2018 Bill Thomas Volunteer Award Highlights Bill Browning’s Role in Leading Important Changes in Powhatan Springs Park

By Bill Browning

On April 25, 2019, ARMN member, Bill Browning, was honored with the 2018 Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Volunteer Award for his volunteer work for the parks in Arlington. This award was established to pay tribute to lifelong parks volunteer Bill Thomas and to honor and encourage residents with passionate dedication and support for the county’s dynamic programs, natural resources, and public open spaces. Details regarding the award are on Arlington County’s Environment webpage. Below, Bill recounts his and others’ efforts to change a neglected park into a haven for birds, plants, and people. He realizes that he could not have won this award alone.

Nearly six years ago, I was inspired to bring Powhatan Springs Park back from abandonment.  Powhatan Springs is a small park next to a heavily-used Arlington County skate park and county soccer field. The natural area contains a small stream and several native trees and plant communities that had been neglected for decades and had become overrun with invasive plants and trash.

Near the end of my graduation from the ARMN Basic Training course in the Fall of 2013, Jim Hurley (a Spring 2009 ARMN graduate) took me and my fellow class member, Matt Parker, to see the site. Jim thought that a little bit of effort by us could make a huge difference for the wildlife in the park. Simply killing the ivy and euonymus that was choking the trees could open up the site to many bird species, Jim thought. So, Matt and I began removing the invasive plants from the park during the early part of 2014.

Photo of a tree covered with vines.
Matt Parker in the early days of cutting vines in the park. Photo courtesy of Bill Browning.

We used Earth Day 2014 to recruit community members to help. From 2014–2017, there were three or four invasive and trash removal events each year, and as we saw progress, the momentum started to build.

Photo of four people standing in front of bags filled with pulled invasive vegetation
L-R: Stephen Browning, Mary Martha Churchman, Bill Browning, and Elizabeth Gearin displaying the spoils of latest invasive pull at Powhatan Park. Photo courtesy of Kit Britton.

Our ARMN classmates from Fall 2013 also joined in.  Alison Sheahan dove into the thickets of multiflora rose and tackled getting them under control. More recently, Mary Martha Churchman and Marian Flynn have made their own contributions in fighting invasives on a regular basis. As Matt had to deal with other commitments, I was fortunate enough to recruit other Master Naturalists to help. Among them were Mary Frase (from the neighboring Fairfax Master Naturalist chapter), who has become a de facto co-leader in the park. Mary has been instrumental in helping volunteers distinguish invasives from native plants. When she’s not been around, Beth Kiser (Spring 2010) and Joanne Hutton (Fall 2009) weigh in by examining photos of plants that I send to them.

The park has also benefitted from other ARMN members regarding the citizen science aspect of ARMN’s mission. Glenn Tobin (Fall 2016) used Powhatan Springs to start building GIS databases of the parks where ARMN members work. He, Emily Ferguson (Fall 2010), and I completed a tree inventory for the park, which will help with monitoring and planning for ongoing rehabilitation efforts. Colt Gregory (Fall 2017) has started conducting bird surveys in the park. Just this spring, he has identified 28 different bird species in the park; and David Howell (Spring 2018) recently captured a pretty cool photo of one of them.

Photo of a woodpecker coming out a hole in a tree
Hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus). Photo courtesy of David Howell.

Louis Harrell (Spring 2015) and Phil Klingelhofer (Fall 2014) have helped put Powhatan Springs on the City Nature Challenge map. There have been more than a dozen ARMN members who have participated in CNC in Powhatan Springs over the last couple years.

Arlington County officials have also supported ARMN’s efforts. Natural Resource Technician Scott Graham (Fall 2014) and Natural Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas have provided native plants from Arlington’s nursery. Scott also applied herbicide to bring the Japanese stilt grass under control, and he has helped install cages to protect them from deer browse.

Photo of three volunteers standing behind a deer fence
Scott Graham, Mary Frase, and Glenn Tobin with deer fence. Photo courtesy of Bill Browning.

Natural Resources Specialist Sarah Archer (Fall 2013) helped with the first Earth Day clean-up and has arranged for commercial support for invasives control. Park Manager Lyndell Core (Spring 2014) and his team have been instrumental in hauling away our trash and supporting a major planting that will happen this fall. A neighbor, Sandra Spear, is donating about 200 native plants for installation in the park, which she will purchase from Earth Sangha from a list provided by Matt Bright (Fall 2015).

There are a few lessons that I have taken from the work in Powhatan Springs:

First, I have realized the power of my persistence and calm demeanor:

I began working in the Powhatan Springs park in January 2014. We started slow and have built up steam over the last couple years. As of now, people can reliably assume we’ll be having about one activity per month there.

 Also, I’m a reasonably nice guy to work with. [Editor’s note: “He is!”]

Most of the 70+ volunteers I’ve come in contact with feel good (I believe) about what they accomplished and what I asked them to do.

I make it a point to read the volunteers’ faces, recognize the difficulty of some of the work, and steer them towards something that appears doable and that will give the volunteers a sense of accomplishment. I take pride in having a wide range of groups (Boulevard Manor neighborhood residents (thanks to Josh Handler), skateboarders from the skatepark, 4H groups (thanks to Liz Allan (Fall 2016) and Elizabeth Gearin (Fall 2009)), and scout troops (thanks to Fran O’Reilly and Jack Person (Spring 2017), all contributing to the park’s renewal.

Photo of woodland phlox. The plant has purple flowers.
Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) which appeared last spring. Photo courtesy of Bill Browning.

Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to say that I started this project with modest objectives to open Powhatan Springs up for the birds. I do not live near the park and I did not think it would be a long-term venture. But I wanted a project to sink my teeth into after I graduated from ARMN. It has become much more than that for me. I now realize the power of creating habitat, no matter how small it might be. Thanks to a diverse group of volunteers, this park is now becoming a real natural area. It has been very gratifying to watch this park improve in habitat value. Last fall we saw a Barred Owl hunting in the park which is just another reassuring sign that the park is recovering its value as a natural habitat. Also, during the award presentation ceremony, I appreciated when ARMN President Marion Jordan congratulatd me and all the other volunteers for our work at Powhatan Park: “We are so fortunate to have these parks in our urban areas and the restoration work at Powhatan shows that even a small area can be restored as an important part of our natural resources.  Congratulations to Bill and to all who contributed to this important work at Powhatan Springs.”

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