Quest to revive wetlands

A barricaded stretch of parking off Groveton Road is all that remains of developer John T. Hazels dream to build a shopping center near the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Now, the National Park Service hopes to restore part of the 558-acre tract, known as Stuarts Hill, to its original wetland habitat, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

“Theyre restoring the contour of the land. And that will bring the wetlands back,” said Brian Gorsira, natural resources manager at the battlefield.

The National Park Service took control of the 558 acres in 1988, after local opposition to the proposed William Center shopping mall led Congress to include the land in the park.

Since the federal governments seizure of the land, it has remained fallow due to lack of funding. And since Hazels company had already done some work on it, the land is also what Gorsira describes as “disturbed.”

The Smithsonian plans to change that situation, bringing 104 acres of the tract back to its original 1862 contours. Native wetland species will also be planted.

A small pavilion will be constructed for a picnic area. The only site for picnicking at this time is next to the parks visitor center.

“I suppose its one step up,” Gorsira said.

The Smithsonian is paying for the work because another wetland is being destroyed by the construction of the museums new $311 million National Air and Space Museum, scheduled to open December 2003 south of Washington-Dulles International Airport.

Virginia law requires a developer to replace any wetland destroyed. This sometimes means trying to construct a wetland where none existed before. In the case Stuarts Hill, the Smithsonian is restoring a wetland that previously existed on the land.

With the review period for the project now over, Gorsira says it is pretty much “good to go.”

Smithsonian officials could not be reached to mention the cost and timing for the project.

Wetlands low-lying areas where water congregates for much of the year play many valuable roles.

By allowing water to sit and seep through the ground, wetlands naturally filter water, replenish ground water supplies and help prevent floods. Many plant and animal species are unique to wetlands and would not exist if too many wetlands were destroyed.

“Replacement” of wetlands, however, isnt easy, according to Cliff Fairweather, who runs the Audubon Naturalist Societys Virginia Water Quality Program.

“Theres a lot of controversy over whether we know enough to reproduce such a complex natural system,” Fairweather said.

Both the Dulles and the battlefield sites drain into the Bull Run River. Fairweather worries that an entire section of the Bull Run watershed might be negatively affected by the loss of the Dulles wetland.

“I have some questions about how much you can move stuff,” Fairweather said.

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