Winter Salt Watch: You Can Help

Road salt (sodium chloride) is everywhere during winter months. It keeps us safe on roads and sidewalks, but it can also pose a threat to fish and wildlife as well as human health. 

Fish and bugs that live in freshwater streams can’t survive in extra salty water. And many of us (more than 118 million Americans) depend on local streams for drinking water. Water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the extra salt, so it can end up in your tap water and even corrode your pipes. What can you do?

STEP 1: Test the chloride in your stream. Request a FREE test kit using the form on this page and follow the instructions you receive with your kit. (You can also order your own chloride test strips through Amazon.) You’ll want to test your stream:

  • Before a winter storm (to get a baseline reading).
  • After salt has been applied to roads.
  • After the first warm day or rainstorm following a snow or freeze.
  • After the next rain event.

STEP 2: Share your results using the free Water Reporter app. Just follow these simple instructions. With test results in one place, we can identify salt hot spots around the country, and you can see how salt is affecting your community. Check out the Winter Salt Watch map below!

STEP 3: Take action. If you find high levels of chloride, let someone know!

  1. Call your city or county department of environmental protection to report high chloride levels or large salt piles.
  2. Write a Letter to the Editor of your local newspaper or other news outlet to educate your community about this issue. You can start with our sample letter and adapt it for your use. (Download the Word file or PDF.)
  3. Share road salt best practices with community managers and state agencies.

Protect the health of your streams – and your community – with Winter Salt Watch!

Look what you’ve done!

by Michael Reinemer

As I sign off as president, passing the baton to Joe Gorney, I want to thank each Virginia Master Naturalist in the chapter for what you do. The numbers of volunteer hours are astounding.

It’s hard to overstate how desperately your hours and your expertise are needed. Fairfax County and the whole region suffer from habitat loss, climate change, pollution, fragmentation, overuse – among many other assaults.

Meanwhile, we humans are increasingly disconnected from nature, suffering from the “landscape amnesia” Pete Mecca describes to FMN classes. Or shifting baseline syndrome: It’s impossible to notice the many gradual declines in the natural world – unless you understand the natural world, and you care about it and you actively monitor it. Which is one of the things you do as master naturalists. The statewide mason bee monitoring project is a great example.

You may have read “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” the cover story by Brooke Jarvis in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27, 2018.  The now global, scientific alarm about loss of insect diversity and abundance was triggered in part by small bug club in Germany. That club of 63 amateur naturalists, which included a few with science backgrounds, documented an astounding 80 percent drop in insect numbers in their research plot over a 30-year period. They had been consistently monitoring and recording changes in insect numbers or biomass in addition to species.

What’s the big deal? As E.O. Wilson put it, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”  While the “10,000 years” part is probably optimistic, the role of decomposers, pollinators, and other insects is indisputable.

In her NYT piece, Jarvis talks about the long amateur naturalist tradition in Europe and how that has figured into faster, more aggressive response to the insect apocalypse there, compared to the U.S. 

So as part of the growing master naturalist movement in the U.S., you are a vital resource in this era of shrinking budgets for conservation and a time of overt hostility toward science in some quarters of the federal government. Your work as monitors, mentors, and stewards is invaluable.

While all the 2018 numbers aren’t in yet, look what you’ve done:

680 hours staffing information desks at nature centers

445 hours working on nature programs for the county

435 hours removing invasive plants

375 hours as Audubon at Home ambassadors, assessing wildlife habitat

360 hours for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feederwatch program

350 hours managing habitat and land for Fairfax County Park Authority

343 hours for school programs for Fairfax County Park Authority

330 hours for citizen science programs for the park authority

267 hours monitoring trails for Virginia Bluebird Society

260 hours working with the Plant NoVA Natives campaign

That’s just a small snapshot of your amazing numbers and work. Congratulations, and thank you. 

And a hearty thanks to the many volunteer leaders who serve as officers, committee chairs, and committee members who manage the training and all the mechanics that make the Fairfax Master Naturalists the force for nature that it is.

