The Featherstone Refuge – Public access to public places

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is hosting public meetings on the draft management plan for the Featherstone Refuge on February 2 from 2:00-4:00pm and 6:30- 8:30pm at Potomac Library, 2201 Opitz Blvd., Woodbridge. Send written comments to northeastplanning@fws.gov by February 21.

Years ago, back when the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge was still the former Harry Diamond Lab facility, that biologically diverse natural area was closed to the public but open to some for wildlife surveys and public tours, much as the Featherstone Refuge is today.

I helped with programs and tours at the soon-to-be Occoquan Refuge, and had permission to visit at other times. I went there one spring day, I can’t remember why but my ten year old son needed to accompany me. He was unhappy about this and complained all the way to the washed out bridge area, where a major wetland system drains into Occoquan Bay.

In an effort to engage him, I gave him waders and nudged him toward the water. He was soon standing in the inlet… legs apart, hands on hips and still giving me the business – he had people to see and places to go and this was not one of them – suddenly a three foot Longnose Gar swam out of the wetland, right through his legs and out into Occoquan Bay.

After a moment of stunned silence, he smiled at me and said, “Well… never mind.” Thanks to the Longnose Gar my son and I shared a day to remember, one everyone should have the opportunity to put in his satchel of memories.

The great outdoors offers remarkable experiences, but only to those with access to high quality natural areas. At a time when many are justifiably concerned about nature deficit disorder and worry that we’ve seen the last child in the woods, closing natural areas to the public makes no sense. As my son and I learned from the Longnose Gar, nothing takes the place of personal discovery.

Although natural areas create healthy and vibrant communities, protecting new sites is difficult, expensive and often politically charged. When natural areas are saved only to be locked away, they remain out of sight and out of mind. At these sites, you’re more likely to encounter off-road vehicles, drug deals and camp fires than nature lovers exploring the shoreline with binoculars and cameras.

Without a compelling reason to exclude the public, such as a species so rare it must be isolated, it’s difficult to understand why some Northern Virginia sites, such as the Featherstone Refuge, have never been opened to the public, even after decades of public ownership. We don’t have so many of these areas that we can afford to prevent access to those we do have.

Currently the FWS has published a draft management plan for the Featherstone Refuge, which they say is the first step to opening the refuge to public access. The plan includes a “compatibility determination” that supports birding, photography, environmental education activities, and even bicycles and dog walking in some areas.

Unfortunately, the plan contains little action. The FWS commits only to continue discussions aimed at opening the Featherstone Refuge to the public. The plan also references “needs” for expensive “improvements,” including observation platforms and multi-use trails as well as additional staff for public environmental education programs, a significant step up from the current situation at other Northern Virginia refuges.

This all sounds exciting but, while expensive improvements would be nice amenities, they are just that – amenities, not must-haves. The Featherstone Refuge is already well travelled, with existing footpaths that lead to the areas the FWS identifies for future viewing platforms.

Opening the Featherstone Refuge for wildlife watching and fishing would help stem undesirable activities, as it has at other Northern Virginia natural areas. Public access would help generate, as it has at the other Northern Virginia refuges, a sense of community stewardship, enhancing efforts to protect the quality of natural areas as well as County goals to revitalize the Route 1 corridor.

The Featherstone Refuge is important to both wildlife and people. After decades of neglect, it’s time to remove the “No Trespassing” signs, invite the public to watch wildlife in Woodbridge and protect the quality of wildlife habitats at the Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge.

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1 comment so far

  1. Larry Underwood on

    On my recent visits to the Featherstone refuge, while on special tours and cleanup efforts, I’ve observed a problem: No matter how well intentioned the group’s purpose, they cannot walk on the refuge’s existing trails without causing erosion. After just a few hours usage by as few as 20 people, the trails are deepened and become muddy. Parallel trails are established adjacent to existing trials as people try to avoid the mud they’ve recently created. These are observable effects and they are not surprising. After all three-quarters of the refuge is wetland, and you can’t walk across a wetland without causing erosion. Wetlands are sensitive. There is no such thing as “low impact use” of a wetland.

    Now, this damage is being created by as few as 20 people using the refuge 2 or 3 times a year. Think for a moment what would happen if the refuge were suddenly opened to the public in its current state and people had access either by boat or by foot. What would happen if an average of 20 people came to the refuge every week? What if visitor rates suddenly rose to 20 per day? This is not an unreasonable number, given that Occoquan Bay Refuge, just a 10 minute drive from Featherstone, gets an average of 44 visitors a day. What would happen to Featherstone Refuge, if visitor rates reached that level? Some may find my remarks “unhelpful”, but my concerns are genuine and real: Simply opening the refuge to the public without sufficient resources, as is being suggested by some, would be irresponsible. It would result in immediate, long-term and perhaps permanent damage to the refuge. It would negatively impact the resource, its environment, and the very wildlife the refuge is pledged to protect. It would not be in the public’s best interest. To conclude that “opening the refuge to public access will not harm the wildlife resources” is little more than wishful thinking.

    Recently, I’ve called upon the Fish and Wildlife Service to implement Alternate B, but to resist all pressure to open the refuge prematurely. The refuge should not be opened until the Service has the resources to do so properly and safely. At a minimum, these resources should include:
    • at least one permanent trail especially built to protect wetlands (“improving” existing trails with “stone dust or dirt” would be utterly inadequate to protect wetlands);
    • increased staff to construct, maintain and regularly patrol the refuge (at a minimum this should include replacing the soon to be vacated assistant manager and re-hiring a staff biologist and an additional maintenance person);
    • appropriate signage; and
    • well-organized programs.

    These are not unrealistic pre-conditions. It is my hope that the environmental community will rally behind and work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain them. The FWS is not the enemy. Now is the time for us to help them get the resources they need to manage our refuges successfully.

    It’s high time that we put the welfare of wildlife and the integrity of the environment first in our thinking about the future of Featherstone refuge. Until the Service has the resources they need, in-hand and in-force, the refuge should be kept closed.


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