ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A scant 10 miles from downtown Washington is a naturalist's dream: a swamp teeming with beaver, river otter, muskrat, deer and more than 200 species of birds, many rare and beautiful.
The 100-acre marsh is the centerpiece of Huntley Meadows Park, a 1,261-acre oasis of undeveloped land ringed by the sprawling suburbs of Fairfax County.
For 15 years, developers, supported by a county supervisor, tried to run a four-lane road through the park. But late last year, the developers withdrew their plan to pave paradise.
The action came after the Interior Department ruled that the road would have damaged the park's fragile ecosystem.
"No doubt about it, the battle is over," said Norma Hoffman, a self-proclaimed little old lady in sneakers who vanquished the developers and their local government allies.
Hoffman is founder and president of the Coalition to Save Huntley, an army of about 600 lawyers, environmentalists, scientists and nature lovers who opposed the road. The group challenged developers' every move, and that doggedness paid off.
"Most of all, we are encouraged that our public officials now seem to understand better why this park is environmentally important, and hopefully this message will carry over to other ecologically endangered areas in (the) county," she said in a recent interview.
To visit Huntley Meadows is to understand why Hoffman and her friends fought so long and hard.
The park is worlds away from the monuments of the city and shopping malls of the suburbs. There are no picnic tables or jungle gyms, no softball fields or swimming pools. There is no fishing, hunting or camping.
But there is the swamp, where great blue heron stand elegant and still as Eastern bluebirds flit from tree to tree and scores of red-winged blackbirds gossip from the highest branches. Ducks and geese soar overhead. An occasional hawk menaces from a treetop.
And at dawn and sunset--especially in the fall--beaver swim out of their lodges to gnaw on trees among the bristly swamp roses and buttonbushes.
Huntley Meadows Park has about 200,000 visitors a year, and many of them have been there before, says Gary Roisum, who has managed the park since 1978.
"People come from as far north as Boston and as far south as Florida," particularly to see the birds, he said.
A narrow boardwalk winds through the swamp, but in November, the park service closed a portion because it had floated off its foundations. The reason was a drastic and unexpected rise in beaver activity since the boardwalk was built in the 1970s.
"Year after year, the beaver colonies continue to build up the levees that were worked on the previous year and the year before," Roisum said. "It's this consistent levee construction that has resulted in about a foot-and-a-half increase in water level."
A new boardwalk will be built next year using part of a $1.17-million bond issue, Roisum said. But first, an environmental consultant is studying the ecology of the central wetland to try to predict its future.
One possibility is that the beaver could leave, especially if their food source disappeared, Roisum said. The beaver, which at last count inhabited 16 lodges, are largely responsible for the biological diversity of the wetland.
"If they go, who would maintain the dam?" Roisum asked. "It would be like pulling the cork in the bathtub."
The park is considering installing a water-level device that would enable its human managers to control the central wetland rather than leaving it to the beaver.
Roisum knows the wetland could change drastically because the swamp wasn't always there.
In the late 1700s, the land belonged to George Mason IV, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and major parts of the Virginia State Constitution. He developed two farms on this property although he never lived there, residing instead at nearby Gunston Hall on the Potomac River.
When Mason died, he left the land to his son, Thomson F. Mason. Thomson Mason named the house and farm "Huntley" after the home of his maternal grandmother in Scotland.
The land stayed in the family for 159 years, until 1916. After that, it changed hands at least 12 times in the next 16 years, according to an unpublished history of the park.
Eventually, it was acquired by the U.S. government. In the 1940s, it was an Army installation, the site of several giant anti-aircraft guns and, allegedly, a prisoner of war camp, Roisum said.
Later, the Navy installed a secret underground low-frequency monitoring station that may have been used to control submarines or monitor the Soviets, according to Roisum.
In 1974, the Interior Department deeded the land to Fairfax County for use in perpetuity as a nature preserve. For now, that stipulation is being met.
But urban development continues to threaten the park, Hoffman said, adding that her group will remain active.
She pointed to sediments from nearby construction areas as well as fertilizers and pesticides in runoff that flows into the park's wetland.
"The big picture is (that) the environmental health of the park has to be protected from outside impacts," she said. "And so we're going to be there, we're going to be monitors and watchdogs and try to extend the natural life of the park."