By Tina Dudley
Since October 2020, Cindy Lund has been assigning young men and women from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to work with ARMN Park Stewards for on-going, weekly volunteer service. Master Naturalist Glenn Tobin first met the LDS missionaries and Cindy, an LDS coordinator, through Trudy Roth of National Park Service, who manages volunteers for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. After he worked with them for a day or two, Glenn introduced Cindy to ARMN Vice President, Phillip Klingelhofer, who established the ongoing partnership.
Currently, LDS volunteers are working regularly in five area parks—Brandymore Castle Park, Tuckahoe Park, Potomac Overview Regional Park, Jamestown Park, and Sharp Park.
All of the Stewards are immensely grateful for these hardworking, dedicated, and fun-spirited volunteers, as well as Cindy’s efforts. Without Cindy, none of the parks would have benefitted from these amazing volunteers. Gary Shinners, one of the Park Stewards, describes her as incredibly responsive and a joy to work with—she does a great job of coordinating.
Many of the volunteers have worked tirelessly to remove invasive plants. These plants aggressively consume limited space and resources, and don’t contribute to the energy cycle. It takes millions of years for native plants and insects to co-evolve, so when foreign plants are planted or spread unintentionally, most insects are not able to eat them. This reduces the population of insects that primary predators, like birds, reptiles, and mammals, have to eat, thus reducing biodiversity. However, when these invasives are removed, it makes space for productive native plants to thrive, and creates food and shelter for native animal species. Below are a couple of the many wildlife beneficiaries of this labor of love:
Jo Allen, Park Steward of Brandymore Castle Park, describes the “sisters” (the female LDS volunteers) as “incredibly helpful.” They first started in January 2021 and have come every Thursday and have worked hard to remove porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) and English ivy (Hedera helix) from the park. In the photo below, Sister Cella is battling with a gnarly root to prevent the porcelain berry from invading a newly planted bed of native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
As she works with the volunteers, Jo weaves in lessons about ecology and botany. The volunteers are enthusiastic and friendly when speaking with members of the public who inquire about the project.
One volunteer, Sister Cummings, expressed her gratitude for the opportunity: “It was a pleasure serving, I am grateful for the experience, I learned a lot from Jo. I would recommend [that] others serve at parks and get to know the area. It’s a beautiful planet, we should be grateful for it. We show our gratitude by learning about it so we can take care of it.”
Mary McLean has been a Park Steward at Tuckahoe Park for over 15 years, and she once taught at the elementary school beside the park and often walked her dog at Tuckahoe. Mary’s volunteers from LDS started in February and they have been coming every Tuesday. The women are highly motivated to pick up trash and remove invasives such as English ivy, porcelain berry, and Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).
Mary also enjoys teaching the volunteers about the park and the plants within it—both native and invasive. Stiltgrass, native to much of Asia, was introduced as a packaging material for fragile items like ceramics. Mary explained Tuckahoe Park’s interesting geology. It is a bowl-shaped park that used to have a stream but after the stream was buried, there was a shift. With less moisture in the ground, the park unfortunately lost some mature oaks. But this opened up the canopy for the return of a lot of young oak trees and other native plants such as the Virginia jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana).
At Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Park Steward Gary Shinner’s volunteers have been building garden boxes, erecting bird boxes, fixing fencing, and doing trail maintenance, and pulling invasives. His group of male LDS volunteers (known as “elders”) have come every Friday since March. Gary shared how lucky he is to have their help, saying “If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the projects I have done this year. I consider myself incredibly fortunate.”
About once a month, Gary leads the elders on a hike around the park and teaches them about ecology. They are now very skilled in plant identification and can proudly differentiate porcelain berry from a native grape vine (Vitis spp.). A history-buff, Gary has enjoyed teaching his volunteers about the indigenous people who once lived on the land and even led the group to find rock shavings that were created in the process of carving arrowheads.
Gary also brought the volunteers to another small park, Jamestown Park, which is adjacent to Jamestown Elementary School. The volunteers have removed invasives from a slightly sloped site where the school has agreed to build a rain garden. This incredible before and after photo is a great example of the profound impact LDS volunteers have had in parks across Arlington!
The area shown here will soon be a native wildflower meadow and rain garden, which never could have happened if the elders had not first removed the non-native invasive plants from the area.
In the process, the elders extracted a long 25-foot porcelain berry vine. It was so long the elders were able to play jump rope with it!
Gary explained that this video beautifully captured the positive attitude and fun-loving nature of his group of volunteers, who worked very hard on whatever they were asked to do but also had fun along the way.
Colt Gregory has also worked with LDS volunteers in Sharp and Tuckahoe Parks. He described the experience as such: “We learned from each other as we cleared mounds of ivy from Tuckahoe and thick vines and underbrush from Sharp. The group learned to identify and remove the bush honeysuckle (some the size of small trees), wineberry [Rubus phoenicolasius], porcelain berry, and how to avoid (mostly) poison ivy. I learned about the outdoors in the South and West and talked to my groups about the importance of stewardship of the land. It was a different mission from the one they expected but all took to it with strength, perseverance, and good humor. Eventually we had a name—Invasive Assassins—and we wore our t-shirts proudly.”
Another group of volunteers worked with Glenn Tobin, winner of Arlington County’s Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award for 2020. Most of the volunteer effort was along the Potomac Heritage Trail in the George Washington Memorial Parkway near Windy Run, just alongside the Potomac River. From Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, Glenn led 28 events with the missionaries and they contributed about 450 hours in total. They removed a lot of kudzu (Persicaria perfoliata), English ivy, and “a lot of just about every other invasive known to human-kind.” Glenn described their incredible impact by saying, “Their work basically added another year of activity to what would have otherwise happened, so we are one year ahead of what we would have been otherwise.”
Glenn has been an ARMN member since 2016 and a Trail Maintainer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) since 2015. For years, he removed invasive plants at Windy Run Park and the adjacent Potomac River waterfront in the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Because of his work alone and with other volunteers, significant natural areas are recovering and becoming more beautiful and biodiverse. In 2020, Glenn raised money and worked with the PATC and the National Park Service (NPS) to rebuild the stone stairway that connects the Windy Run Park trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail along the Potomac River, improving access for many people. Then, inspired by the reemergence of diverse native flora at Windy Run and along the Potomac, Glenn began working with experts in ecology, botany, and natural resources to create the website, Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, which provides information about the local natural plant communities to help people make better plant selections for ecological restoration purposes in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and close-in Maryland. (See: related ARMN blog piece.)
On behalf of ARMN, I want to applaud the continued hard work of LDS volunteers and the Park Stewards all across the Arlington Region. Readers who would like to get involved in their own local park are encouraged to contact us to be connected with a Park Steward. It is a great opportunity for team building and service for your family, workplace, or place of faith—and who knows what wildlife you may find in the process!