Monday, February 06, 2006

First Chairman of NVRPA was one of the great conservationists

[The following background on Ira Gabrielson was written by Bill Dickinson, the current Chairman of NVRPA]

Dr. Ira Gabrielson (1889-1978), NVRPA’s first Chairman (1959-1975) and thereafter NVRPA Chairman Emeritus, was a man who in the often heard phrase coined by the environmentalist Rene Dubos “Think Globally, Act Locally” acted and thought both globally and locally. A world-renowned ornithologist, he became the first Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1939. During his tenure there was a four-fold expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System, establishment of the Patuxent Research Station, and passage of the Bald Eagle Protection and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Acts. Upon retirement from Federal Service in 1946, he became the President of the Wildlife Management Institute (1946-1970). He also helped organize and became president of the World Wildlife Fund in the US and helped found the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He frequently testified before Congress on a wide range of environmental issues including clean water, wildlife, endangered species and pesticide legislation and efforts to establish preserves to provide habitat for wildlife across the nation and around the world. As active as we was nationally and internationally, Dr. Gabrielson had a special passion for preserving large and environmentally important tracts of land in Northern Virginia as open space for protection of wildlife and the enjoyment of the public. Caring little about what public agency had jurisdiction over such lands, he was instrumental in the creation of the Fairfax County Park Authority (1950), and an advocate for Virginia State parks. In 1963, he was Vice Chair of Virginia Outdoor Recreation Study Commission which set forth an ambitious plan for State and regional parks in Virginia.

During Dr. Gabrielson’s period of leadership, by 1973 NVRPA’s land holdings grew to 6,430 acres including most of Bull Run Regional, Bull Run Marina, Fountainhead, Pohick Bay, Potomac Overlook, Occoquan, Upper Potomac properties and Carlyle Historic Park. About 53 % of the funds for land acquisitions came from the member jurisdictions and about 39 % from Federal and State sources.

He was posthumously named to the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame although in the many descriptions of his incredible life, scant attention is given to his work at the Virginia and regional level, land he remained passionate about to the end of his life.

One of his quotes perhaps most applicable to NVRPA in 2006 is:

“The conservation battle cannot be a short, sharp engagement, but must be grim, tenacious warfare—the sort that makes single gains and then consolidates these gains until renewed strength and opportunity makes another advance possible.”
The following is a May 9, 1960 speech Dr. Gabrielson delivered to the Virginia Citizens Planning Association in Richmond Virginia. Used by the special permission of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington DC and is found in record unit 7319, box 13, folder 64.

Ira N. Gabrielson

(Address to the Virginia Citizens Planning Association,
Richmond, Virginia, May 9, 1960)

Within the past few years we have heard much about the subject of space, from politicians, scientists and the various media of the national press. In the public mind it has come to mean the great cosmic void that separates earth from its satellite and the planets. We associate it with multimillion-dollar gadgets that zoom out to infinity from places like Cape Canaveral or streak like meteors across the skies at night. The words “space engineer,” “spaceman” and “astronaut” have become as commonplace in the English language as “aviator” and “balloonist” were fifty years ago, and no more startling in their implication to the youngsters of today than the older terms were to me as a boy on an Iowa farm.

But in our search outward to the new frontiers of the Universe, let us not lose sight of the fact that there is another kind of space which concerns all of us intimately, and which will be of increasingly intimate concern to future generations of Americans. Regardless of the outcome of the great international space competition, man within the foreseeable future will remain an earth-based creature, even though he may, through his inventive and mechanical genius, succeed in sending a few of his representatives to the moon and beyond. The type of space of which I speak is living space and old-fashioned elbow room. In our modern civilization, with its noise, claptrap of mechanical gadgets, and burgeoning populations, it has become one of the most precious of commodities. If you don’t believe that it has economic as well as aesthetic and spiritual value, just take a look at the ads in the real estate section of the Sunday papers.

With the tremendous growth in population that has been apparent, especially in the coastal and piedmont regions of this state in the past two decades, the time has come when we must plan for space if we are going to have something more than standing room only in the near and immediate future.

To plan for space and to preserve natural areas may cost money, but it will be far less costly in the long run than attempting to create it at later dates by ripping out existing developments. This process is going on right now in Washington where much of the entire southwest section of the city is being pulled down and rebuilt on more spacious and modern lines, according to a definite plan. Personally, I feel that there is a real lesson there for all of us. When Pierre Charles L’Enfant drew up plans for the nation’s capital, he incorporated broad spacious avenues, the great swath of the Mall and a copious sprinkling of parks. Although modified in later years to some degree, this basic plan is the reason that Washington remains one of the really beautiful cities of the world more than a century and a half after it was laid out in the fields and woodlands around Georgetown. The development of southwest Washington, however, was outside the scope of the planners, at least in its execution. It simply grew, as economic and population problems spilled out of the parent city. It lacked the parks and broad well-lighted streets of the northwestern section of the city that had been built according to the original plan, and parts of it became one of the most deplorable slums in North America.

