Connecting with community

Paul Marinari

Editor’s note: Northern Virginia Daily reporter Kevin Green toured the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s campus in Front Royal last month. This is the last of a three-part series on his visit.

FRONT ROYAL — In April 2001, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute — known then as the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center — was facing imminent closure. Then Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small announced it would close Dec. 31 of that year.

Fourteen years later, Dr. David Wildt, head of the institute’s Conservation Center for Species Survival, recalled that there was an “almost immediate” response from members of the public who were upset at the news of the closure.

“There were so many people who had trained here and … got their start here, they couldn’t believe it,” Wildt explained.

According to a May 2001 article in BioScience, the Smithsonian canceled the planned closure after a host of scientists and politicians opposed the closure.

Dr. David Wildt

In many ways, the support the institute received changed how it approached public outreach. “This place has undergone a renaissance as a result of that,” Wildt said.

Wildt added that the facility was conducting a lot of the same work back then that is it working on today. “Honestly, we weren’t talking about it that much.”

“There wasn’t ideal connectivity to the community and there was different leadership at this place … and all of that’s changed,” Wildt said. “Since that time, we have been able to connect more to the community.”

The outreach and public connectivity Wildt talked about is more evident today than at any point in the facility’s 39-year history.

Take, for example, its long-running April Lecture Series and its Autumn Conservation Festival — two events designed to inform the public about its research.

Paul Marinari, senior curator for species survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, stands outside this 24-unit purple martin house under construction at the facility. Rich Cooley/Daily

The institute also hosts nature camps for students in grades four through nine that are run through Friends of the National Zoo — a volunteer group that raises money and supports the Smithsonian Institute through various public outreach events.

Paul Marinari, the center’s senior curator, said that with a new coordinator for educational programs in place, Friends will be cutting back on the nature camps this year.  But between that outreach, annual prescribed field burns and ecology projects, the facility does focus time and effort on the area  and wildlife surrounding its 3,200-acre campus.

Recently Marinari and two local volunteers installed new gourd “trees” for purple martins, a migratory bird known to visit the valley from their native home in Brazil around April and May. The gourd trees will serve as a stable safe haven for this species, which is in decline.

Marinari said purple martins “need humans.” They build nests in the small cracks and crevasses of homes,  barns and tree stands.  “They’re cavity nesters, so we actually provide them with the cavity.”

In the tree gourds, migrating purple martins have homes designed so that “really only the martins can get in” and protect themselves from predator birds, such as starlings and hawks.

“We have the threatened and endangered animal collection, but we also are trying to provide structures like bat boxes,” Marinari said. “This is kind of our version of low-income government housing.”

This fairly low-budget conservation effort, Marinari explained, is a way to help a species that serves a vital function in local ecosystems. “Like all swallows, these guys are great at keeping down mosquito and insect populations.”

And, of course, like any and all conservation efforts at the institute, Marinari said they will be keeping an eye on the nest and gourds to monitor population trends.

Alongside localized conservation efforts, the Front Royal campus aims to grow and enhance its long-standing tradition of “training the next generation” of conservation scientists through the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.

In 2008, the Smithsonian formed a partnership with George Mason University to provide opportunities for undergraduate, post-graduate and post-doctoral students.

As Wildt pointed out, “training the next generation” also includes professional training courses for researchers worldwide. In June, the facility will be holding a course on “the value of conservation breeding centers.”

According to Wildt, students in programs like this “are doing a combination of classroom [work], but they are also spending a lot of time outside.”

“With this course that we’re creating in June … we’re going to be spending probably two-thirds of the time outside of the classroom,” Wildt said. “It’s more fun to be out there.”

Much like a university, scientists working out of the Front Royal institute produce research papers through publications like “PLOS One.” The catch with the institute is that the research papers are being directly applied to global scientific work.

Wildt said that also applies to students who complete practicums rooted in hands-on scientific work they conduct on-site.

“I think [the students] really get excited when the information that they’re generating can actually be translated into a product,” that works toward conserving an aspect of wildlife, Wildt added.

Building and maintaining this community outreach appears to be a growing aspect at the institute.

“We’re trying to improve our long-term relationships,” Marinari said.

Although the Front Royal institute is under the Smithsonian Institute umbrella, Marinari said they rely heavily on private donations, cost-sharing partnerships and grant writing to fund their efforts alongside federal allocations.

Wildt indicated the institute has the plans for a new Center for Species Survival Complex as well as an animal keeper building. Plans for this complex also include new research labs and a biorepository.

Completion of such projects will, Marinari said, be dependent on a wide range of factors between funding availability, weather and the needs of the animals.

“I am hopeful that we will improve upon things and make sure that we are accounting for the needs of those specific animals in the collection,” Marinari said.

For now, one thing the institute is looking to do is continue to increase the public awareness of the research being conducted in Front Royal.

Through Friends of the National Zoo, Marinari noted that the institute’s conservation message is taken “out into the community” through occasional programs at local schools and libraries.

Marinari added, “We’re really trying to change the focus, especially at our Autumn Conservation Festival, to have folks come here and … meet the scientists.”

This annual festival, which will be held Oct. 3-4, is one of the few times the facility is open to the public.

Looking ahead, Marinari said the facility will continue its involvement in “global conservation work,” answering species-related questions and “then providing that information out to the public [and] out to the world.”

“We may have different species in the future,” he said, “But we will always be trying to further our knowledge base of understanding the animals that are here.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com