Trees Endangered: Millennium Project at Arlington National Cemetery

Citizens showed up to tour the site where trees will be removed on March 13, 2013

Citizens showed up to tour the site where trees will be removed on March 13, 2013

By TreeSteward Christina Campanella

At the edge of a steep drop off in the northwestern portion of Arlington National Cemetery a group of TreeStewards, Master Naturalists and other community activists from Arlington and around the region stared grimly at the forested area just across the chasm. There stood Arlington House Woods, one of the – if not the – last old-growth forests in Northern Virginia. Many of the trees in Arlington Woods, which is adjacent to the cemetery and under the control of the National Park Service, are more than 230 years old.

These old-growth trees will remain standing. But hundreds of younger trees  — that grew up after being clear cut in the Civil War and have served as buffers to their old-growth cousins — will be felled to make room for new burial grounds. As the group gazed at the thick wall of leafless trees, Army Col. Victoria Bruzese, the cemetery’s chief engineer, extolled the virtues of the Millennium Project, an ambitious expansion of the military cemetery, the iconic final resting place for those who served and died for their country.

The project, as proposed, would result in the felling of 732 living native trees that local conservationists say serve as a buffer around Arlington Woods and its old growth trees. “These trees are irreplaceable in our lifetime,” says Joan Maloof, founder and executive director of the Old Growth Forest Network, an information and tree advocacy group based in Quantico, Md.

These woods are ideal habitat for birds and wildlife. Red tailed hawk photo by Steve Young

These woods are ideal habitat for birds and wildlife. Red tailed hawk photo by Steve Young

The Millennium Project is being promoted as a much-needed and environmentally sensitive expansion of the 624-acre facility to accommodate some 30,000 additional burial and cremation niches and extend the cemetery’s operations for 4 to 6 years through 2024. Arlington National Cemetery averages between 27-30 funeral services on weekdays and 5-8 services on Saturday. In addition to the 27-acre expansion, the project also provides for the removal of tons of invasive plants, restoration of a severely eroded streambed running through the project site, and the eventual creation of an arboretum at the cemetery.

Project planners and engineers escorted the group to the severely degraded streambed adjacent to a large maintenance center for heavy equipment. The maintenance operation would be moved and the streambed restored as part of the proposed expansion, cemetery officials said.

In the nearby stream a duo of red-tailed hawks splashed in the waters as members of the group picked out the calls of native songbirds: brown creepers (Certhia americana), red-winged blackbirds  (Agelaius phoeniceus) and chipping sparrows (Spizella passerine). “These are quality songbirds,” said Steve Young, a local naturalist. “It is clear that this is important habitat for them.”

Arlington County’s Natural Resource Inventory calculates that there are only about 700 acres of natural area left within its borders, Mr. Young said. “And in one fell swoop we’ll lose 20 acres just like that. It’s a big chunk and it seems like we just keep chipping away at it.”

The March 16 event failed to resolve many of area residents’ concerns about the project, said Paul Kovenock, an Arlington environmentalist recently named Conservationist of the Year by the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. He called the event “a big disappointment. They had already finalized their massive tree removal plans by the time we were invited to view the site.”  He advocates the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery elsewhere – such as the adjacent Navy Annex or a portion at the Pentagon parking lot near the 9/11 Memorial or at Quantico, for example.

Endangered woods at Arlington National Cemetery  Photo by Steve Young

Endangered woods at Arlington National Cemetery Photo by Steve Young

Many activists from the communities around the cemetery say the $84 million expansion will create more problems than project planners are willing to admit. They point out that the project calls for “infilling” a stream valley, a steeply wooded area in the northwestern section of the cemetery known as Section 29 as part of the project’s construction of a “loop road” that would accommodate the six ceremonial horses that accompany the funerary caissons transporting casket to gravesite.

The protection of old growth forests such as Arlington Woods is critical to protecting the surrounding environment, Ms. Maloof says. These old-growth trees generate oxygen, act as carbon sinks, protect groundwater, help in storm water management and provide animal habitat.

These benefits are ever more valuable given how rapid development in the urban environment continues to chip away at Arlington’s dwindling reserve of natural resources. And, as many observed at the open house event March 16, the Millenium Project only buys space enough for little more than a decade. “If we go through this with this,” Ms. Maloof points out, “In 12 years the cemetery will be filled up again and then we have to start all over.”

Make your opinion heard on the Millennium Project expansion at Arlington National Cemetery:

Senator Tim Kaine, member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Contact: Amanda Chuzi, responsible for environmental issues; amanda_chuzi@kaine.senate.gov; (202) 224-4024.

Rep. Jim Moran (CD 8). Contact: Tom Aiken, legislative director in charge of environmental issues. tim.aiken@mail.house.gov. (202) 225-4376. Alexandria District Office, (703) 971-4700

National Capital Planning Commission. Contact: Carlton Hart, urban planner responsible for overseeing the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery: Carlton.hart@ncpc.gov; (202) 482-7252.

Commission on Fine Arts. Gives expert advice “on matters of design and aesthetics, as they affect the Federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation’s capital.”

Contact: Thomas Luebke, secretary; tluebke@cfa.gov. (202) 504-2200.

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