By Bruce Byers
For more than a century, the old Fellows farmhouse at 604 S. Oak Street, across from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, has been surrounded by about two acres of natural forest that were protected when the rest of the neighborhood was developed for housing. It is an island of ecological habitat, preserving a small sample of the trees, understory plants, birds, small mammals and insect life that once existed in our city. A giant red oak on the property has been designated as a “specimen tree” by the city’s Urban Forestry Commission. Owls still call from these old woods at night. In midsummer, the firefly display is spectacular.
The City of Falls Church recently acquired the Fellows Property, demolished the farmhouse, and is just beginning the process of planning for its use as a public park. Normally the planning process would begin with neighborhood and public meetings, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, these could not be held. Instead, on May 15, in its Covid-19 Update electronic newsletter, the city’s Recreation and Parks Department invited subscribers to that newsletter to take a survey regarding the purpose and appropriate uses of the Fellows Property. The survey was heavily weighted toward what it called “active recreation,” which would require extensive and environmentally impactful infrastructure. Examples of such activities proposed in the survey were a special event venue, dog park, playground, pickleball court, picnic shelters, barbecue area, sand volleyball court and bike paths.
In response to this unbalanced survey, a group of Falls Church residents with a different vision for the former Fellows Property has been formed. Calling ourselves the “Friends of Fellows Forest,” the group believes that the City of Falls Church should give fair and unbiased consideration to forest-friendly and nature-compatible uses of the property. These uses could include:
• Protection of the diverse mature canopy trees, natural understory and relatively undisturbed soil conditions to serve as a living demonstration of how a forest ecosystem slows runoff and controls storm water, takes up carbon and protects climate, and provides irreplaceable wildlife habitat.
• Permeable-surface walking paths, and benches for birdwatching, firefly viewing, photography, outdoor drawing, and other nature observation and environmental education activities.
• A nature trail identifying native trees and understory plants for use by city residents and students and teachers from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Firefly-watchers have identified at least ten species of fireflies in Fellows Forest by their unique flashing patterns in past years. It is a reporting site for the citizen-science project Firefly Watch (www.firefly.org); two species have been seen so far this year. Fellows Forest has protected a sample of these amazing insects in our midst because of its big trees, natural forest understory, and the relative darkness of the surrounding neighborhood.
Fireflies don’t move much. Females waiting in the grass or on bushes near the ground attract flashing males with return flashes, and, after mating, lay their eggs in moist places nearby. Larval fireflies feed and grow in the soil and leaf litter, and adults emerge in the same area where their parents delighted us with their silent sparks the previous year.
Fireflies are declining in abundance and diversity throughout eastern North America, and globally, threatened by loss of natural habitat, increasing light pollution, and pesticides. Firefly scientists at the University of Virginia recently published the results of a study of artificial nighttime lighting such as unshielded streetlights and security lights on firefly courtship behavior, mating success, and population size. They found that light pollution reduced male flashing by 70 percent in one species, and significantly reduced female courtship flashing in another. Such behavioral changes undoubtedly affect mating success and the ability of these species to persist in light-polluted areas. Fortunately, light pollution has a simple solution—proper shields and hoods for street and security lights that direct the light where it is needed, rather than allowing it to “trespass” where it is not.
The City of Falls Church takes pride in being a “Tree City USA,” as designated by the National Arbor Day Foundation. Doesn’t it make sense for our Tree City to protect Fellows Forest and its fireflies when it has a chance to do so? Only one other city in the United States — Nibley, Utah — has created a public park specifically for the protection and observation of fireflies. Falls Church could be the second in the country if it establishes “Fellows Forest Firefly Park.”
Friends of Fellows Forest believes that the use of the Fellows Property for infrastructure-intensive recreational activities would be incompatible with its natural values. We hope many of our fellow citizens will agree with us.
Bruce Byers is an ecologist, consultant, writer, and Falls Church resident. You can contact him by email at [email protected]