Washington nature trail takes shape

An increasing number of butterflies and birds are enjoying native plants installed along a new nature trail around the town of Washington’s wastewater-treatment facility, part of a long-term habitat-restoration project underway there.

Old Rag Master Naturalists project co-coordinator Jack Price (middle, red hat) talks about the plants used with (from left) VMN citizen science coordinator David Mellor, Washington mayor John Sullivan, project volunteer and ORMN member Alan Barbour, VMN program coordinator Alycia Crall, and ORMN project co-coordinators Jenny Fitzhugh and Don Hearl. Photos by Pam Owen.
Old Rag Master Naturalists project co-coordinator Jack Price (middle, red hat) talks about the plants used with (from left) VMN citizen science coordinator David Mellor, Washington mayor John Sullivan, project volunteer and ORMN member Alan Barbour, VMN program coordinator Alycia Crall, and ORMN project co-coordinators Jenny Fitzhugh and Don Hearl. Photos by Pam Owen.

Last month some members of Old Rag Master Naturalists (ORMN), which is building the trail, led Virginia Master Naturalist program staff and Washington mayor John Sullivan on a tour of the project. ORMN member Don Hearl, one of the coordinators, said afterward that the project got started when, during ORMN’s first Rappahannock butterfly count three years ago, he found just one butterfly in the five-acre buffer around the facility.

The buffer then consisted mostly of mowed lawn and nonnative invasive plants, which are not good for attracting diverse wildlife, Hearl said. However, he thought the area, with a little habitat restoration, had great potential for a butterfly trail.

As vice president of Environmental Systems Service, Inc., Hearl has been a consultant for years on the town’s water and sewer projects, including construction of the wastewater-treatment facility. Through his consulting, he had worked with now-mayor John Sullivan, whom he approached about his butterfly-trail idea.

Sullivan liked it, as did the town council, so they formed a steering committee that included Hearl, Sullivan and his wife, Beverly, town administrative clerk Laura Dodd, council member Dan Spethmann, ORMN members Jenny Fitzhugh and Jack Price, and Marc Malik, a RappFLOW (Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed) board member who is now also a member of ORMN.

As more people got involved in the project, Sullivan said during the tour, the idea of the butterfly trail grew into the more complex habitat-restoration project currently underway — or, as he put it: “All of a sudden the thing has evolved into something really cool.”

A butterfly enjoys the new foliage along the ORMN nature trail. Photo by Cameron Harrington
A butterfly enjoys the new foliage along the ORMN nature trail. Photo by Cameron Harrington

To make it more manageable, the project was split into three phases extending over 10 years, Hearl said. In the first phase, the habitat would be restored in the area near the intersection of Leggett Lane and Warren Avenue, where the town owns a dilapidated house with space for parking. From there a handicapped-accessible gravel trail would run through a small wetland to a stream.

Joe Keyser, a Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection board member, has offered to build a bridge across the stream, donating the materials for it. The gravel trail would then pick up on the other side of the stream and run through a riparian area in which native shrubs and trees would be planted and to a series of mulched wildflower beds.

The second phase would extend the nature trail down to and around the treatment facility and incorporate a bluebird trail certified by the Virginia Bluebird Society. The trail, a series of nesting boxes built and installed by ORMN member Roger Temples, runs from the facility to the adjoining Avon Hall property.

The project’s third phase would connect informal trails that now run throughout the area and restore habitat along them. With public education one of the main goals, the project leaders also hope eventually to restore a an old frame house along Leggett Lane to use as a nature education center, which Hearl estimates will cost “well over $100,000.”

The town council donated $3,000 in seed money for the nature-trail project, hoping to get reimbursed through private donations eventually, Hearl said. About 65 percent of that has been used to purchase plants, mulch and wire for plant cages to protect the plants from deer.

The steering committee successfully applied for a $4,640 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, from license plates featuring the bay, to cover other costs in the first phase. This is a recurring grant, so the committee plans to apply again to keep the project going.

One of the Washington habitat restoration project’s goals is to eventually restore this building along Leggett Lane to use as a nature-education center.
One of the Washington habitat restoration project’s goals is to eventually restore this building along Leggett Lane to use as a nature-education center.

A rain garden, not in the original plan, was installed next to the wastewater-treatment facility this summer to help control runoff and provide habitat, thanks to a grant of “about $1,800” from the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District, Hearl said. The town administers both grants. Loudoun Composting also donated 50 cubic yards of compost for the beds.

