Thursday, June 23, 2011

Become a Master Watershed Steward

Below is an announcement from the organizers of the Master Watershed Academy. This a fantastic program and is a great way to help the Anacostia River in the Maryland-DC area.

Become a Master Watershed Steward in the National Capital Region!

Applications Open NOW - Deadline July 22nd

The fall course of the cutting edge National Capital Region-Watershed Stewards Academy will begin in September.

A 15-class course spanning 5 months, the Academy will be held primarily at the University of the District of Columbia at the Van Ness campus in DC right near Metro.

Through the course, we will help empower community activists and leaders help their neighbors change how they handle stormwater. Participants become Master Watershed Stewards by completing the course and taking on a Capstone Project that will begin to reduce pollution and runoff at its source, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Applicants will be drawn from the District, Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. Course charge is $225, but scholarships are available.

The Academy is being run by a coalition of local and regional watershed nonprofit organizations.

If you want to expand your activism and deepen your knowledge base and resources about the environment as it pertains to watersheds and stormwater management and the quality of life of your community, we invite you to apply to the Watershed Stewards Academy.

Please visit for questions and to apply.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Native Plant Database for Chesapeake Region Now Online

Last week the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and Image Matters LLC unveiled their new online Native Plant Center. The new site provides a very user-friendly way to identify and/or select native plant species for the Bay watershed.

The online portal includes a fully-searchable database and online access to their incredibly popular booklet titled Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

That small booklet with the long title is often simply called that "orange booklet magazine thing that has all those native plants in it." Being able to access the publication online anytime will be a real boon for those of us who find ourselves in field, garden or hardware store asking questions about the plants in front of us. (My own hard copy of the booklet is quite dog-eared and coffee stained at this point, and has traveled the state in the passenger seat of my car as I went plant shopping.)

"Since its release in 2003, the demand for the resource has never waned," said Leopoldo Miranda Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, referring to the booklet in a recent Alliance press release.

He's not kidding. I once was at a native plant meeting where someone opened a box of them to give away for free and the audience members descended like hungry hungry birds to grab their copies. Having it freely available online is really great.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hunting for Illusive Moth Caterpillars with John Dill

(Photo of the infamous slug saddleback caterpillar, Archaria stimulea, courtesy of John Lill.)

I was in a bit of a panic. For weeks I had been promising the five-year-olds in my nature class that we’d study tent caterpillars, just as soon as we saw them emerge in late April or early May. Now the time had come. We were almost half way through the month of May, and the course was about to end for the semester. But the tent caterpillars had not been seen.

I had checked for them each day since late April. Tent caterpillars particularly like the native cherry leaves, and often you can find their huge webby tents in the park where those trees sprout up with abandon. But my morning walks this spring resulted in the discovery of only one bedraggled caterpillar, all alone… sans tent and tent mates.

Tent caterpillars, those little black insects with the sky-blue stripes down their backs are sometimes mistaken for the much more destructive gypsy moths. But they are also beloved by suburban children who like to gather them up on warm, sunny days and treat them like teddy bears. Perfect content for a nature class, I had assumed, because they are both benign and abundant.

What I didn’t anticipate was the variability of spring weather. The caterpillars don’t like to leave their tents when the weather stays cool and damp, and this spring that phrase pretty much described the entire month of May. Cool and damp. Those insects were only really out for a couple of weeks, and in many places their populations did not really reach their typical numbers. There weren’t the usual masses of them to be seen in many local parks.

A friend finally came to the rescue when her kids up in Germantown found lots of the caterpillars and brought them to my class where we watched them make cocoons and prepare to turn into moths, so I was saved.

John Lill, who studies caterpillars at George Washington University, has often had to face similar problems when he’s headed out to the woods with students. Caterpillars lives can be impacted by all kinds of variables and may sometimes prove very difficult to locate in any patch of woods or lawn.

This can be especially true for those which he refers to as the “ephemeral” species in our area. Until I heard him use that word for caterpillars I had only ever heard it used in reference to certain plants. But as Lill described it, there are some caterpillars which are like those spring wildflowers -- they only appear for a few short weeks each year before they quickly form cocoons and turn into moths. This category includes the beloved and friendly-looking tent caterpillar. It also includes the hickory-horned devil, a huge, green creature with red and black horns which Lill called the “holy grail of caterpillar scientists” because it is so difficult to find on local trees.

Lill discussed hunting for the hickory-horned devil and many other aspects of studying moth caterpillars in the eastern forests of the US at the May meeting of the Friends of Sligo Creek.

I really enjoyed his talk, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I were listening to Dr. Who describe aliens from outer space. There were descriptions of caterpillars who ambulate without obvious legs, and others which look like sea urchins and sting like jelly fish. There were some who give painful pricks with their spines to evade the mandibles of wasps. Others he’s been studying can secrete liquids from hidden holes in their skin, or are covered with white hairs that look and act like spun glass.

“I am completely obsessed with these lately,” Lill said with great warmth as he worked his way through photos of slug caterpillars. His enthusiasm was equal only to that of the five-year-olds in my nature class, so it was easy to assume he must be very popular when he visits classrooms each year throughout Montgomery County to teach students about his multi-legged study subjects.

