A Globally Rare Ecosystem Lay Under It

April 3, 2017, Feature, by Alonso Abugattas, Sarah Archer and Susan Kalish

2017 April Feature Magnolia Bog Map 410

Consider it the perfect storm…but in a good way. Arlington County, just north of Washington, D.C., is one of the most densely populated counties in the United States. It has an amazing history: think colonial times, the Civil War, industry, the Pentagon. Like many communities, it’s gone from agriculture to suburb to bustling urban center. And, like many communities, it only recently has embraced the importance of maintaining and preserving its natural resources.

As part of a habitat survey in 2003, local botanist Rod Simmons alerted Arlington Parks and Recreation staff that about a century ago there had been a globally rare Magnolia Bog ecosystem on what was now a 24-acre site, located within the county’s Four Mile Run Watershed at the southern end of Barcroft Park. This forgotten area was hemmed in by housing, industrial development and ball fields. A little sleuthing determined that under all the invasive plants, such as English Ivy, bush and Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose and lesser celandine, were remnants of the “white sand and gravel bogs,” that M. L. McAtee in his 1918 publication, A Sketch of the Natural History of the District of Columbia Together with an Indexed Edition of the U.S. Geological Survey’s 1917 Map of Washington and Vicinity, called the “Magnolia bog.”

This site represented just a fragment of the natural landscape that used to be more prevalent in the region. With a little more checking, staff identified 18 separate freshwater springs, 23 plant species found nowhere else in Arlington County, 32 locally rare plant species, Virginia State Champion trees, County Champion and Significant trees, uncommon insects and a variety of locally rare animals. This assemblage of plants helped categorize this as a globally rare ecosystem, one of less than two dozen known examples in the world and just a fragment of the natural landscape that used to be prevalent in Arlington County. The area includes several habitat types designated by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Research as globally rare designated (G-1/S1) wetlands and state-rare designated (G3/S3) wetlands. This site also includes a terrace gravel forest and has more locally rare plants than any other site in Arlington County.

The Bad News
The Barcroft Magnolia Bog faced degradation from several environmental stressors. Some wetland plant species were reduced to extremely low population levels with little to no natural recruitment observed. Data showed that invasive plant species represented the greatest long-term threat to rare native plants at the site.

Another important challenge for the Magnolia Bog and surrounding areas related to water. Years of development in and around the surrounding supporting habitat had altered or destroyed the habitat, particularly the water infiltration so necessary to keeping alive the bog and all the life it supported.

Park and recreation agencies are good planners. We plan for ongoing field and facility maintenance, growth in programs and new community interests. However, our budgets don’t generally set aside funding in case a globally rare ecosystem is discovered, and restoration of this areas was not in the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation’s budget.

One of the best parts of working for parks and recreation is that our work resonates with the public. So, when the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation found out it had this amazing ecosystem and identified it as the most ecologically significant natural site in Arlington in its National Resources Management Plan, people wanted to help. Who wouldn’t want to restore something globally rare?

With community support, the county board approved a five-year Barcroft Magnolia Bog Restoration Project, and a longer-term plan to maintain the work was put in place by staff. In 2011, Arlington County’s Greg Zell, the natural resource specialist at the time, drafted a Natural Resources Management Plan for the newly defined Barcroft Natural Resources Conservation Area that called for:

  • removing invasive species to retain high-value natural lands
  • reforesting extant species
  • restoring degraded wetlands through re-introduction of historically appropriate native plants and wildlife
  • mitigating damage from storm blow out and retaining water in the seepage swamp
  • developing a holistic plan that favors the ecosystem

Innovation Through Collaboration
Restoration of the Barcroft Magnolia Bog is the result of a series of successful partnerships between Arlington County staff and local volunteer groups. “Our goal was to coordinate and unite environmental groups in volunteering to help restore and steward the rare wetland communities,” says Alonso Abugattas, natural resource manager. “We found concerned and interested volunteer partners who were willing to use their skills and abilities in regular habitat stewardship events.”

