Land Management at SCBI

Situated on over 3,200 acres of forest, grassland, and stream habitat in Front Royal, VA, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) is in unique position to facilitate large-scale experimental research on land management practices.

By partnering with SCBI, Virginia Working Landscapes is enabled to field-test land management and monitoring techniques and conduct active research into grassland biodiversity and sustainable land uses. Furthermore, VWL shares with the public any insights gained through this work, in order to help citizens implement effective land conservation efforts in their local community.

With a fondness for birds and a keen interest in behavioral ecology, Smithsonian Scientist Eugene Morton set up the first string of nest boxes at SCBI back in the late 1970’s. He was initially drawn to study the mating behavior of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), but later became enamored with another cavity nester, the purple martin (Progne subis), and added gourd-style housing for them in the mid 1980’s. After Dr. Morton discontinued his research at SCBI, however, maintenance and monitoring of the bluebird trail and the purple martin colony fell somewhat to the wayside. Nevertheless, SCBI maintained its commitment to safeguarding the bluebird trail and martin colony to this day. In recent years, they are maintained by variety of volunteers supervised by the animal care team.

Today, it is more important than ever to study the Eastern bluebird and purple martin, and to monitor their populations through time.

Native grasses and wildflowers have persisted in Virginia for generations. Over the course of geologic time, these plants have evolved in response to the unique pressures exerted by the climate, soils, and community of species characteristic of the areas where they occur. As a result, they are typically more robust to local environmental conditions, and will outperform non-native species in resistance to drought, insects, and disease. However, some non-native grassland species (e.g., autumn olive Eleagnus undifolia, wavyleaf basketgrass Oplismenus hirtellus, and tree-of-heaven Ailanthus altissima) can outcompete natives. These species become invasive when they proliferate widely (sometimes even forming large monocultures), and displace native species. The invasion of non-native species reduces local biodiversity and ultimately the resiliency of the entire meadow ecosystem.

Landowners that want to control invasive species and improve the health of their meadow should know which management practices are the most effective. Toward addressing this information need, VWL established nine half-acre meadows on SCBI property in collaboration with the Field Ecology Lab and with support from a Smithsonian Women’s Committee Grant. By tracking how biodiversity and species assemblages change in these meadows in response to different management practices, VWL hopes to gain insight into the methods that can improve the overall condition and health of native meadows.

Nine plots were initially prepared by either tilling (4 plots), applying herbicides and then tilling (4 plots), or taking no action (1 control plot), and then all were seeded with the same meadow mix. Every year since their establishment, the plots receive one of four treatments (mowing, herbicide application, prescribed burning, or manual weed removal), which reflect several common practices for managing grasslands. Then, at the height of the growing season (June-August), surveyors record the diversity and abundance of plant species in each plot.

VWL's role and goal. Ultimately, VWL seeks to develop or improve management guides for landowners, in order to empower the community to conserve native biodiversity at home.


Partners and Primary Investigators:

Amy Johnson - Virginia Working Landscapes
Bill McShea - SCBI Field Ecology Lab

Nearly one-third of land on Earth is covered in forest. These forests support the livelihoods of millions of people and a majority of terrestrial species, as well as provide critical ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, timber production, and watershed protection. They are also naturally diverse in species, structure, and function, which provides these ecosystems with the resilience to withstand changing environmental conditions. However, humans have both directly and indirectly contributed to the creation of monoculture forests (e.g., in forest plantations, or resulting from reforestation efforts) that are much more vulnerable to changing environmental or economic conditions.

To understand the impact of restoring biodiversity to forest ecosystems, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) are participating in ‘BiodiversiTREE,' a long-term, large-scale experiment intended to serve as a research platform for decades to come.

As steward of over 3200 acres of grasslands, forests, and streams, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) is responsible for ensuring the health of a lot of land. Native plants underpin local ecological communities by supporting populations of native insects and herbivores, as well as the broader food-web network. So, SCBI actively manages several, otherwise-idle sites in order to make them into havens for native species.

Racetrack Hill Meadow

Seeking to increase the biodiversity and reduce the carbon footprint of an abandoned pasture south of Racetrack Hill, SCBI converted the 15 acre field into native meadows. The field was planted with purpletop grass and a mix of native flowers, which naturally complements an adjacent apiary by providing ample foraging and nesting habitat for those bees. While parts of the meadow are managed with rotational mowing, prescribed fire, and herbicide spot-treatment, significant portions are left untouched in order to support migratory and wintering populations of birds and mammals. Finally, embracing the concept of hand-on learning, SCBI also conducts training sessions for vegetation survey techniques at this site.

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Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road
Front Royal, Virginia 22630
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