A Natural History

U.S. Department of Energy Germantown Facility: A Natural History

The Department of Energy (DOE) headquarters at Germantown is located in the rolling hills of the Maryland Piedmont, approximately twenty miles north of Washington, DC. The land on which the site resides was a remote 109-acre farm, belonging to William O. Dosh of Gaithersburg, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission selected it in 1955 for its new headquarters. The farm primarily was open agricultural land fringed with woods along portions of its eastern, southern and western boundaries. The majority of the onsite portions of these wooded areas are intact today and have been stewarded by a combination of the government property fence line and site security, that keep human use of these areas to a minimum, and by onsite land management practices that allow these areas to remain relatively natural. The onsite wooded areas contain small perennial headwater streams that drain into the Seneca Creek watershed which flows to the Potomac River and ultimately to the Chesapeake Bay. Like so many other DOE sites nationwide, the Germantown site has witnessed the advance of urbanization, right up to its fence line. Much of the nearby wooded areas that once adjoined those onsite, now are gone or greatly reduced in size. Farming has all but disappeared from the area as the population of upper Montgomery County continues to expand northward.

Today, the Germantown site is dedicated to the office environment of DOE headquarters and is mostly open space, with adjoining roadways, parking areas, lawns, gardens, small wooded natural areas, a pond and small streams. In the spring of 2000, approximately two acres of the site were planted with a mix of young hardwood trees in an effort to begin to reforest some of the land that was open lawn. The two-acre plot is adjacent to the existing 7-8 acre wooded area and creek in the southeast portion of the Site. Reforestation will reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide use on the open lawn and will reduce the need for mowing. The reforestation, therefore, may have some positive benefits for reduced runoff and improved water quality of the adjacent existing area. In time, it will add new forest habitat that will both benefit wildlife and provide a place of natural beauty for human enjoyment.

The open areas of the site, together with the existing wooded areas, the 1.7-acre spring-fed pond, and the small streams all contribute to a mix of habitat conditions that are conducive to a variety of wildlife. Over the years, DOE employees have tallied at least 36 species of birds. These include the standard backyard varieties plus various field and woodland species, such as blue jay, eastern bluebird, pileated and downy woodpecker, flicker, killdeer, oriole, nuthatch, junco, chickadee, owl, hawk, waxwing, warbler, grosbeak, and American goldfinch. Birds that frequent the site because of the presence of the pond and streams include species such as Canada geese, mallard ducks, redwing blackbirds, tree swallows, great blue herons, green herons, belted kingfishers, and eastern kingbirds. The pond, streams and associated marshy areas contain small fishes, aquatic turtles and snakes, frogs, salamanders, crayfish, and a wide variety of dragonflies, damselflies, and other insects. The main mammals (other than human) that use the site are associated primarily with the wooded areas and include whitetail deer, red and gray fox, eastern cottontail rabbit, groundhog, gray squirrel, and chipmunk. There have been occasional reports of black bear as well as coyote onsite.

Aspects of the Natural History of the Forest Along the Glenn Seaborg Trail

Glenn T. Seaborg, Nobel Laureate and AEC Chairman from 1961 to 1971, blazed the trail that today bears his name. An avid hiker, he often walked on the trail with friends and associates.

Dixy Lee Ray, AEC Chairman (1973-1974) often walked on the trail with her pet companions, Ghillie (Scottish deerhound) and Jacques (poodle). The forested area through which the trail runs is divided by the headwaters of a creek flowing out of the pond which is spring fed and also receives drainage from the eastern portion of the DOE site. The creek is part of the Seneca Creek watershed. See the schematic map.

The Seaborg Trail itself is about one quarter mile long from its northern entrance near the newly reforested area to its southern entrance near the Child Development Center. The Trail enters the northern edge of the forest and winds past a large white oak dating from about the 1750s. A study of the estimated ages of the trees along the Trail suggested that this oak is the oldest tree in this forest. As it courses southerly, the Trail crosses the middle bridge through a patch of raspberries and then along the rim of the creek which runs about five feet or so beneath. As it continues to the south, the Trail passes by a large sourgum tree (black tupelo) near the creek and past a large tulip poplar dating from the 1870s. The Trail then dips into an area that is open, and seems very spacious, beneath the canopy. This area is carpeted by a broad blanket of low growing ground ferns that gives the area a verdant appearance and a feeling of tranquility. There are two public benches along the eastern side of the Trail in this area. The Trail then continues southerly to where it crosses the southern bridge and then begins its ascent up the steep 20% slope of the southern edge of the forest. Just up the slope from the creek on the eastern side of the Trail, is a very large white oak that dates from approximately the 1860s. Across the Trail from this large oak is a relatively flat terraced area that runs parallel to the contour of the land. This flat area was at the edge of the forest when this DOE Site was farmland prior to 1955. Trees down the slope from this flat area (i.e., toward the creek) are larger and older than trees up the slope. Trees on this upslope area date from the 1960s-1970s. Proceeding up the slope, the Trail winds beneath a mix of hickories, oaks, tulip poplar and Virginia pine dating to about the mid-1950s. The Trail then leaves the forest at its southern entrance.

This forest appears to be one that is recovering or self-renewing after having been at least partially cleared for farming or timber, probably since the middle 1800s or so. This is indicated by the predominance of tulip poplar, a pioneer species, especially on previously farmed areas. Other major tree species are white oak, chestnut oak, red oak, hickory, maple, Virginia pine, sourgum, and sassafras. The understory consists primarily of young individuals of the major tree species, with some blueberry, raspberry, epiphytic vines, ferns, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

The largest and oldest trees found in this forested area of the site are located near the creek. The very oldest trees to be found today in other areas of Montgomery County often are located along stream courses, as these areas generally have not been cleared for farming or for development in recent years. This has resulted in the existence today of a few trees between 150 to 240+ years old near the creek, plus many others in the age range of 100 to 130 years throughout the area. An aerial photo taken when the AEC building was under construction in 1956 indicates that those areas around the periphery of the site were not disturbed by construction, grading, and leveling. The relatively natural and undisturbed condition of this forested area today seems to substantiate this.

The natural history of the forested area is intertwined with the local history of Montgomery County. Through the years, the site served as a witness to history. Native American tribes including the Seneca, Susquahannock, and Piscataway hunted in the region. When European setttlers arrived in the 1730s, they found the soil ideal for farming. During the Civil War, Armies, Union and Confederate, passed through the area. In a unique way, the natural history is connected to the Cold War with the subsequent siting of the AEC headquarters building in Germantown and the resulting stewardship of the forested area. This has been accomplished by: (1) minimal disturbance of the forest during AEC site construction in 1956-1957; (2) placement of security fences around the AEC site that restricted its use and thus isolated the forest; (3) managing the forest by allowing it to naturally self-renew; and (4) allowing some of the farmland along the edges of the forest to reseed naturally with trees, thus expanding the forested area. The outcome of contributing to the self-renewal of this forested area over the last 45 years may be an unintended consequence, but has been beneficial to the quality of the forest and has contributed to the esthetics of it. The forest and the Trail now are a scenic, restful, and peaceful environment for hiking and provide quality habitat for wildlife. This provides tangible diversity to the DOE Germantown site.