Hearl said he’s hoping to get additional money for the project through VMN. The program’s coordinator, Alycia Crall, who was on the tour and, said VMN has some funding from the National Science Foundation to initiate such “citizen-science” projects. VMN is also looking at the idea of crowdfunding, noting that some researchers have started doing this for their research projects.

The physical work on the trail started in early 2012; so far, 18 ORMN volunteers collectively have put in more than 500 hours of labor through cold, heat, and rain — lots of rain — to pull invasives, construct wildflower beds and restore a riparian areas, according to Fitzhugh. Rappahannock County High School students Nathan Smith and Ben Estes, under an internship program at the school, and plant experts from the Virginia Native Plant Society have also helped.

A contractor has constructed the gravel path running from the parking area through the wetland to the stream. With the wetland’s rich plant community and the opportunity to show an area in the early stages of succession to forest, the coordinators decided to leave that area alone except for removing invasive plants.

ORMN member Alan Barbour has been experimenting with using “quick response” (QR) codes on some of the signs along the trail, which would allow anyone with a smartphone app to scan it for more information.

Many of the installed plants have bloomed this year, attracting butterflies and other pollinators. A pair of bluebirds also raised a brood in one of the bluebird boxes, says Malik, who monitors them along with ORMN member Mary Frances LeMat. Project members said they have also seen wild turkeys and other signs of wildlife along the trail.

“With just this little bit of planting, we’ve seen an increase in the bird activity in the area,” said ORMN member Price.

Photo by Cameron Harrington
Photo by Cameron Harrington

Price said he plans to submit the site to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for their wildlife mapping program, so anyone wanting to participate in the project who can’t do the physical labor could help by counting wildlife. Eventually, the site could serve to demonstrate how habitat can be restored, he added.

“We’re in year two now,” Hearl said, “and I think it’s got a good start.” Fitzhugh estimated the first phase would take another two years.

Businesses should benefit from the project, Hearl said, especially if an attractive brochure is developed that they can hand out to visitors. He agreed with Sullivan that, as the gateway into the town, the area should be aesthetically pleasing, with attractive signage.

The tour also included the Avon Hall property, where RappFLOW is restoring the impaired ecosystem around the pond and along the stream that flows into it. Malik, who had worked on the conceptual design for the nature trail, also designed the pond project.

RappFLOW is installing a naturalized buffer that consists of “a native wildflower garden that doesn’t cost as much to maintain, will look attractive and improve the quality of the water in the pond,” Malik said in a recent interview. Native aquatic plants will then be installed in shallow areas of the pond. The day of the tour, black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers that had been planted in the buffer were attracting butterflies and a belted kingfisher was working the pond, apparently happy with what’s been done so far.

Initially the town planned to sell Avon Hall and the Warren Avenue property to help pay for the wastewater-treatment facility. Now it seems to be leaning more toward restoring the home on the property, but the cost would be high — at least $1 million, according to Sullivan.

The nature trail goes through a wild meadow, with goldenrod now in bloom. The meadow has been left as it was except for removing invasive plants.
The nature trail goes through a wild meadow, with goldenrod now in bloom. The meadow has been left as it was except for removing invasive plants.

“We’ve got to do something with it, and we somehow have to make some money out of it,” Sullivan said. Lots of ideas have been floated, he said, but no decision has been made, adding that the town is hoping to come up with a use that is “a benefit for the community and that attracts people.”

The town is also looking for funds to buy the privately owned nine acres between the wastewater-treatment property and U.S. 211, which would raise the total restoration area to more than 25 acres. Sullivan added that he’d like to see the informal trail system that runs throughout the town extended into that area and turned into something more formal and cohesive.

Until then, the public is welcome to use the current trail system to check out the habitat-restoration projects, Sullivan said, adding that the Rappahannock Farm Tour and Festival Sept. 28-29 would be a good opportunity to do that. The farm tour weekend includes an artisan’s market at Avon Hall, where RappFLOW and ORMN will have displays. RappFLOW will also be installing aquatic plants in the pond during the tour, Malik said; ORMN will offer tours of the trail site next door, Hearl said.

The public is invited to help with the restoration projects — doing the physical work, finding funding or making private donations. For the trail project, contact Don Hearl at 540-825-6660 or donh@ess-services.com; for the Avon Hall project, contact RappFLOW’s Beverly Hunter at 540-937-4744 or beverly@bevhunter.com, or visit rappflow.org.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 271 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”