Virginia Working Landscapes 2018 Biodiversity Survey Results

The central mission of Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) is to promote sustainable land use and the conservation of native biodiversity through research, education, and community engagement. First assembled at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute: Front Royal, VA in 2010, VWL was formed at the behest of regional landowners, citizen scientists, and conservation organizations who wanted to better understand how to conserve Northern Virginia’s native wildlife on working (i.e., agricultural/forestry) lands. 

According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature, grasslands are “the most endangered, the most altered, and the least protected biome on the planet.” Today, many plants and animals that depend on grasslands have declined, due primarily to the loss or fragmentation of their native habitat and one-third of North American species considered endangered are found on grasslands. Recognizing the need to consider grassland species when studying native flora and fauna on working landscapes, VWL’s initial research focused on grasslands. Since 2010, they have expanded our focus to other working lands (forests) and to consider the impact that changes in the overall landscape mosaic have on native biodiversity. 

VWL partners with scientists, graduate students, interns, and volunteer citizen scientists to organize and conduct annual biodiversity surveys on public and private lands throughout the region. This work is important because humans receive many tangible and intangible benefits from the natural world — from the spiritual (a walk through nature) to the utilitarian (the value of food production). 

Research prioritizes studies of biodiversity, threatened species, and ecosystem services to answer such questions as: 

  • How will current land-use practices (and projected changes thereto) impact grassland biodiversity? 
  • How are ecosystem services, like pollination, related to species presence or native biodiversity? 
  • Are quail Habitat Management Areas effective at restoring bobwhite populations? How might they be improved? 
  • Does arthropod community composition or nutritional value differ in cool- vs warm-season grass fields? What are the implications of this difference for birds or other insect-eating animals? 
  • What impact does field management timing have on overwintering bird or insect diversity? 
  • How does the establishment or maintenance of native grasses impact plant communities?

To this end, VWL conducts six surveys on breeding birds, bumble bees, grasslands, orchids, mammals, soil, and arthropods.

Each year, VWL and SCBI train a group of citizen scientists to conduct these surveys on private and public lands and recruit private landowners who enable us to collect these data on their property. FMN supports this work and you can claim service hours for your participation (C200: Citizen Science Projects for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute).

For more information, please contact Outreach Coordinator, Charlotte Lorick, at 540-635-0038, visit, or find VWL on Facebook & Instagram. 

This specific report is on the survey results for The Clifton Institute. Reports for other sites are available from VWL.

Response to Major Bee Kill in Reston, June 2018

Article by Don Coram

On June 14, 2018, residents of a Reston housing cluster noticed hundreds of dead and dying bees on their parking lots and lawns.  They were concerned because they were aware of the importance of bees, but were unsure what to do about it. They contacted the Environmental Resources Department of Reston Association (RA).  With the help of a couple of Fairfax Master Naturalists, RA submitted a pesticide complaint for the residents to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs (VDACS). VDACS collected specimens of the dead bees and pollen and sent them to a lab for pesticide analysis.  It was also reported to the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs.

RA also contacted a bee specialist with the Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab of the United States Geological Service (USGS).  He identified the bee species and counted the dead bees which had been collected by RA: 1278 bees, comprised of 13 species, only a few of which were honeybees. The most common bees found were two-spotted bumblebees and common eastern bumblebees.  The USGS specialist believes the incident is “actually nationally important”. 

On November 6, 2018, VDACS sent its report to RA.  The lab found the neonicotinoid Imidacloprid in the specimens.  The investigation found that Imidacloprid had been applied as a systemic pesticide to the basswood trees in violation of the Virginia Pesticide Control Act.  

To put this incident in perspective, bees are critically important pollinators, responsible for pollinating about 75% of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the U.SA.  But the populations of bees have been declining drastically nation-wide. More than half of US species are in decline and a quarter are at risk for extinction. The probable causes are pesticides and habitat loss.  