When asked about collecting the insects with kids, Lill emphasized three things:

1) Only collect the caterpillars you find on foliage. Never take a caterpillar home from black top or sidewalks, because you will have a tough time figuring out what your study subject needs or likes to eat. Most caterpillars are very specific in their dietary needs and habits, and will restrict their munching to one or two kinds of plants or trees. Without the right kind of leaf they will quickly die.

2) Figuring out what they like to eat is important, because caterpillars can eat a lot in one day! In fact, some species can eat enough to gain more than 10,000 times their own body weight over the course of development. This would be, Lill says, “like a child becoming as large as an elephant just a few months after its birth.” You should gather a lot of fresh leaves on a frequent basis.

3) Poking air holes in the lid of a jar isn’t as important as most people think. In fact, the amount of air most caterpillars need is pretty small and the air can be refreshed each day just by opening and closing the container’s lid. But what caterpillars DO need desperately is moisture, which is often released in a jar with lots of air holes. Lill says you can even use a zipper style plastic bag to keep the caterpillar moist, happy and healthy. He also likes to use recycled plastic deli tubs for his study subjects in the lab and for his school visits.

Although the tent caterpillars I described earlier are only around for a short time each spring, there are many caterpillars which become more abundant as the summer wears on and fall approaches. Lill will lead a walk sometime in late summer for the Friends of Sligo Creek, in order to teach people about these dynamic creatures. Keep your eyes on the Friends of Sligo Creek website for more details.

This piece was published in the June 2011 Voice newspapers of Montgomery County, Maryland where Alison Gillespie is the author of the Sligo Naturalist column.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Take A Survey About PEPCO's Tree Trimming

We've been lucky so far this season; the thunderstorms haven't knocked out the power for long periods of time like they did in the fall and summer of last year.

PEPCO, our local power company, has tried to blame the trees for all of those outages and many others which have taken place in the last few years, although several officials who have investigated have come to the conclusion that PEPCO's own poor management is probably the ultimate culprit.

Last week a letter to the editor of the Gazette newspapers brought the issue forward in a new way, and it seems the Montgomery Countryside Alliance is calling attention to the issue of PEPCO's severe trimming practices in our county's Agricultural Reserve.

Caren Madsen, one of the authors of the Gazette letter, sent around the message below and ask people to take the survey and forward the link:

"Before Pepco goes into more overdrive on trimming with summer storm season approaching, let's see what others around the county are saying. "

Here's the survey everyone, have at it:

Film Screening and Lecture about Organic Lawns

Here are two events being publicized by the Little Falls Watershed Association. (Although I've heard that Paul Tukey is a great speaker, I personally think the better bet of the two events below is probably the film screening.)

Renowned Environmentalist Paul Tukey discusses Organic Lawn Care:
The Safe Lawn: How & Why to Create a Beautiful, Natural Landscape
Monday, June 13 2011• 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Tenley-Friendship Library
4200 Wisconsin Avenue NW #117, Washington, D.C.
Presentation is FREE and open to the public

Free One-Night Screening and Appearance by Filmmaker Paul Tukey
“A Chemical Reaction: The Story of a True Green Revolution”
Tuesday, June 14, 2011•7:00 pm – 9:30 pm
Wayside Elementary School
10011 Glen Road, Potomac, MD

Acclaimed film is based on the first town in North America to ban lawn and garden pesticides.
If you have any questions or would like to attend please contact
Stephanie Wight

Sunday, June 5, 2011

MoCo Street Tree Update

I was thrilled to read an article in the most recent update from Conservation Montgomery about the street tree budget in Montgomery County.

As someone who has advocated hard for the street tree program, I had become very worried about the huge backlog of maintenance the county's Department of Transportation had acquired in the last two years. Without funding, trees inspections were not happening in a regular or timely manner either, which seemed like a big safety problem waiting to happen.

According to Conservation Montgomery, about $2 million in county street tree maintenance funding will be restored to the FY12 operating budget which was approved by the Council. Although that is a meager portion of the overall budget, it will help to alleviate the backlog of work which has built up regarding the county's 425,000 right-of-way trees. And in this tight budget time, it seems miraculous.

Visit Conservation Montgomery online to read more.

Honeysuckle As Sunblock Boost?

In urban parks like Sligo Creek and the Northwest Branch, the fight against invasive exotic plants often produces huge amounts of leafy garbage, prompting land managers and volunteers alike to wish for some creative use for all of the so-called “yard waste.”

In the past this has led to garlic mustard recipe books and kudzu cook-offs, and even artwork made of vines. Such efforts, however, seem to barely make a dent in the huge amount of green stuff pulled from our parks in order to save the trees and native plants.

So I was really excited to read last week about a paper recently published by the American Chemical Society on a potential new use for honeysuckle. Writing in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, two Chinese researchers say they’ve found a way to use honeysuckle to boost fabric’s ability to block UV rays. This new discovery could potentially improve the design of so-called “sunblock shirts” by making them more effective and more sustainably produced.

The researchers note that honeysuckle has long been used to treat colds and fevers in Asia, and that it is currently also used as a food preservative. Some cosmetic makers also use the plant in products which are touted to make customer’s skin look younger.

