Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


On a forested mountainside in Fauquier County, where Mosby and J.E.B. Stuart rode, I was surrounded one recent Saturday by dozens of children and adult nature lovers. The common bond? All Arlingtonians.

Welcome to Open House Day at the Arlington Public Schools-operated Outdoor Lab. What for thousands is the site of their school days’ richest memories is a victim of its success: the daily busloads of field-trippers have caretakers worried about overtaxing the enclave of trails, a pond and exhibits of non-man-made relics.

“There’s too many people here already,” said Executive Director Neil Heinekamp, addressing proposals to increase summer use of the 225 acres. “The lab needs a break every year. “

I was fortunate to drive out with one of the lab’s “original gangsters,” retired Yorktown High School biology teacher Jim Allen. He was among the Arlington science teachers led by Wakefield High instructor Phoebe Hall Knipling—Virginia’s first female science supervisor– for whom the lab is named. In 1967 they scouted for a natural wonderland for county-bound kids seeking first-hand immersion at a site more customizable than state parks.

The school board could not purchase land outside the county, so Knipling and others became came “acre-savers,” donating $450 or more for the property near Broad Run. “It had to be far enough away for wild animals to be there,” said Allen.

With a $51,000 loan from developer Preston Caruthers, the group formed the nonprofit Arlington Outdoor Education Association. It bought, for a deeply discounted $90,000, the original 210 acres and a cottage from the Striker family.

Knipling was a tough customer who lobbied hard to make science courses a requirement rather than an elective, says her daughter Anita Knipling Scott, a retired Arlington English teacher now on the nonprofit’s board. “She drove everyone crazy.” But after 10 years the mortgage was happily burned, additional land bought in 1980.

Today, the lab hosts 9,000 students annually, from selected elementary grades through high school, many underprivileged and living surrounded by concrete. Classes get day trips, one overnighter for older kids on a tent platform, or an (oversubscribed) three-week summer camp.

They enjoy a pond with canoes that also affords fishing (all catches must be returned). There’s a 10-inch telescope, an amphitheater and crafts table.

The rustic, cedar-shingled cottage with its deer head over a stone fireplace includes a kitchen and office lined with bird, tree and insect books. The animal lab offers displays of bone specimens, charts of animal tracks, plus aquariums and tubs with live turtles.

“I just caught an amazing green beetle,” one boy exclaimed. A 7th-grade girl deftly handled a black snake.

At this rural Arlington “reunion,” I met caretaker Charlie Campbell, former owner of Cowboy Café, who lauded the lab’s ecological lessons and joys of night hiking. Arlington honey maker Paul Diehl was there helping with maintenance. Association president Mike Nardolilli chaired a board meeting on the cottage deck, mentioning a fundraiser concert at Barnes and Noble. He congratulated director Heinekamp, a certified botanist with a staff of four, for being nominated teacher of the year.

“There are no kids who don’t know the lab if they’ve gone through the school system,” I was told by fundraiser Paula Wolferseder Yabar. “At the Westover information booth, I meet college kids who’ve come back and say the outdoor lab was their favorite thing.”

* * *

Rows of median signs currently dot Wilson Blvd. urging drivers to support a “Walkable Wilson.” The Bluemont Civic Association is showing it favors an in-progress county repave and repaint plan to improve safety.

Another campaign was launched two years ago to offset neighborhood resistance to a developer’s plans to expand the nearby Safeway and add apartments. That group Bluemont Forward is separate but with some overlapping membership. It is pushing more broadly to make Wilson “a complete street,” to boost local businesses via safer sidewalks, bike lanes, new landscaping, on-street parking and speed abatement.