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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Broaden Public Access to Ragged Mountain

It's essential that we get more people--especially kids--into the woods. It's definitely possible to do so without harm--but it will require some work.
(Story|Line Photo: Preston Jackson)

Here's a brief I emailed to Charlottesville City Council about a proposal to open up the Ragged Mountain Natural Area to runners, cyclists and leashed dogs, which are currently prohibited. Council response follows in the comment section.

I had hoped to write you a proper brief about Ragged Mountain and even testify at the meeting tonight, but I have another commitment and won't be able to make it. I believe that if it will not interfere with drinking water quality, then allowable uses should be expanded. It needs to be a zone of active teaching and it is an opportunity and responsibility that must be shared with Albemarle County.

Key Issues (besides water quality, which I cannot address):

1. It is essential and urgent that we do all that we can to nurture a powerful connection between all citizens and the natural world. There is tons of literature pointing to that fact and in this case it means going beyond hikers with walking sticks or ski poles and looking at other ways of using the space--especially for young people. There are many ways of enjoying nature, while we obviously don't want to destroy it in the process.

2. That means allowing runners, bikers, casual (dog) walkers in certain areas, while excluding all users from other, sensitive, areas.

3. I've seen many, many cases where diverse park users coexist well. Look no further than Saunders-Monticello for a great example, which shares many characteristics with RMNA, is even closer to town, heavily used by all of these groups and has marvelously secluded spaces for those who want that. While RMNA is a unique place--neither Carters Mountain nor Walnut Creek--there are positive models and lessons from elsewhere.

4. My work in other places (Central Park, for example) leads me to suggest that it might be strategic to include horses in the mix. It will not be popular with all, but the benefit might outweigh the objections. Just a thought.

5. Although opening the uses will be an improvement, it will not be sufficient to simply make the space available, putting up a sign and saying "Open." Not everyone benefits as much as they should and there will need to be programming that actively gets people into the park. Again, I'm thinking specifically about children. The schools and Parks and Rec need to use this resource, but there are also many non-government players doing great work.

6. Making this all work will require really smart design and implementation. It's not just a question of changing language. Real, physical work will need to happen including trail design and maintenance, access and perhaps parking as well, and definitely interpretation. Many have pointed out that the area is unique--people will sense it but they will also need to be told--and and understand why.

7. All of this will be costly but the City need not stand alone. Indeed, the County wants this badly--it says so throughout their planning documents. It is safe to say that users will come from all over the region, especially adjoining neighborhoods (which are all in the County) and the County will reap the vast majority of the property tax benefit that this will bring. So while the City owns the land, there is no reason to even consider bearing all (or even most) of the capital and operating costs. Perhaps you can offer the County two choices: an uneven split (something like City 25 / County 75) or a binding survey-based arrangement that accounts for frequency and intensity of use as well as income. Although we will want that data anyway, I would make clear that this is a new venture, not envisioned in the revenue sharing, and there will be no free ride.

8. Because funding will be shared, so planning and management should be collaborative as well. This is an opportunity to work together with our neighboring jurisdiction and, while doing so open doors for more future cooperation and hopefully a broader approach toward common problems.

By doing these things, we can make our community better and get more kids and families into the woods. I write this a true friend, who knows the Ragged Mountain Area well and who has worked with kids, athletes, parks officials and naturalists and I'm sure you'll hear from them as well. This is a good opportunity and can be a real benefit--if we do it well.

If you wish, I will be happy to expand on any of these ideas.

Meantime, thank you for your service and I hope to continue the conversation soon~

Peter Krebs

Charlottesville Citizen
Masters candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning

News coverage:

Council delays opening Ragged Mountain Natural Area to bikes, dogs (Charlottesville Tomorrow 10/20)
Public speaks out on Ragged Mountain uses (Daily Progress 10/19)

Ragged Mountain changes delayed for environmental study (Daily Progress 10/20)


Peter said...