There’s a down side to all of this, however. The initial research was conducted on fabric made of wool, and most of us are searching for sunblocking clothes which are both lightweight and UV protective.

Still, it would be nice to find a good use for all that stuff strangling the trees out there in the park. And I wonder what it smells like, too… sweet, or wooly?

June Concert Series at Brookside Gardens

On Friday afternoon I went over to see this year’s Wings of Fancy Exhibit with some relatives who were in town for the day. I never get tired of Brookside or the butterflies, and we were even delighted to have a Baltimore Oriole land a few feet away from us in the raingarden as we walked by.

This June, Brookside will once again hold concerts each Tuesday night. These concerts are free!!! And I’m told that the garden staff is willing to bend their usual strict rules against bringing food – they’ll look the other way so long as you take all of your own trash home with you. So bring a picnic and a date! (And a garbage bag...)

For a full concert schedule, visit the park online:

Friday, April 29, 2011

Support for MoCo Bag Bill

Wouldn't it be great if you could change the local environment for the better with just a five minute email or phone call? Here's your chance!

We are down to the wire here in Montgomery County, Maryland, hoping for the county council to do the right thing and pass a local bag bill. Now is the time to call your council members and show your support of this legislation. They will vote early next week, so there is no time to waste.

The bill would essentially place a fee on the use of disposable bags in the county. A similar bill passed last year in neighboring DC was so wildly sucessful it even shocked the environmentalists.

Anyone who has ever walked a creek in this county knows the problem all too well; bags line the banks and clog the streams at each turn. Volunteers at some Anacostia Watershed Society clean ups have collected as many as 28,000 bags in the past in one day. Friends of Rock Creek (FORCE) say they collected more than 5,000 bags this month --just in Montgomery County!!

FORCE also notes that the revenues from a Montgomery County bag would probably garner an estimated $1.5 million in the first year. This money would be directed to the county’s Water Quality Protection Fund which pays for storm water management, watershed restoration, and litter cleanup. Additionally implementation of the legislation would save the county some of the $3 million that it currently spends on litter prevention and cleanup.

Want to learn more about the bill? Click here.

Contacting the council is easy. Your email need not be long, just a few sentences that say you support the bill will be sufficient.

Click here for the county council's contact info.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nature Fair on May 1 at ANS

One of my favorite local environmental non-profits, the Audubon Naturalist Society, will be holding a Nature Fair on Sunday, May 1 from 11am - 4pm.

This little fair is usually a lot of fun, with music, crafts and activities. This year they will also have visits from Scales and Tales and Wildlife Ambassadors, as well as a rock climbing wall, native plants and visits from some local authors.

For more info you can visit the ANS website or call 301-652-9188.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Locust Grove Nature Center to sell Native Plants

Locust Grove Nature Center is offering a wide variety of native plants this spring.

To see what they have to offer, stop by any of the county nature centers for a list or email and ask for a complete list. Geri will be organizing the sale.

To purchase you MUST PREORDER by April 26 with a full payment. Plants will be delivered to Locust Grove, which is located at 7777 Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda, Maryland, on April 30.

Monday, April 11, 2011

New Gutters and Downspouts for My Rainbarrels

Friday was an exciting day here in my backyard, because the end of our long renovation process was finally at hand and the gutters were up and working.

I guess to a lot of people, the gutters are not very important. But if you have rainbarrels you see the arrival of the guy known simply as “the gutterman” as a rather major event.

My old rain barrel set-up had not been optimal. I had taken a rather dull hack saw somewhat sloppily to the old downspouts in order to trim them to the right height for the barrels. Have you ever done this? It is one of the loudest, most screetchy sounds around, what with the metal rasping against metal, and the tubes of the aluminum pipes acting like ear trumpets to amplify the sound up to the top of the house… really I’m surprised we didn’t have a pack of wild dogs show up in response. I actually had to put in ear plugs to survive the process.

Although the end product from the noisy sawing worked well, my cutting line across the downspout was a bit jaggedy. Also, I seem to get a bit lazy about my garden once it turns cold. I could have set it up so that I could take the barrels away from the spouts and put piping back up each winter I didn’t feel like bothering.

The huge snowamaggendon winter of 2010 made me think twice about this arrangement. Most of the time a barrel left in a sunny location will do okay in Maryland during the winter, one of my two barrels sits in deep shade on the northern exposure of the house, so it froze solid and stayed that way for about a month. When the ice and snow melted from the roof, it caused a major back up through the pipe. Nothing was damaged, but the whole thing made me kinda nervous. I began to wish I had a simple way to disconnect or turn off the downspout during the winter without moving the barrels to a new location.

So when I realized we were going to need new gutters due to our construction on the back roof, I began searching around for a more elegant solution for both the sunny and the shade side of my house.

What I found was a Y shaped downspout diverter which has a small lever on the front. When it rains, you can choose to send the water either down the traditional straight spout or into your barrel. It seemed like a good idea-- in theory. The foreman of our renovation project looked skeptical, however, and so did my friends with rainbarrels. I asked around on listservs… no one had used the diverters… so I couldn’t get any feedback on their reliability.

Then the gutterman arrived. I handed him the y-shaped diverters, he shrugged. “Oh yeah, I’ve put these on a bunch of times. I know what these are.” Whew, I thought.