In particular, neonicotinoid pesticides (also known as neonics for short), such as Imidacloprid, are highly toxic to bees and can have serious sub-lethal effects on bees’ foraging ability and reproduction.  Neonicotinoids can remain toxic to bees for years when used as a systemic insecticide. They are widely believed to be a major contributor to the Colony Collapse Disorder for honeybees.  However, neonicotinoids are widely used in agriculture as seed coatings, foliage sprays, and irrigation water additives. More problematic is the use of neonicotinoids in horticulture, where training may be limited and regulations may not be as closely followed.  

There is a growing movement world-wide to restrict the use of neonicotinoids for the sake of bees.  For example, in 2015, Oregon banned the use of four neonicotinoids on linden and basswood tress after a large bee kill in 2013 caused by a neonicotinoid pesticide.  In 2013, the Save America’s Pollinator Act, intended to limit the use of neonicotinoids, was introduced in the U. S. Congress. In 2015, Montreal banned the use of all neonicotinoids within the city limits.  In February 2018, the European Food Safety Authority banned three neonicotinoids for all outdoor uses because of the threat to bees.

Individuals and landscaping companies in Virginia should carefully follow pesticide labeling instructions and the Virginia Pesticide Control Act.  In particular, do not use neoniotinoid systemic insecticides on linden, basswood or other trees in the Tilia genus.  Virginia residents, particularly FMN members, can assist in saving bees by reporting sites with many dead or dying bees to VDACS directly, 804-371-6560.  For more information on pollinators, contact The Xerces Society, Plant NOVA Natives, or the National Wildlife Federation.

Review of Virginia Department of Forestry website

Photo:  Barbara J. Saffir (c)

By Janet Quinn

Want to see beautiful fall-tinged leaves without the crowds? Read on!

While on a wandering web surf, I chanced upon the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) website. The dramatic photo headlining the “Wildfire Situation Report” link caught my eye, and I was hooked.

Under the Current News and Events tab is a Most Requested Information and Services tab. It provides links to contact my local forester, shop for seedlings, or learn about being a wildland firefighter. My favorite, however, is the amazing link to Fall Foliage in Virgina.

Having just spent a weekend near Shenandoah National Park where I saw more rain than colorful leaves, I was eager to learn where and when I might find fall hues. The October 6th Weekly Fall Foliage report had my answers. Well written and informative, its poetic language spoke of “nature’s big wardrobe change,” discussed the impact of weather on leaf color and which trees will change first. It even provided a review of colorful wildflowers to see. The next section is a chart of Virginia Trees and Colors, which appealed to the naturalist in me, and then, best of all, a guide to the first ever VDOF Fall Foliage Driving Tours. The described routes are “off the beaten path,” avoid traffic, and still provide beautiful views of autumn’s trees.

The foliage section of the website provides even more, including up-to-the-minute phone hotlines, places to visit, and a scientific description of why leaves change color.

This gem of a website deserves to be discovered. Give it a try!

Janet is a graduate of the Fall 2015 Fairfax Master Naturalist cohort.

Want to review a resource? We’d love to hear from you. Instructions for submission await your click and commitment.

Our stories matter, and so does the way we tell them

Photo: Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Marilyn Kupetz                                                                        

The most wonderful storytellers of the natural world mesmerize us with their skill and learning, their warmth, their ability to connect with us even as they are asking for our help and time. Alonso Abugattas is one of the masters in northern Virginia, as are Charles Smith, Tammy Schwab, and Doreen Peters.

For naturalists who teach, who speak publicly, who are required to show up with enduring material, charisma and tactile props may not suffice, alas. Yet the requirement to stand in front of a screen at the front of a room doesn’t mean that presentation-based storytelling has to be tedious. Effective storytelling and well-designed materials can easily complement one another.

Indeed, slides can be as beautiful as the world we want to preserve, and potent enough to stand a chance of depositing a message that actually takes root. Are you ready for some free, legal resources to confect those lovely materials?

Garr Reynolds, the generous presence behind Presentation Zen, seeds his online resources with almost every bit of counsel you’d ever need to speak at a VMN Conference or teach an FMN class. His ten tips could make the difference between having a room full of people on the fence or energized evangelists who pick up your cause and contribute to its success. 

