- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship is a 900-acre nature preserve in otherwise fast-growing Loudoun County.

“We’re the largest natural area in the county. Visitors can hike, camp, pick vegetables on the farm or go bird-watching,” says Kara Ball, executive director of the center. “And do you hear any cars? No” — though the nearest large-house subdivision is less than five miles away, Ms. Ball says.

The center’s 10 miles of trails go past old farmsteads and through fields and forests, which include beech, pear, pine, oak and red maple trees. To the west is a tree-covered mountain ridge and home of the Appalachian Trail, which can be accessed from the center’s trails.

There also is a rich animal population that includes deer, mink, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and bears. It is also the home to several endangered species, including the marbled salamander and the wood turtle, Ms. Ball says.

“And we have at least 130 different kinds of birds and 30 kinds of butterflies,” she says.

Birds include the green heron, the pileated woodpecker and various hawks and eagles, such as the red-tailed hawk and the osprey.

Next spring, Ms. Ball says, she hopes the center will be able to lend visitors backpacks full of bird-watching equipment, including books and binoculars.

The center, which is about 5 years old, is still in its infancy, Ms. Ball says. The natural beauty is — of course — in place, but the educational component — kiosks, pamphlets, exhibits, lectures and other events — is still a work in progress, she says.

She says she also hopes the center soon will offer a couple of self-guided tours of the trails and farmsteads. Currently, a kiosk close to the entrance offers trail maps.

Most farmsteads, which are in a state of disrepair, date to the mid-19th century. There are about 30 structures in all, and they form what’s called an open community neighborhood. The term refers to the fact that the homes are bordered by natural boundaries, such as creeks and mountain ridges, Ms. Ball says. Today’s community boundaries usually are made up of other residential development or roads, she says.

“Part of what makes us unique is that we combine the recreational, cultural, natural and agricultural,” Ms. Ball says. “I guess you could call it a multifaceted experience.”

Visitors could — technically — learn how farmers in the 19th century lived, get a good aerobic workout on the nature trails and pick fall squash at the center’s farm all during the same visit

The farm, which produces pesticide-free crops, donates about 100 pounds of fresh produce weekly to Loudoun Interfaith Relief, a local food bank. The rest is sold on Saturday mornings at the farm stand, which will be open at least one more week but maybe longer, depending on the crops, Ms. Ball says.

The center also hosts public programs several times a month. In October, they include a Saturday morning bird walk and an autumn harvest banquet.

For visitors who decide they want to do a little more than just walk the trails or pick fall vegetables, Ms. Ball recommends volunteering. It’s not only a way to contribute to the nonprofit center, but also a way of learning more about everything from farming to bird migration.

Ms. Bell says she hopes visitors — whether they volunteer, participate in public programs or merely pick vegetables at the farm — will be inspired to learn more about making environmentally sound choices in their everyday lives.

“Those choices can be using public transportation or using less water,” she says. “We want to help people understand that they are inextricably connected to the world around them.”

When you go:

Location: Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, 11661 Harpers Ferry Road, Purcellville, Va.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Interstate 270 north. After about 30 miles, merge onto Interstate 70 west toward Hagerstown. After about two miles, merge onto U.S. Route 340 west toward Charles Town, W.Va. Stay on Route 340 for about 17 miles. Make a left onto Harpers Ferry Road. The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship will be on the left after about two miles.

Hours: The park is open all year during daylight hours.

Parking: Free.

Admission: Free.

Information: 540/668-7640 or www.blueridgecenter.org.

Notes: The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship features frequent events, including the following fall activities:

• Fresh produce sale, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Fresh produce from the center’s farm will be available for purchase at the farm stand. Visitors also can pick their own vegetables in surrounding fields. Seasonal vegetables include potatoes, eggplants, peppers and garlic.

• Morning bird walk, 8 a.m. to noon, Oct. 22. Bird-watchers of all levels are welcome to participate in this event, which offered in partnership with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy and Audubon Naturalist Society. Bring binoculars. Free.

• Autumn harvest banquet, noon to 3 p.m., Oct. 29. This event will feature food and activities, including tractor rides and face painting, for the whole family. Fee: $25 for adults, $10 for children 6 and older. Children age 5 and younger are admitted free.

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