Since becoming superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in January 2019, Charles Cuvelier has overseen a wide portfolio of assets.
Cuvelier, who began his National Park Service career 29 years ago as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, recently spoke with the Sun Gazette’s Brian Trompeter about projects and activities along the parkway.
What projects has the National Park Service recently finished along the parkway in Virginia?
In the last year or so, we’ve concluded about $265 million of investment in the park. The largest project involved the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which we reopened to the public in December, although we continue to do a little bit of site-rehabilitation work.
Just this past month of June, we reopened Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which underwent an over $12 million rehabilitation effort of the facility, exhibits and territorial objects. [It was] a significant, large project. It’s been completely reimagined. We encourage folks to come out. We’ve implemented a time-ticketed entry system as part of a COVID mitigation. The tickets are free, but they do require a small handling fee.
Any recently completed projects on the Maryland side of the Potomac River?
We finished the Clara Barton Parkway rehabilitation. It took almost $10 million of hard work there.”
What initiatives are coming up next?
We continue to work on the Netherlands Carillon [in Arlington], rehabilitation of the bell tower and the bells in partnership with the Netherlands. It’s been exciting because with the help of the Netherlands, their embassy and friends, we sent the bells back over to a foundry to have them be retuned. Fifty [bells] went over and 53 came back, with the addition of three new bells making it a grand carillon.
We anticipate the tower work will be completed early next calendar year, which will allow for a spring, probably, reopening of that musical instrument, [which was] a gift from the people of the Netherlands to the United States. It’s a very rewarding project to see come about.
We also have the new construction of a comfort station/restroom facility at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial and we have things under contract, to include reconstruction of a bridge on the Mount Vernon Trail in the south of Fairfax County; the south parkway striping project; efforts to do some guardrail repair work [for sections] damaged by vehicle crashes on the northern end of the parkway.
We hope within the next year to award a contract for repaving the Turkey Run link road. The other major project we have under way in the next six months or so, with the Army Corps of Engineers, is Phase 2 of the Dyke Marsh restoration work . . . We completed Phase 1, which included reconstruction of the historic promontory there. There was at one time a natural promontory that extended to the shore of the southern end of the marsh and that was reconstructed last year . . . Part of what we’re trying to accomplish today, which was the intent of legislation in the 1970s that applied to the marsh, was to slow the erosion or loss of the marsh.
What’s the biggest of those projects?
Probably the one of the most significance is our north parkway rehabilitation project, which has been funded out of the Great American Outdoor Act . . . We hope to award a contract within the calendar year to do design, construction and rehabilitation of the road from the Capital Beltway to Spout Run.
Has the parkway seen an attendance upsurge during the pandemic from people seeking outdoor recreation spots?
Certainly, we saw in the first year of the pandemic, highly localized, very intense use. We strived to keep the green open spaces open . . . We did see some record visitation. We continue to see a lot of under-use, but we’ve had a sustained level of use, even after the peak of last summer. There are a few more choices today. People are going to beaches and other outdoor venues that provide more choice, but I think that reinforces the value and importance of open spaces for recreation.
How go efforts to speed up entry at Great Falls Park, where there have been repeated traffic backups?
We had planned to go to a digital-pass system. We accelerated that effort with the pandemic, so you can go online now at recreation.gov in advance of your travel, get your park pass and purchase it in advance. I think that helps the park visitor, in terms of their entry into the park . . . There are a lot of things we’ve done at the operational level, such as training our staff. We’re in the process of upgrading our Internet, so we can perform things more efficiently and quickly.
How would you describe the agency’s relationship with the surrounding community?
Our parkway partners are critical to this success. We partner with the Great Falls Citizens Association. They’ve been really instrumental in providing ideas and encouraging us to think outside the box for solutions. Their support for Park Police I think helps everything work out better.
Any news on the proposed land swap of the Park Service’s Langley Fork property in McLean for Fairfax County’s nearby Langley Oaks Park?
It has been a long, arduous process . . . It’s a really complicated real-estate transaction.
So unlike your commercial or household kind of real-estate purchases, which seem to be going really, really fast, these are complex. It has taken an exceedingly long period of time. I apologize to the county for the duration. We are hoping to approach a milestone in the near future of giving public notice of that land exchange. A key milestone would be to get that in the Federal Register. We have no certainty of when that will occur, but that is our next step, once we have satisfied the appraisal process.
What does the Park Service intend for the former Claude Moore Colonial Farm site?
“We made a commitment to our community to reach out and solicit from them ideas for reimagining South Turkey Run. Part of that would include renaming, to get us headed in the right direction. We provided that report to the community a few months ago and I think that will provide a foundation for decision making . . . The area does still remain open for hikers and whatnot. We’ve tried to make sure that although the traditional use has been discontinued, there’s still some limited recreational opportunity there.”