Mason Neck community takes quick action to protect public land
Residents of Mason Neck are breathing a sigh of relief following some recent fast-paced actions to influence legislation on Capitol Hill.
Back on June 6 during the Mason Neck Citizens Association’s (MNCA) annual meeting at Gunston Hall, a packed room full of community members and other stakeholders listened as representatives from the Army’s Military District of Washington, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Congressman Don Beyer’s office briefed them on an imminent legislative action.
Just days before the meeting, MNCA had learned that the Army submitted language in its mandatory Report to Congress recommending that the BLM transfer 50 acres of public land at Mustang Loop — part of the Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area near Gunston and Harley Roads — to the Army for long-term usage by the horses of the “Old Guard,” also known as the Caisson Platoon. The language about the BLM land transfer was going to be reviewed by Congress and potentially included in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC) markup of the fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act and voted upon June 22 for advancement to the Senate floor. The House Armed Services Committee had opted not to include it in their markup, in part because of Beyer’s efforts.
The Mason Neck community was dismayed at the prospect of seeing a large parcel of land, which currently encompasses native meadow, walking trails, a pollinator garden and a recently built pavilion, be transformed into an equine facility surrounded by security infrastructure. While the property transformation would have taken at least three to five years to implement, residents were upset at the potential environmental impacts and questioned why other local sites, including at Fort Belvoir, hadn’t been given more serious consideration. The Army had said it carefully analyzed three separate courses of action but felt the Meadowood option was the most viable.
Meadowood was established by Congress in the early 2000s for public use and recreation, according to MNCA President Nancy Wilochka, and the BLM created and has helped maintain the site’s open meadows and groomed trails for user groups like hikers, equestrians and running and birding enthusiasts.
Earlier this year, some of the Army's Caisson horses were moved from an existing grazing area on Colchester Road at Fort Belvoir to 14 acres of land in a different section of Meadowood under a separate short-term agreement between the Army and BLM. The Army has been pursuing both short- and long-term solutions to rehabilitate and preserve the health of the horses, which traditionally are used in military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. At present, Caisson Platoon support for military funerals has been suspended until June 2024 to enable the herd to rest and recover.
Congressman Don Beyer’s district chief of staff, Noah Simon, reassured Mason Neck residents that the land transfer from BLM to the Army wasn’t a done deal and promised quick action in approaching key players on Capitol Hill, including Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who sits on the SASC.
“Nobody thinks the ship has sailed,” said Simon. “Don Beyer doesn’t.”
Over the following days and weeks, the MNCA board held an emergency meeting where it drafted a resolution calling upon the SASC to defer the markup of that portion of the NDAA “to allow time and consideration of available options and [the] best solution for the Caisson horses and in the best interest of the Army and taxpayers.” Board members, including Wilochka and Vice President Marvin Miller, also met several times with staff from Beyer’s and Kaine’s offices, and briefed the South County Federation, which agreed to provide a letter of support. Many residents of Mason Neck contacted their congressional representatives as well.
Following the closed-door SASC hearing on June 22, Wilochka sent a note to MNCA members to update them about the situation.
“Our representatives, from the local level to the federal level, heard all of us,” she wrote.
While the initial executive summary from the Senate version of the NDAA did not include mention of the Caisson Platoon, the full FY24 NDAA Bill Text published July 11 did and — thanks to efforts from Kaine — included language requiring further study on how to best care for the platoon.
“We were successful in buying time, and we need to use this time to pull together some more innovative solutions,” said Wilochka.
She promised to keep the Mason Neck community informed and thanked them for their support of MNCA’s mission: “to promote the preservation of the historic, archaeological, and environmental resources of Mason Neck and to educate the community, and the public in general, about the unique resources of Mason Neck.”