Now, the diverters are in place and working fine. We had a nice big rainstorm on Thursday, and stood on the backporch listening to the lovely sound of the barrels filling up for the first time since last fall. So far, so good. Friday we went outside and peeked inside to find barrels full of lovely spring rain.

Looking back, I think someone with a sharper hack saw and better home repair skills might find the installation of the diverters a snap. In addition to helping us manage the winter snow storms a bit better, I think these will also provide a great “vacation setting” for our gardens. Now that I see how they work in real life I realize they are not that big of a deal. Just something new, not something radical. That pretty much describes rainbarrels in general, doesn’t it?

The picture above shows my barrel, in place and full of fresh water with the new diverters in place.

Volunteers Needed for Chestnut Project this Weekend

There are lots of ways to volunteer this weekend for both Arbor Day Events and Earth Day Events. Here's one that just popped into my inbox this morning: The American Chestnut Foundation's (ACF) has been developing a new blight-free American chestnut tree on a orchard that they are renting from Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. This Sunday, they need your help in measuring the diameter of these trees-in order to help move the goal of creating a blight-resistant strand a little farther. Join us this Sunday, April 17 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at ACF's orchard at Triadelphia Lake Road and Georgia Avenue, Brookeville. Park along Triadelphia Lake Road. We will provide all of the tools-we just need your help in saving the American Chesnut trees.    Kimberley M. Knox, Community Outreach Manager Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Office: (301) 206-8233 Cell: (240) 308-9134 For more info go to:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Urban Wildlife Gardening with Kids

This Saturday I'll be talking about urban wildlife gardening for kids over at the Anacostia Watershed Society. Hope you can join me... the weather is supposed to be blah so maybe we can have some fun dreaming of what it will be like when spring actually arrives for real!

Here's a brief description of the talk... for the location info scroll to the bottom of the page:

When you dreamt of being a parent, you imagined chasing butterflies through meadows and counting acorns in the woods with your kids. Now, in present day reality, you find yourself living on a city lot the size of a postage stamp and worry that your child with grow up with "nature deficit disorder."

Join me for some ideas about meeting these challenges, as well as a practical list of plants that can turn even a tiny space into an arena for experiencing the wonder of nature.

Inexperienced gardeners are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Urban Wildlife Gardening with Kids

Saturday, April 2

10 am -12 pm

Anacostia Watershed Society

4302 Baltimore Avenue, Bladensburg, MD 20710

RSVP: Please send an e-mail to: if you plan to attend.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Plant Trees for the Anacostia River

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments are hosting a Tree Planting Event. Come help the Anacostia River by planting some trees.

Saturday, April 16th9 a.m. to Noon 6600 Kenilworth Ave

Riverdale, MD 20737(Behind the Elks Lodge)

Volunteers are needed to plant approximately 200 native trees and shrubs (holes will be pre-dug).

No experience necessary.

Location:The Anacostia River Park is along the Northeast Branch in Prince George's County. Traveling north on Kenilworth Avenue from River Road, the planting site is located behind the Elks Lodge. Parking is available in the M-NCPPC visitor parking lot located at 6600 Kenilworth Avenue (Riverdale, MD).

Questions? Contact Aubin Maynard at or visit

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More Visions Needed for MNCPPC's Vision 2030

My good friend and fellow MoCo environmentalist Kit Gage recently let me know that she'd contacted the people at our local parks department to let them know her thoughts about the Vision 2030 plan they'd drafted after reading an email I'd circulated on the topic.

Kit's own email on the topic was so good I thought I'd post it here, with her permission of course. (I know some out there will have an issue with her words about deer. I've got different ideas from Kit on the topic, but I post her words here as she wrote them.)

Here's what Kit told those on the Vision 2030 committee:


I have looked over the Vision2030 statement, and as a heavy user of Sligo Creek Park, and active member of the Stormwater Committee of the Friends of Sligo Creek, I wanted to give a few comments on what I saw listed as peoples’ priorities as measured by survey, and the general priority list you all have put together. I am writing on my own behalf, but I expect my concerns are congruent with many of my cohort.

1. Without a more serious tree planting and invasives removal program, Sligo Creek Park and to a lesser extent other less degraded parks, will look very different by 2030 – many of the mature trees will be gone and relatively few native species will be left, given the overwhelming presence of ivy and other invasives that tend to preclude new tree growth. Norway Maples and other quicker growing invasive species will overwhelm the more slow growing natives.

2. Efforts to make new trails (which I support) that don’t’ take into account the need for significant tree and shrub planting and nurturing will just expose the dearth of trees and make warm weather use more difficult for lack of shade.

3. The MS4 and other stormwater requirements impact MNCPPC. You all are where the buck stops in terms of where the flood and drought and pollutants effects land in the county. A major education campaign to limit pollutant load, educate neighbors, especially adjoining neighbors, and implement some LID projects in your own areas – parking lots, buildings, walk-ways, roads, etc would seem at least prudent. In fact it’s probably essential for you all to address your MS4 requirements.

