Spend a Saturday morning walking along the Sligo Creek Trail in Takoma Park, Maryland, and you'll likely see at least one family trekking through the brush with a trash bag, picking up discarded aluminum cans and plastic grocery bags. These are the members of Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC), a community volunteer organization that has worked since 2001 to clean up this tributary of the Anacostia River. The organization has now swelled to more than 500 members – an impressive figure for a nine-mile-long creek, even in this densely populated Washington, D.C., suburb.
(Image courtesy Mark Ames/Flickr)
Sligo Creek’s watershed is ethnically and economically diverse, encompassing everything from million dollar homes to public housing. This diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity for FOSC, which aims to be an environmental organization that genuinely reflects the interests and values of its eclectic community.
Stormwater Committee Leader Ed Murtagh reveals that although Sligo Creek's watershed is home to a varied population, a number of residents are professional environmental experts. "We have EPA employees, natural history experts, Smithsonian workers living in this area. There's a lot of folks who care about these things."
Also unique to Sligo Creek is its urban setting. Flowing through the D.C. suburbs of Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, the creek faces challenges specific to high-density areas, where human impacts are everywhere. Polluted stormwater runoff, land development, and the spread of invasive weeds are some specific challenges Sligo faces.
"It’s pretty common now to see rain barrels and rain gardens," Murtagh says. But when he started volunteering with FOSC in 2002, stormwater infrastructure wasn't so cool. "We try to make it a social thing," he explains, holding education and outreach activities for the community to learn more about beneficial landscaping.
For example, FOSC has sponsored sustainable gardening tours to showcase rain gardens and native plants that homeowners have planted along the creek. According to Murtagh, it's an excellent opportunity to reach out to friends and neighbors interested in gardening.
Additionally, FOSC’s website provides an excellent description of stormwater basics to explain "what happens when it rains" to those who can’t make an event.
When a developer proposed building a cell phone tower on Sligo’s oak-hickory uplands, FOSC knew the project would not only destroy woodlands, but increase erosion and sediment pollution in the creek. Working with neighbors, FOSC members organized successful protests that led to the project being abandoned in early 2011.
Additionally, the cell phone tower proposal would have contradicted Takoma Park’s interest in increasing wildlife habitat in the community. This year, the city became the first in Maryland to be certified by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) as a Community Wildlife Habitat.
NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat certifications are popping up across the country (look for these yard signs). A Community Wildlife Habitat certification, however, is a larger undertaking. Food-bearing plants and water sources must be installed throughout the community so critters can travel throughout different neighborhoods, rather than being isolated to small areas.
In Takoma Park, the certification required that four schools, four public spaces and 150 backyards provide native wildlife with food, water, shelter and a place to rear young. FOSC’s Bruce Sidwell worked with the Takoma Horticulture Club and the Takoma Foundation to garner community support and provide technical assistance to participating neighbors.
(Image courtesy Friends of Sligo Creek)
Invasive weeds grow at much higher rates in urban areas (like the Sligo Creek watershed) than in rural areas. That’s because of us: humans spread seeds and disturb soil when we hike and bike through natural areas, allowing harmful weeds to invade new areas.
How is FOSC battling the somewhat overwhelming invasive weed problem? By splitting up the job. The group has designated a "Sligo Steward" for each of the creek’s 15 stream tracts. Sligo Stewards organize invasive weed removal days, as well as litter pickups. It’s each Sligo Steward’s job to make sure his or her section of the creek is in good health. The Sligo Steward program helps build community, gives neighbors a common goal and fosters a sense of ownership of the creek.
But FOSC volunteers know the fight against invasive weeds reaches beyond their organization. That’s why FOSC has joined forces with the Montgomery County Parks Weed Warriors program, which trains volunteers how to properly remove invasive weeds and sponsors group work days in natural areas.
The partnership between FOSC and the Weed Warriors has been successful at teaching members about invasive weeds and increasing participation in weed removals in the community. This November, a record number of volunteers participated in a Weed Warrior work day at Sligo Creek.
What else is special about Friends of Sligo Creek?
With separate committees for stormwater, invasive plants, water quality, litter, outreach and even natural history, Friends of Sligo Creek is structured in a way that covers all "environmental bases."
In addition to its many neighborhood events, FOSC holds a "Sweep the Creek" trash cleanup twice a year. During last fall’s Sweep the Creek, 222 FOSC volunteers collected 167 bags of trash. According to Murtagh, the amount of trash that volunteers have picked up at each event has decreased significantly over the past 10 years, even as the region’s population has grown.
It seems like all the great work FOSC volunteers are doing is making a difference toward a cleaner Sligo Creek, Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Friends of Sligo Creek)
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