Community support and volunteer assistance came from the following groups:

  • Arlington Regional Master Naturalists — a nonprofit corps of volunteers who provide education, outreach and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within the community.
  • Windgate Townhome Community — an adjacent residential neighborhood)
  • Earth Sangha — a Washington, D.C. –based nonprofit public charity whose mission is ecological restoration as a form of socially engaged Buddhism. It operates a volunteer-based program to propagate local native plants, restore native plant communities and control invasive alien plants.
  • Virginia Native Plant Society — a nonprofit organization of individuals who share an interest in Virginia’s native plants and habitats.
  • Remove Invasive Plants (RIP) — a group of county-organized volunteers who collaborate with staff and contractors to assess the threat and impacts of invasive plants; adopt county programs and policies to manage and prevent infestations; engage community and cross-sector, multi-jurisdictional stakeholders; and coordinate invasive plant removal activities.
  • AmeriCorps Intern Team — Young adults from around the United States who support communities as they learn valuable work skills, earn money for education and develop an appreciation for citizenship.

Staff, volunteers and contractors each brought distinct skill sets that were needed throughout the life of the project. Contractors primarily targeted the large-scale treatment and removal of the invasive plants. AmeriCorps volunteers restored the site with plants from Earth Sangha and with wood frogs and spring peeper tree frogs relocated from other county sites, and also partnered with citizen volunteers to help clear less critical sections of the park and did community outreach and education. Citizen volunteers, recruited and trained by the Invasive Species Coordinator, provided invaluable support by removing invasive species (primarily the bush and Japanese Honeysuckle) that were more easily recognized and found scattered in sections surrounding the wetlands. No one group could have managed the project, but together they were superheroes.

In addition to the county funds, the project was awarded a grant to restore an additional 13 acres of Barcroft Magnolia Bog from the Run for Wetlands Grant, sponsored by volunteers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The project also received support from the Virginia AmeriCorps program through a grant that began in 2009 and supported six interns over three years. Their initial work was to restore Four Mile Run, but they included the Barcroft project in 2012. Their work paved the way for future efforts to manage other invasive plant species that could be readily controlled with hand removal and other methods that are more appropriate for volunteers.

The Measure of Success
Restoring the bog has been successful on many levels. In 2016, the final year of management, the project site was almost 90 percent clear of invasive plants. Long-term success will be measured through annual plant surveys within cleared areas for a period of three years to determine if any new species have emerged from the historical seed bank or if it’s evident that native plants are reseeding.

To help protect the area, a practice ball field and shelter were removed, and the practice field is now a fully functional meadow. “The restored native grasses and plants resulted in the return of Little Wood Satyr butterflies, which had not been recorded in the county prior to the habitat improvement,” adds Abugattas.

Successful breeding of wood frogs has been observable at the site since they were transplanted in 2012. From the two mating pairs of tree frogs and some 200 wood frog tadpoles that were relocated, the calls from several dozen of both species have been audible since 2014.

Stewardship activities have resulted in new and increased sightings of long-lost animals and uncommon plants. In addition to the Little Wood Satyr butterflies, gray foxes as well as uncommon plants, such as bloodroot and wood anemone, have been found in new locations and are expanding their range inside Barcroft Park. Woodcocks and increasingly rare Rusty blackbirds, along with the first documented sighting of a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron have also been seen in the park.

But, it’s more than just conservation success. It’s success that can be seen in the volunteer partnerships that remain and grow, and in the community’s pride and interest in continuing to restore and maintain natural areas.

Tips to Successful Collaboration

  1. Be strategic. Know what everyone at the table needs and values and how they measure success.
  2. Respect differences. It’s OK not to have the exact same goals, but successful collaborators’ vision for success must be in sync.
  3. Put it in writing. Everyone should know what is expected of themselves and others. And spell out how the collaboration will/can end. 
  4. Process for decision-making. Each collaborator needs to know his or her role. Does it involve decision-making and, if it does, for what and when?
  5. Be flexible when possible. If you have a strong foundation for your collaboration, change is less of a problem.
  6. Delineate roles: leadership, financial, programmatic, logistics.
  7. Don’t collaborate just because you are asked. Successful collaborations should mean something to all the players. 
  8. Be open and honest. Share materials that relate to the collaboration. Share if/when concerns develop. Consistent communication is the best way to make sure the collaboration goes in the planned direction.
  9. Acknowledge your collaborators. Recognize their contributions and talents.

Alonso Abugattas is the Natural Resources Manager for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation. Sarah Archer is the Natural Resources Specialist for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation. Susan Kalish is the Public Relations Director for Arlington County Parks and Recreation.