Leaving a Forest Legacy

By DeCoster, Lester | American Forests, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Leaving a Forest Legacy


DeCoster, Lester, American Forests


After the fact is too late to decide what happens to your woods. Start reading.

You're dead and someone's fooling with your forest. Who you gonna call? If you want to affect what happens to your land after you leave the living, you need to make decisions now- while you're still alive. You need legal documents detailing your goals and an enforcer, an organization, that will survive into the future to carry out your plan. It's tempting to plan for eternity in saving land; I think it was Woody Allen who said perpetuity is a really long time.

A lot changes in a few years, and as you will see in this article, what one lawyer puts together, another lawyer can screw up. Be not afraid to make plans for the future of your forest, hut choose your enforcers well. Give them some flexibility They may face some big challenges.

THE RUCKUS IN RESTON

April 1999. Spring peepers sing lustily in the Glade Stream marshes of Reston, Virginia. The surrounding forest drips rain quietly. This scene survives in the midst of one of the Washington, DC area's hottest urban markets because, in quieter times, the town's developer gave the land to the Reston Association, with the requirement that it not be developed.

There were some other requirements, too. And that's what a rambunctious crowd is shouting about at a meeting on this spring evening. Strangely enough, the people being shouted at-the Reston Association staff-have done a good thing. They've carried out the land-gift requirement that the 71 acres now designated as Walker Nature Education Center be used for environmental education to demonstrate good land stewardship and teach people about the interactions of nature and humans.

The act in question: building a small rain garden and wetlands pool in the woods at the base of stormwater ditches. When it rains, water barreling off nearby roofs, roads, and other hard surfaces flows into cement ditches that run into the woods, carrying contaminants ranging from spilled oil, to lawn pesticides, to family pet poop.

It erodes the forest soil, then flushes into Glade Stream, cutting new channels, toppling adjacent trees, and decimating natural pools and riffles. The rain garden and wetlands pool are designed to hold stormwater, letting it sink into the soil slowly. Vegetation in and around the pools absorbs contaminants. Environmental education at work.

At the meeting, upset people rail against the ugly machinery (a small backhoe) used to build the rain garden and the cutting of one tree, a 4-inch diameter tulip poplar. "Leave the forest alone," they say.

"Left to deal with our runoff, the forest stream keeps ripping out its banks, toppling several dozen large trees on the water's edge each year," I say.

"That's natural; machinery's not," someone yells back.

"Give the project a chance, it will heal and do its job," the staff coaxs. Sure enough, as 1999 moves from spring into summer, muddy areas stabilize and vegetation covers the ground. Success, I think. We have all learned something. The very purpose of the Nature Center.

But no. The local paper announces, "Nature Center told to put land back the way it was." Some people hired a lawyer who did what lawyers do: found that a form was not filed with the right people at the right time. When incidental removal of poison ivy around the pools is counted (and the lawyer insists that it must be), the project is a little over a 2,500-square-foot limit, violating a county permit rule. I wonder: If the work really has to be undone, who will replant the poison ivy? Will we have to re-muddy the trail? Will this conflict with the terms of the land gift?

Elfriede Walker is the widow of Vernon Walker, Reston's first director of open space and the man whose name is on the Nature Center. "It has been very frustrating to have to defend, again and again, the ability to use Center land as it was intended," she says. …

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