4. Education about the fact of the parks. Because skinny little parks abound in the county, they’re close to where lots of people live. MNCPPC and FOSC and other watershed groups spend some time having programs to help educate neighbors about why parks are so important, and not just as basketball and tennis courts, or ball fields. Given the changing population and changing language issues, it would seem a critical opportunity to do more education in the schools, more bi-lingual nature education in general, more education about stormwater and its impacts and implications.

5. Deer. Oy, deer. They’re eating everything. Remove them in all humane ways possible (including shooting), please.

6. I like that the existing community centers and facilities are simple, usable, and straightforward. No frills. Obvious maintenance needed here and there, but friendly for meetings, family events, and play. Where possible, please renovate using green methods and materials and alternative energy demonstration sites like solar panels where appropriate.

I’m clear that you’re facing daunting spending and staff cuts, wide-ranging needs, and clamoring priorities. Nonethess, I would urge you not to lose the essence of parks – outdoor natural spaces that in cities are otherwise not seen or understood. It’s incumbent on us to preserve what’s possible of the natural biome, and explain what it is and why it is to the surrounding populace not didactically but in an easily and readily accessible manner.

Thanks so much for your efforts to assess priorities and work to implement them.

-Kit Gage"

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Victory for Victory Gardens in Montgomery County

Okay, okay. I can't help but laugh at the announcement in last week's message from the Montgomery Victory Gardens people:

We won! We won! We won!

One can almost picture the nanny-nanny-boo-boos being levelled at the Montgomery County Public Schools on this one... and there are many who say they had it coming.

For more than a year, Gordon Clark and his crew at the MVG have been lobbying the county to make it okay to garden on school property. Things reached a somewhat ridiculous point when First Lady Michelle Obama even came and visited a MoCo school to promote gardening -- ridiculous since the county had long prohibited any kind of gardening on that same school property.

(One famous meeting with school officials included the complaint that gardens couldn't be located on school property because principals might get bird droppings on their nice cars. I am not making this up.)

Well, Gordon and his crew lobbied tirelessly and they won. Good for you, Gordon. Let us hope this is the first of many changes at MCPS.

To read a rather thin article about it in the Gazette go to this link:

To read more about MVGs efforts I suggest subscribing to Gordon's excellent weekly updates.

Guest post on the Metro DC Lawn and Garden Blog

I was thrilled to get an invitation from Betsy Franz and the Metro DC Lawn and Garden Blog this month.

Betsy's blog is one of the best in the area for gardeners-- full of great info every time. I also really warmed to the idea of writing about native plants here at the end of winter.

Thanks, Betsy, for the invitation to be a part of your great online space!

(The picture above, by the way, is of the swamp sunflowers mentioned in the article. Although in my piece I talk about them as brown and dead at the end of winter here is what they look like in autumn in full bloom.)

Look Into the Murky Crystal Ball: MNCPPC's Vision 2030 Report

(The following was originally published in the February edition of the Voice newspapers, of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington, Maryland as a part of my Sligo Naturalist column.)

Ever wish you could sit down in front of a crystal ball to see what the future will look like for our area? Last week I attended a feedback session hosted by the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC). They were gathering final comments and reactions to Vision 2030, a plan which will ultimately guide how the county powers that be treat our parks and recreational facilities in the next 20 years.

Like many area residents, I’ve been alarmed by how deep the cuts have been for Parks and Rec during this most recent fiscal crisis. Because of that I’ve decided to pay close attention to Vision 2030 report.

But without sounding wonkish, what does that mean exactly?

Well, the night the Vision 2030 draft plan was unveiled provided ample evidence of how things can get skewed in this county and how they need improvement.

For example, the report shows (in both text and maps such as those on page 17) that there is an imbalance of programming whereby the farther out (and often wealthier) suburbs get a very disproportionate amount of recreational programs at their facilities.

This is no surprise to parents in the “downcounty” areas of Silver Spring and Wheaton. Ever try signing your child up for a dance or art class? It always seems like more than half of them are held in places like Potomac and Gaithersburg. Now we have real evidence that this is actually the case.

To correct this, one of the stated long-term goals for the county will be to place programs and facilities more evenly, and where there’s a majority of people and more transit access.

That’s good, I think.

There was also an effort made in the report to emphasize that the parks play an integral role in preserving and presenting cultural resources and historic sites to the public. And, a very real effort to address the problem that many services are not accessible to those who are socio-economically disadvantaged.

Again, I think those all are very good goals.

What worried me and many others who were at last week’s meeting, however, was how development-heavy and recreation-heavy the overall vision for the future of the parks seems in the report.

This prompted one attentive woman at the meeting to ask for a definition of what a park was in their report. Could a park experience be, she inquired, something as urban and structural as the new ice skating rink in downtown Silver Spring? The answer that came back was somewhat unclear: Yes, maybe, depending on how they counted it…

This is where my skepticism kicked in, as it did for many others. I like the new rink, I’m glad for it. But that ain’t no park in my book. If they are counting that as a park then right away I wonder how they are stacking this deck.