The result was that a few years ago when the planners finally did get around to southwest Washington, they could see only one solution—tear it all down and build it again from the ground up around the broad streets and open areas that should have been retained in the first place.

Sometimes as I travel through subdivision after subdivision of jerry-built suburban ramblers, split-level and Cape Cod cottages, which sprawl over landscapes unrelieved by parks or decent playgrounds, each group huddling like a group of identical chicks around a shopping center that serves as the mother hen, I cannot help but wonder if in these developments we may not be building the rural and urban slums of the future. Too many of them have no more planning than that given by the promoters themselves in their effort to crowd as many home sites into the area as the existing law will allow.

This need not necessarily be, but it will prevail without leadership in planning, and as long as the profit motive alone is permitted to dictate construction standards and the spacing of homes. In the vicinity of Washington several of the counties have become concerned with this problem and are now insisting through their zoning regulations and building permits that lots be larger, that certain areas be set aside as playgrounds and parks, and that the bulldozing of construction sites be confined to lands on which building will be constructed in the immediate future. These actions were caused by official concern over the influx of undesirable elements, and a consequent reduction in property values, as the original owners sold out and moved to the newer developments in their quest for space. If these earlier developments had been better planned in more spacious settings, the original owners would have had little incentive to move, some stability would have been provided for the community, and property values would have increased rather than declined; all of which demonstrates at least some of the hard-cash values of planning for space.

Housing developments, even those of relatively lost cost, can be attractive homes, and the proximity to a natural area can enhance both their commercial value and their appeal to sound citizens who can make a real and permanent contribution to community life. Certainly much of the juvenile delinquency that plagues public officials in urban and suburban America today can be traced directly to the lack of outlets for the release of youthful energies in the typical city and suburban environment.

For the suburban development the planners should strive to retain natural vegetation along all streams rather than permitting the construction of housing and commercial development to the water’s edge. Such areas are ideal for the creation of parks where youngsters, and older people too, can get their feet off concrete and asphalt and a little closer to nature. In the preservation of such areas through this means, there, again, are solid economic reasons even above those of attracting a better class of citizens. Traditionally, the bottomlands of rivers and streams have been considered inexpensive building sites; but permitting the construction of homes and factories in such areas can be an extremely expensive proposition in the long run. Because of poor drainage, homes and industrial plants built on low-lying areas outside the scope of existing sewage lines soon become sources of pollution, a development which either sacrifices the use of the stream for decent recreation, water supply, and aesthetic appeal or forces the community to extend sewage service to the source of contamination at a cost that is shared by other taxpayers. Secondly, such flood plain developments are wide open to damage from flooding and usually it is the taxpayer, through the municipality, county, or state, who must bail out the victims. Not infrequently a stream that has no history of flooding can run on a rampage after further development strips the cover from its banks. If zoning against construction on flood plains rather than development of flood plains had become traditional in this nation’s history. President Eisenhower would have less worries over the balancing of his budget, and the taxpayer’s load, which includes billions of dollars in flood control and flood relief projects, would be much lighter on the 15th of April.

A stream left with some semblance of natural vegetation along its banks and on its watershed and protected from pollution can become a valuable recreational asset to the community. One whose watershed is stripped bare, which is fouled with human and industrial wastes, and clogged with silt is the worst form of eyesore and often a menace to the health and safety of citizens who live within its immediate influence.

To this point, I have spoken only of urban and suburban problems; but much the same need prevails in rural areas. Although fewer people are directly involved, the regulation of development in rural areas often is more difficult than it is in cities and suburbs. Farmers traditionally and by nature are inclined to be independent in thought and action. Their general attitude is that no one is going to tell them how to run their affairs or their lands. Commendable though this sense of independence may be, it is a stumbling block in any attempt at regulating the actions of rural populations.

