioner on the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. Rob reviewed the origins of the Featherstone Refuge and highlighted its value as part of the network of protected natural areas along Northern Virginia's Potomac River shoreline.
Rob spoke to the benefits of public access, emphasizing the need to restrict uses to passive activities that do not damage resources. Rob also warned that upcoming budget cuts will create challenges for the FWS and noted that public access could help attract the volunteer support that is critical in times when funding is scarce.
Congressman Gerry Connolly, 11th District Representative, conveyed his support for opening the Featherstone Refuge quickly, with existing infrastructure. He spoke to the need to protect bird habitats and sensitive natural areas, and highlighted the need for public access as part of this goal, saying "if we're going to persuade our fellow citizens that preservation is a worthwhile investment, we need to make sure they have opportunities to see and experience the benefits."
The Congressman also referenced recent conversations with the FWS on their Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for Featherstone Refuge. Mr. Connolly announced that the FWS will support opening the refuge with existing infrastructure as soon as access issues associated with the crossing of a CSX easement are resolved.
Mike Kane, Conservation Officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, talked about conservation successes in the piedmont. He highlighted the successful preservation of Banshee Reeks Natural Area and emphasized the importance of long-term community support for protecting natural areas from future threats, including new roads.
Mike is also Chairman of the Washington Sustainable Growth Alliance's (WSGA) Conservation Program, which has recognized three projects in Prince William. In 2007, the acquisition of Merrimac Farm was selected. In 2008 the WSGA highlighted public access to Dove's Landing. Featherstone Refuge will be one of the handful of projects selected for the WSGA 2011 Recognition Program.
Charlie Grymes, Chairman of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, recognized the difficulties of protecting and managing natural areas that are largely unknown. He observed that, "if you don't know what you have, you're not going to manage it well."
Charlie stressed the need for access to natural areas so children can benefit from exploring the natural world and are not limited to the manicured lawn experience. He said that, while there places where that can happen, the most important are those close to home.