I’m not the only one apparently skeptical about the way MNCPPC and its consultants rated park use and experience. A few days after the meeting, Carole Ann Barth, a parks advocate from the Four Corners neighborhood emailed me. She’d read the report and had this thought:

“They have no credible data on how the parks are actually used, yet they presume to tell us what facilities are most needed. 100 people could visit a park individually or as families and spend hours picnicking, walking the dog, chatting with neighbors, throwing frisbees, bird watching, or engaging in hundreds of other so-called “passive activities.” All these people, however, would be invisible to Parks, because they only record the single small group of people who permitted a field for a couple of hours.”

Yes, I agree. Or the people who paid for a rental ticket for skates. But the rest of the people, as Carole says, remain invisible.

My concerns only grew as I continued to read the Executive Summary of Vision 2030 more closely. Goal 11, I noted, seeks to “Inventory, conserve, restore and enhance ecologically healthy and biologically diverse natural areas with a focus on Park Best Natural Areas, Biodiversity Areas, and Environmentally Sensitive Areas.” Furthermore the goal states a need to “prioritize Best Natural Areas and Biodiversity Areas based on their ecological value and biological diversity.”

That’s great. Really. I mean it. I want the wonderful bio-diverse parts of MoCo conserved, restored and enhanced before we go buggering them up as bad as we have managed to bugger up the rest of the county.

But I would *also* like it if the not-so-bio-diverse, not-so-environmentally sensitive areas get some badly needed attention. Namely, I’d like those places to get more new trees, and I’d like to see the mature trees that are there appreciated and maintained a protected as valuable resources. And I’d like to see those areas managed with ecosystem values in mind, not programming.

In all fairness, Vision 2030’s goal 11.5 does say that there is a need to develop “comprehensive restoration plans for down-County {sic} stream valley parks including Rock Creek, Sligo Creek and Little Falls.” Hooray! But will that ultimately include funding for things like the invasive plant removal and ongoing maintenance needed to address stormwater trouble in those creeks? Will that ultimately mean that some new parks and green spaces will be designated in the more dense areas? Will it mean aggressively planting trees, and making downcounty developers pay for replacement trees in downcounty parks?

Or will it mean more playgrounds, ball fields and ice rink facilities?

When are we going to acknowledge that forests and streams provide ecosystem services that go beyond their value as recreational venues? Its nice to walk along the creek and peruse new trails, but forests and canopy cover have an intrinsic value all their own that is a benefit to everyone in the county, not just the immediate users of said parks. That’s because every minute of every day those trees are filtering pollution, cleaning our air, providing shade and cooling in the summer and even protecting us from wind during storms. Sure, you can’t charge a program fee for them, but they mean a lot to all of us each time we breathe.

And right now a lot of the few remaining forest tracts in this section of the county are sitting on parkland. They are squeezed in between aging subdivisions and heavily used roads, and ravaged by regular root-scrubbings during storms due to poor stormwater practices. They are tangled in honeysuckle, mile-a-minute and ivy. They are suffering, they need stewardship. They need a commitment to sound land management.

The Vision 2030 report is supposed to guide us towards a sustainable future. But if we give up on our forests down here then we have essentially given up on the downcounty’s future health and well-being. If we chose not to take on the needed stewardship now in the present then we will ultimately give up on the whole watershed, including the Anacostia where so much of our pollution ends up and the Chesapeake Bay which is fed by the Anacostia and Potomac waters.

To that end, Vision 2030 included goal number four, which seeks to “provide an appropriate balance between stewardship and recreation.” But what, I ask, does the word “appropriate” mean? How do we define balanced? That it seems, is up for debate and a bit too open-ended for my comfort.

So I’m shouting out to you now. Take a look at Vision 2030 online. Read it carefully, get a cup of coffee first if that will help you stay awake. But read it. Then respond. Let the county know your thoughts. Because if we don’t weigh in now, the people who live here in 2030 will certainly be the worse for it, even if they do have a lot more places to take skating and art classes.

Planning the Urban Forest at ANS

Conservation Montgomery, the new environmental group here in MoCo Maryland, is hosting something that looks kinda interesting:

Nationally-known land use planner Jim Schwab will speak on "Planning the Urban Forest" Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 7:15 at the Audubon NaturalistSociety Woodend Sanctuary, 8940 Jones Mill Road, Chevy Chase, MD 20815.

For more information:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Adventist Hospital Pollutes the Creek (AGAIN!)

Once again a steward of our neighborhood creek here in Montgomery County came upon pollution entering the watershed due to the negligence of someone associated with Washington Adventist Hospital. You can read her report in full here.

If you see any kind of pollution or dumping along the creek please use this helpful link on the Friends of Sligo Creek website to report the trouble. Much of the info here can be used to report problems along at Montgomery County waterway.

This story proves once again it is usually the local neighbors who actually walk the banks of the creek everyday and who know what is really going on. We are, essentially, the eyes and ears of our streams. It is up to us to alert officials to problems as they happen.
One of the biggest stressors on the creek is the enormous amount of urbanization along its banks and within the overall watershed. But this can also be one of the creek's biggest assets; there are more of us to see problems and see that they are addressed.

If you see trouble, please report it right away. As Marty Ittner reflects, it is sometimes prudent to first call the Fire Department if what you are seeing or smelling seems to be fuel.