Even when you know what you want to say, however, you have to decide what to show. The kind of photos that Reynolds uses for his own work are everywhere online, but usually they aren’t simply ours for the taking. Their photographers own the distribution rights. Copyright law does allow for limited classroom use, but what if your presentation is going to be videotaped and shared widely? You need to be careful about what you borrow and how you attribute credit. 

If you can’t take your own photos and get permission from the people in them, consider taking advantage of sites that supply free, legal photographs to the public. You should definitely build credit into your metadata and references, but otherwise you will break no laws, you will give aspiring photographers the street cred they need to keep working on our behalf, and your presentations will be the better for it. 

Here are a few places to start:

If there’s interest, we can talk more, online and off. In the interim, here are more imagery resources if you are ready to grow your skills as a storyteller in the service of the causes you care about. 

Thank you to Barbara J. Saffir and Ana Ka’ahanui for sharing their photos with Fairfax Master Naturalists.

The Innovation Toolkit, ’cause you want to make stuff better, right?

A multi-disciplinary team of engineers from the MITRE corporation curated the MITRE Innovation Toolkit to help the community of innovative thinkers jumpstart the innovation process.

These tools help people understand how, when, and why to innovate, provide best practices and guidance, and jump-start the problem-solving process. They have organized the catalog of tools according to a team’s objective, team size, and style.

Do you ever have to? want to? facilitate problem solving sessions in your work or community of naturalists?

Try Rose-Bud-Thorn to conduct an analysis by visually categorizing positive (rose), potential (bud), or negative (thorn) aspects of a topic (e.g., system, product, process).

Try Lotus Blossom to focus the power of brainstorming using a structured, visual representation of ideas—pushing you to fill out every box with new ideas.

Try Trimming to visually document a someone’s experience through actions, pain points, wins, and opportunities in a process.

There are more tools on the site, and all of the materials are free to download.

Students in Community Science blog posts

These blog posts are part of Students in Community Science, a series of Thriving Earth Exchange articles featuring students who have had internship, educational or volunteer experiences in community science.

14 September 2018

Haley Gannon – Translating a Pivotal Internship Experience into a Satisfying Career

When I first came to the Thriving Earth Exchange, I was relatively new to the idea of community science. My experience up […]

13 September 2018

Shahan Haq – Adapting to Life after Adaptation Analytics: Reflection from an Intern

During an atmospheric chemistry course I took a few years ago, the professor would pause his lecture before major discoveries in the […]

11 September 2018

Babak J. Fard – Insights from an Interdisciplinary Community Science Experience

The Brookline, Mass. Thriving Earth Exchange project “Building Community Resilience to Extreme Heat” started in February 2016 with several initial meetings […]

10 September 2018

Angela DapremontHow Studying Mars is Relevant to Helping Earth’s Communities

angela.jpgI was fortunate to have a unique Thriving Earth Exchange internship experience during the summer and fall months of 2015. I started from scratch by familiarizing myself with the definition of community science, and ended up participating in the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting Thriving Earth Exchange events. […]

Review of Virginia Herpetological Society Website

Reviewed by Sarah Mayhew

I’ve had a life-long interest in amphibians and reptiles. My go-to tool for learning about local frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and turtles is the well-organized website maintained by the Virginia Herpetological Society. With a few clicks, you can quickly access the type of herp that interests you, then drill down to the species via lists that are local species only.

Each species has a detailed range map, written description, and multiple photos, along with sound files for species that vocalize. Where the juvenile looks different from the adult, there are photos pointing out the differences, along with descriptions or photos explaining how to tell apart similar species.

The site is kept up to date with name changes, so Eastern Box Turtle is now correctly called Woodland Box Turtle, and descriptions contain the scientific name, too. There are sections on typical habitat and food eaten, too. I find this resource is more complete than a field guide designed for a larger geographic area. After reviewing all this information, I always have a sense that I know exactly what I should be looking for when I go into the field in search of herps. 

