Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gnawing at nature in beaver country

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FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. -- Northern Virginia's War of the Beavers pits human sprawl against Castor canadensis in a swampy morsel of fauna and flora surrounded by concrete, cars and money.

The setting is a miniature utopia called Huntley Meadows Park in privileged Fairfax County, half an hour south of the White House. This is a swampy second- and third-growth woodland choked with cattails. It is described, nevertheless, in a brochure available at the Visitor Center, as "a rich, natural island in the suburban sea."

Though it harbours, as the pamphlet crows, "majestic forests, wildflower-speckled meadows and vast wetlands bursting with life," Huntley Meadows Park is not exactly Longfellow's forest primeval.

It has been, since colonial times, a fertile dairyland, the proposed site of the world's largest Zeppelin port, an asphalt test loop, a National Guard artillery base, and a Naval electronic espionage facility where towering antennae used to tune in nightly to Radio Moscow.

Today, with the Navy gone to sea, Huntley once again is home to dozens of species of locally uncommon birds, a flotilla of ironclad snapping turtles and so many deer that the county SWAT Team has to be brought in each winter to snipe at whitetails. (Though not at the Wilson's Snipe, which nests here.)

Meanwhile, those pesky beavers have run amuck -- messing with the water levels, felling oaks and hickories, and generally doing what they have been doing since the Middle Pleistocene.

"For an adult beaver, the only predator is the car," Huntley's director says, addressing a gathering of pro- and anti-beaverites.

(We are not unaware that, last summer, sisters aged eight and 11 were bitten by a rabid beaver while swimming in nearby Lake Anna. And we all have seen the recent headline from Belarus: Man tries to take photo of beaver; it kills him.)

The director is an amiable expert named Kevin Munroe who knows every rail and redbud in the park. It is his duty to explain to the people of Fairfax County why, after 21 years of bitter contention, a detailed Beaver Behaviour Study, and more than 60 public meetings, the park's stewards finally have decided to spend $3 million to turn Huntley's seasonal ponds into a gated community for North America's largest rodents.

This will involve the installation of a "Clemson Water Leveler System" comprising vinyl sheet pilings sunk three metres into a cordillera of lakeside mounds, sliding doors to keep the swamp in a perpetual state of "hemi-marsh," and underwater pipes with cages around them to keep the beavers from gnawing through the arteries of their own purported salvation.

"Duck farms," grouses a fellow in front of me.

"The beavers should have a seat at the table," another man seated behind me complains.

"The beavers would eat the table," I turn around and inform him.

"Do we really want to mess with nature?" Munroe asks us. "Because biodiversity is in decline, the answer is yes. We have damaged the natural ecosystem so badly, it is our duty to repair it."

A woman named Norma Hoffman is introduced to the meeting as a founder of the Friends of Huntley Meadows. She tells us that, one recent day, she was staffing the front desk when a morose young boy approached.

"Why are you so sad, Johnny?" she asked the lad.

"I didn't see an elephant," he sobbed.

So I ask Kevin Munroe: "Why don't you just put up a fence and bring in elephants?"

"Our goal is not necessarily to make visitors happy," he replies. "It is to re-educate people about local native habitat."

The meeting concludes and Munroe leads us out of the Visitor Center and along the boardwalk that leads to the beaver lodge. We see muskrats and several species of turtle, sliding through the broth, but no beavers. They are downstairs, tending to their kits.

"Twenty years ago, I would have said 'Protect, but don't manage,' " Munroe says. "I grew up reading The Lorax. I would have been the one standing across the gate to keep hunters from coming in to shoot the deer. That was a tough decision to make: You're going into a wildlife sanctuary to blow away Bambi?

"But we've seen invasive plants take over the forest and deer herds decimate the woodlands. Before Europeans came here, deer were controlled by wolves, by mountain lions, by Native Americans. How many of those do we have in Fairfax County now?"

"Is this the human future?" I ask him. "Tiny fragments of the so-called 'natural' world heavily managed?"

"The short answer is yes," he replies. Then he tells us that river otters have been spotted this spring in Huntley Meadows Park.

"River otters!" the audience clamours, exultant at the news.

"River otters eat baby beavers," says the naturalist, damming our joy.

"It's OK," says Kevin Munroe. "Circle of life."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J12

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