But, given the fact that 911 is habitually overwhelmed to the point of giving a busy signal, driving straight to the fire station might actually get you faster service. (I only wish I was kidding.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Bill to Banish the Bags in Maryland

Stopping those Urban Tumbleweeds:
The Sligo Naturalist for January 2011

December was a very windy month. I spent a lot of mornings walking my dog through an empty park with my collar turned up against the cold, watching the tumbleweeds roll across the abandoned soccer fields.

Only wait!… those weren’t tumbleweeds. They were plastic shopping bags!

One particularly blustery morning I worked with my kids to untangle no less than five of them from a single brambled corner of our local park. We hurried to catch them and dispose of them before they sailed towards our favorite tall oak trees. Sometimes the bags make their way to the highest branches there, mocking us with their crackly calling sounds for years.

The bags can be more than just noisy and unsightly; they are also increasingly seen as a potential health hazard. Many times they make their way to streams and rivers. In fact, some past trash clean-ups in our area have recorded close to 30,000 of them along the Anacostia’s banks – and that only includes the ones which volunteers were able to snag by hand and record for the official count. The ones that remain behind drape themselves across the shrubs that line river banks like parodies of weeping willow branches, sometimes strangling animals and suffocating aquatic animals who mistake them for prey.

What’s more, the plastic in the bags does not biodegrade -- it simply becomes part of the industrial flotsam which is now accumulating in the world’s oceans. There is growing scientific concern about the effect the plastic particles from bags and other kinds trash are having on the planet’s food webs. The fish eat the plastic… we eat the fish… we all consume the pollution.

So with all of these things in mind I heartily celebrated the January 1 anniversary of the new DC bag law. It has been one full year since the District imposed a five cent fee on all plastic bags given out in the city during retail transactions, and by all accounts the new law has been a resounding success. Retail bag use has declined by 80 percent since last winter.

Groups that work to clean the rivers have even noticed a reduction in trash. The Alice Ferguson Foundation, a group that works along the region’s rivers each year, saw a marked reduction in the amount of bags reported during their events last spring.

“Plastic bags were down sixty percent at the clean-ups,” Julie Lawson from the Maryland’s Trash Free Alliance told me. “That was only three months after the law went into effect.”

Initially, there was doubt about how it would all work, even from those in environmental quarters.

"I was really shocked at how effective the small fee was in DC. You wouldn't think that five cents a bag would change anyone's behavior. But apparently it really helped make people think twice about needing a bag," Michael Wilpers, President of the Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC), said at the organization’s December meeting in Silver Spring.

FOSC had gathered that night to hear State Delegate Al Carr from District 18 discuss the possibility of enacting a similar bag law Maryland next year. Carr worked on a bill about bags last year in Annapolis, but was unable to get the support needed from other regions of the state. He suspects the fact that it was an election year during tight budget times made candidates blanch at the idea of imposing any kind of new fee on anything.

Carr and State Senator Jamie Raskin, however, have had tremendous constituent support in our local area for their proposed bill, which would place a five cent fee on all single-use plastic and paper bags distributed at carryout food establishments and liquor stores in the state. Raskin’s supporters even handed out reusable bags imprinted with his name to promote his support of bag reduction at parades and other events over the summer, and Carr thinks his own sponsorship of the bill helped him become the “top vote getter” in the general election in November.

“Support the bag bill and you’ll be supported by the voters,” Carr told me over the phone recently. He plans to take that message to Annapolis again this year, where he hopes to gain new support for the legislation.

Some have worried that a bag fee might disproportionally impact low income families in Maryland. To answer this concern, reusable bags would be distributed in neighborhoods where poverty remains a constant problem and the bag bill’s authors say a large portion of the money collected from a new bag law could be used to fund environmental restoration projects. The funds would most likely be made available through grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

In urban areas like those around DC and Baltimore, it is often the impoverished communities which suffer the most from pollution’s many ills. To have the bag fees available for environmental projects in such locations would add an extra bonus to the bag reduction law.

Maryland’s Trash Free Alliance has started a blog ( about the bag bill for those who are seeking more up-to-date information as the legislative season gets under way this year.

When I visited the site last week I was really entertained by entries about activists in California who are working on bag reduction programs. You can find, for example, a link to a “mockumentary” narrated by actor Jeremy Irons about the “life” of a plastic bag in his state’s “wild urban environment.” You can also find pictures of protestors in San Jose who staged a protest at a city council meeting, complete with people dressed in Bag Monster costumes made entirely of plastic bags. What surprises me is that this same kind of political theater hasn’t happened in Takoma Park… at least not yet!
This article was originally published in the Voice newspapers of Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Kensington.

Beavers Trying to Dam Sligo Creek Again

There’s evidence of beaver activity along the Sligo again. This time the animal has been spotted just behind the soccer fields, across from the Sligo Golf Course and south of Holy Cross Hospital.

Apparently it has been, well, busy. At least twenty small sized trees had been cut by the animal’s teeth as of last week, and several medium sized trees also showed evidence of incisor damage.

I took my kids out for a glance. We were hoping to see the actual beaver swimming around, but no such luck. What we did see was an obvious attempt at dam building, just above the pedestrian bridge that crosses the stream.

Owl Prowls Full

Note to self: when you write about an upcoming program in Montgomery County, be sure to register for the program yourself before the article gets published!