VHS is about education in more ways than just “book” learning. If you are fortunate enough to have a picture, you may email the VHS for identification and they will also answer questions without a photo. 

Each year the VHS conducts multiple bio-blitz outings across the state. I find it very interesting to read the list of species that a dedicated group can locate in a single day in a local wildlife refuge or park. It gives me a good sense of what I might be able to find, too.  I haven’t been able to join the VHS on a bio-blitz yet, but hope to do so at some point.

Many VHS members volunteer to help Master Naturalists learn about herps by teaching basic training classes or advanced training, so please let them know if you like their website and Facebook posts.

I’ll close with some simple statistics from the VHS website to whet your appetite to learn more: 

Frogs and Toads:  28 species 
Salamanders:  56 species and subspecies. 
Lizards:  9 native species and two introduced species.
Snakes: 34 species and subspecies; only 3 species are venomous.  
Turtles:  25 species and subspecies; five are sea turtle. 

I hope these statistics tempt you to learn more. Just go to the VHS website!  

Sarah Mayhew is a graduate of the 2009 Fairfax Master Naturalist cohort.

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Credible climate action plans: How you can help make them a reality

Bill Hafker

Climate change, and the impacts that it can, is, and will likely have on almost every aspect of our lives, and the lives of all other living things, is the most all-encompassing environmental challenge humankind has faced.  As Master Naturalists we well know its implications for our natural world–the oceans, plants, animals, forests, water supplies, weather, etc.  As informed global citizens, we also know the economic and social implications climate change has for our infrastructure, coastal cities, agricultural output, fires, droughts, and even migrations of people.

As the world struggles to find the way and the will to identify and take the steps needed to try to keep temperature rise from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed to in the Paris Climate Agreement, what can we as Master Naturalists do to help to increase the likelihood of success of efforts to address climate change?  With our knowledge of the severity of the issue, and the criticality of ensuring that efforts taken to address it are done in a rigorous, and sound scientific and economic manner, and are properly documented and shared with the public, we can help ensure that climate plans, regardless of who prepares them, are credible documents that are likely to achieve what they purport to do.

Whether we are part of helping develop a climate plan for an organization we belong to (e.g., a faith community or homeowners association), submitting comments solicited in the preparation of county or state energy, environmental, or climate plans, or responding to plans offered by others (e.g., companies, municipalities), we can provide input that helps ensure that the plan actually stands a chance of doing what it claims to.  Just this past July, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted the Fairfax County Operational Energy Strategy which is “intended to further the objectives of the Board’s Environmental Vision”.  Prior to that adoption, a draft of that Strategy was available for comment.  The State of Virginia is in the midst of taking input on the 2018 Virginia Energy Plan (comment period closes 8/24) because “The Plan is intended to provide a strategic vision for the energy policy of the Commonwealth over the next 10 years”.

These are just two very significant opportunities for Master Naturalists to review and evaluate what is being proposed and offer comments in support of what they find good in the draft plans, and suggestions for how they should, or even in some cases must, be improved if they are to actually deliver climate risk reduction.

I recently presented a paper at the Air & Waste Management Association Annual Conference:  “A Framework for Credible 2 Degree Celsius Climate Planning”.  For those interested in preparing a credible climate plan that will pass muster with those who would challenge its completeness, or who seek a yardstick against which to evaluate strong points and shortcomings of climate plans they wish to review and comment on, this paper offers  a checklist of 11 elements that are needed in a credible climate plan.  The 11 elements of the planning framework are described, and their relationship to each other is presented in a flow diagram, allowing users to compare plans they are helping to develop, or ones they are assessing, for completeness.  The flow diagram also shows how the elements interact with each other, and over time, to deliver results.  With 36 years as an environmental engineer with ExxonMobil, I used  the petroleum industry as the source of examples of how such planning can be effectively done; however, the framework presented is equally applicable to any climate planning activity.

Bill Hafker is a graduate of the Spring 2017 Fairfax Master Naturalist class.

Want to review a resource? We’d love to hear from you. Instructions for submission await your click and commitment.