Response from Council Member Kathy Galvin:

Thanks for this thoughtful argument for expanding allowable uses within the Ragged Mountain reservoir area. City reservoirs have provided venues for active recreation for centuries. There is nothing that requires them to be in pristine natural areas, in fact most great cities have reservoirs that provide a wide range of recreational opportunities for urban dwellers, from the Fresh Pond reservoir in Cambridge MA, http://www.cambridgeusa.org/listing/fresh-pond-reservation.
to the three ponds in Brookline, MA. http://brookline.com/ponds/ and the D.W. Parkway reservoir in my own hometown of Brockton, MA, designed by Olmstread.

Finally, the ragged mountain reservoir is a natural bowl which means very little erosion and silt build up due to the damming of rivers. On top of having a great source to begin with, our water treatment process (granular activated carbon filtration) is exemplary and precludes the use of chloramines.

Thanks again!

Peter said...

Response from Council Member Dede Smith:

Thank you for your email and I agree that most active recreation groups value the beautiful Central Virginia landscape, and do not want to do harm.
But I fear the exceptional ecological value of this site has not been properly communicated.

Even recently, the naturalists who were asked to survey the area have found plant communities both locally rare, and even some of "global concern"

If you feel that there is no habitat too sensitive for active recreation, especially mountain biking, then this is a moot point, but if you believe as many do, that some areas need to be protected, then I ask just that you consider the ecological significance of Ragged Mountain.

Thank you for listening,

Wilderness in Our Own Backyard: A Birder’s Haven

Ragged Mountain Natural Area is first and foremost a wildlife sanctuary. The 980-acre preserve is almost entirely forested and relatively unspoiled.

Many rare and unusual wildlife species utilize the lakes and woods of the Ragged Mountain Natural Area for nesting, feeding, and migration stop-overs.

Sixty-five acres of surface water attract waterfowl, such as Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Black Duck, Ruddy Duck, and Pied-billed Grebe. Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers are attracted to the mud flats at the southern end of the reservoir. To date, 135 bird species have been observed at Ragged Mountain Natural Area, making it a popular destination for bird watchers.

In addition 600+ acres of unfragmented forest of mature hardwoods - especially oak - offer excellent habitat for nesting neotropical migrants. Twenty species of migratory songbirds have been observed including Prothontary and Cerulean warblers. One spring morning, 12 species of wood warblers were observed near Round Top, including Cerulean, Black-throated Blue, Parula, and Blackburnian. That same morning, three singing woodland thrush species were also recorded: Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Veery.

Smithsonian Finds Exceptional Habitat at RMNA

Forest songbirds have been in serious decline for several decades. In the summer of 2002, Dr. Matthew Etterson of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center conducted a research project on the effects of forest fragmentation on nesting success of Wood Thrush at several sites in the Piedmont, including Fernbrook, Humpback Rocks, Betsy Bell, Fortune's Cove, Natural Chimneys, Paul State Forest and Ragged Mountain Natural Area. He found that among all these sites, Ragged Mountain Natural Area proved to be not only the most productive, with a total of 64 nests, but also the site of greatest nesting success. Etterson attributed that success to the maturity of the forest and the protective topography of the land.

RMNA Cited for Unusual Wildlife Habitat

In the 2006 Albemarle County Biodiversity Report, the Ragged Mountains and Reservoir were cited as significant for unusual habitat that support species scarce in our area such as River Otter, Prothontary Warbler, and Wood Frog.

Peter said...

Response/Update from Council Member Kristin Szakos:

Last night's vote on the Ragged Mountain Natural Area was a bit of a mixed bag: City Council voted 3-2 (Fenwick, Smith, Huja) to table the decision on the ordinance adopting new rules until the bioblitz and planning is done (probably March).

Then we approved a resolution 3-2 (Szakos, Galvin, Huja) to support shared use (bikes, runners, leashed dogs, hikers) of the Ragged Mountain area, and directed staff to plan accordingly. This planning, from what I understand from staff, would probably include pedestrian-only trails on the lower loops near the water for quiet reflection and hiking, with mountain biking sharing trails mostly on the outer loop, including the old logging road.

Sadly, the first vote will probably prevent construction this winter of the trail over the lake bridge to complete the loop, by preventing implementation of the ordinance until the spring. - Kristin