I just tried to register for the Owl Prowl up in Wheaton and found we'd have to settle for the WAIT LIST. This month's prowl had been hotlinked from the article I'd submitted to Homeschool Montgomery this month.

Glad to know the program is popular now. A couple of months ago we were the only family in attendance.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Following Urban Owls in Silver Spring: The Sligo Naturalist

I thought the dog had a serious nose whistle. Know what I mean by that? Like, when someone breathes in and out in their sleep and it makes a little breezy whistling noise? Not a full snore, mind you, kind of a teeny, tiny snore. A nose whistle.

But how, how was she able to make that noise??? I couldn’t figure it out. I was awake in bed with terrible insomnia, and she was in her little cozy dog bed. Was her nose against something hard, like the wall? It was such an ODD nose whistle.

There it was again.

But wait!! That wasn’t her. She was awake in the dark wagging her tail, wondering why I was staring at her. Suddenly, so was my very groggy husband whom I had accidentally awakened.

“Do you hear it?” I asked him. We both listened. Toot toot tooooo… Toot toot toooo…

“Uh, yeah, I think it’s an owl. Go back to sleep,” he said with exasperation.

The thing was, I wasn’t expecting to hear an owl out our window. We live awfully close to several urban arteries, and very close to the busiest section of the capital beltway. This ain’t Walton’s Mountain.

Whoo who whoooo…. it went again. Whoo cooks for you….

I was dying to get out of bed, but that would have been too disruptive and my poor husband had just gotten back to sleep. Could that REALLY be an owl in my yard? Gosh I was just dying to know. Now I really would never sleep. This was far too exciting.

I should not have been surprised. Several different neighbors have reported seeing owls in the last two years. One emailed videos of a large bird that did, indeed, seem to be a barred owl, splashing around in her bird bath. Another friend woke up one morning thinking she was hearing a domestic dispute in the empty house next door and instead found two owls sending jolly messages across the two sides of her back deck. She was unsure of what species but said they were pretty big. And just upstream, at the headwaters of the Sligo, people see and hear owls all the time.

Even so, I still mostly associate owl calls with camping in the mountains. For one thing, almost all of the local owl species like to nest in the hollowed out parts of old, dead trees. There just aren’t a lot of those in the close-in suburbs Montgomery County. For another thing, these birds are known to do best in large tracts of forest, which really is not a sentence any planner would use to describe Silver Spring these days.

But somehow the owls, like many other birds of prey, are adapting and continue to be out there among us. In fact, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, most barred owl populations seem to be increasing, placing them in the category of species which are of the “least concern.” And the birds seem to be living pretty happily in certain urban areas.

So maybe the only reason I don’t hear them so often is because I don’t really camp in my own back yard.

Last winter I became particularly fascinated by these tenacious birds, and I decided to go on one of Brookside Nature Center’s Owl Walks in December. About four other people came along, including one couple that seemed to be on a first date. (How cool is that?) We all bundled up and headed out into the dark with a naturalist who had some recorded owl calls in hand.

We hiked with flashlights in the lighted snowy woods, and tried not to giggle too much. It was kind of exhilarating, and I kept thinking of those goofy shows where people try to find Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. Anyhow, once we got deep enough into the woods we turned off the lights and played the recordings of screech owls. Sure enough, a real owl in the distance answered. Eventually, the real owl even came closer, flying just about eighteen inches over our heads in the dark. We were able to spot its silhouette in the trees and caught a glance of it with a flashlight. It blinked, then quickly flew off.

Eastern Screech Owls have long been common in urban habitats and like the barred owls are considered a species of “least concern.” They are tiny – measuring in at anywhere between six and nine inches tall -- but tough. They can eat songbirds that are their equal in size and weight.

Their calls sound so much like a scream that it is easy to see how they got their name. I am sure anyone hearing that sound along a busy part of our watershed would certainly think they were hearing something quite frightful and human.

But they also make a really cool sound which isn’t scary at all. Its almost like a coo, trilled over and over. It is sometimes referred to as the Bounce Song. The screech owls, which are known pair up for life, use this song to call to their potential mates across the woods.

Like other owls they also have HUGE ears which are really just holes hidden deep under soft feathers at the sides of their heads. The holes are surprisingly unsymmetrical, which enables the owls to be excellent hunters.

The only thing that beats seeing and hearing an owl call in person is dissecting an owl pellet. If you want a really cool way to learn about owls at home, you can order these one online. The pellets (which arrive after being sanitized in a autoclave) are not poop; rather, they are the little tufted balls of the leftover stuff that the bird is not able to digest when it gulps down its prey. Fur, feathers, bones, teeth… these can all be found in the mix. It is possible to play forensic scientist and ID what the owl ate for dinner. There are loads of charts online that will help you figure it all out.

Really experienced birders also say you can find owl roosts by looking in the woods for these pellets on the ground near hollow trees. I’ve even met a few bird watchers who claim that they can tell you immediately what species of bird left what kind of pellet.

I’ll keep looking, although I doubt I could do that kind of expert ID at this point. I have learned, however, to hear the difference between a dog’s nose whistle and a barred owl, which will come in handy someday if I decide to go camping in my own backyard with the dog.

(This article was originally published in the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington in November 2010.)