At the same time great strides have been made in checking soil erosion, in developing sound agricultural practices that produce more crops on available lands while enhancing the beauty and value of the farms. These steps, under the leadership of the various federal agencies, have been made, for the most part by the farmers themselves. In the past twenty years near miracles have been accomplished by the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts, the Soil Conservation Service, the Extension Service, and similar agencies in modernizing the agricultural practices of America by working with local groups. Farm ponds have been built, farms have been contoured and terraced, wildlife borders have been planted, flooding has been reduced, and the siltation of streams has been checked, all of which have direct public values as well as values to the individual farmers concerned. Beginning with the pilot watershed protection project on the East Fork of Falling River, there are now at least eight watersheds under unified local planning in Virginia. This program, to my way of thinking, represents rural planning at its highest level.

One of the greatest needs at the present time, in Virginia as well as in other states of the nation, is a well-rounded, sound plan for future multiple use of development of our major river basins, which should take into consideration all of the needs of all of the people within the foreseeable future. Agriculture, forestry, industry, residential development, water supply, both domestic and industrial, pollution control, and flood control, recreation, and the need for power all have a stake in such planning and all should be considered in any broad plan.

There has been much planning, to be sure, for the Potomac and for some of the larger rivers of Virginia, but most of those advanced to date lack coordination among the various resource uses that should be considered. Public power advocates pull one way sometimes with the backing of the Army Corps of Engineers toward high-level dams which would inundate thousands of acres of productive forest lands and some of the finest agricultural and recreational lands in the state and in neighboring states as well. Flood control advocates pull another way, and farmers and recreationalists have their own ideas on what a real program should be.

In my opinion the only sound approach to solving all of these problems is to be found in the example of the Miami Conservancy District of Ohio. Here the citizens themselves planned an overall valley development program, which included flood control as well as many features of additional public benefit—although primarily it was started to meet flood threats. The overall project has been developed successfully and operated with a minimum disturbance to the economic and recreational values of the valley. In fact, I think it has contributed substantially to both, and it has cost far less than the construction of the huge dams that would have been the alternative. It is my strong belief that we should develop a similar plan for the Potomac and other river valleys to provide the necessary water for municipal and domestic use, to provide flood control where it really is needed, and at the same time, to preserve to the maximum degree possible the scenic, historic, and outdoor recreational resources. Such a program, of course, would embody the enhancement or development of recreational opportunities and facilities to the fullest possible extent.

In starting to do this those of us in Virginia and neighboring states have one decided advantage over the citizens of Ohio when they initiated their project in the Miami River valley. We have ready at hand, in the Potomac Interstate Basin Committee, a group that operates through citizens’ committees and which already has gathered much data that could be used in developing such an overall program. I believe that this agency either could organize or spearhead the organization of further committees to develop a citizen-sponsored program. If it were well conceived, I am sure that there would be overwhelming support for it from the great majority, not only of the citizens who live in the valley itself but from the conservation organizations of the nation, who are vitally interested in what is done to this beautiful valley.

If progress of that kind can be achieved by the citizens of Ohio, there is no reason why similar progress cannot be made by the citizens of Virginia. Certainly we have as much know-how and as much operating capital. All that is needed is the will and the basic leadership.

But whatever plans are made, one of the fundamental needs of the people, and one which often is overlooked in many plans, is for recreation under natural surroundings, whether it be a quiet park in a city, where a harried office worker can get away momentarily from the frenetic bustle of modern living, to state and national parks and forests where he can really get next to nature. These things have great and often unappreciated values, which often outweigh those that can be measured in terms of dollars and cents. Those natural areas that are preserved today will draw future interest in the well-being of the citizens of Virginia.


Dave said...

Thanks Paul for taking the time to educate the citizens of Northern Virginia on the natural resources and parks that are available to us. As an active outdoor enthusiast, I am always looking for new adventures in our area for my family and I. Keep up the good work, I will return to this site often.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article... It's always inspiring to read about how the things we often take for granted required such hard work and dedication from those who preceded us.

I am a bit concerned, though, to see the bulldozers making their way into Upper Potomac properties on Nov. 27, 2007, at the entrance from the end of Seneca Road. This park is one of the best in the Washington area, and I can find no information on what's happening there. Can someone shed any light on this?


Rob Nevitte

Paul Gilbert said...

Mr. Nevitte,

Thank you for your comment and question. We are exploring sites at the end of Seneca Road to put a real trailhead, with some parking and signage about the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail that runs through that area.

What you saw today was a contractor digging a few test pits to test the soil in the area. Prior to the soils test, we did an archeological survey of the area and a survey of natural resources. The purpose of all of this study is to make sure that if we do have to cut a few trees to put in the trailhead that we have done it with as little impact on the natural and historic resources as possible. Having a trailhead in this area will help introduce more people to the fantastic beauty and wonderful trail network in this area along the Potomac.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Mr. Gilbert. Sounds great!

Rob Nevitte