Regional park authority lauds those who were key in its start

The late Ira Gabrielson, an Oakton resident and conservationist who helped found the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (now NOVA Parks), releases a duck in this file photo from the agency.

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The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks) likely would not have been founded 62 years ago had it not been for the determination and expertise of its three late founders.

NOVA Parks officials highlighted the achievements and qualities of Ira Gabrielson, Mary Cook Hackman and Walter Mess in association with environmentally friendly events in September, including United Nations Climate Week, World Rivers Day and National Public Lands Day.

“These three leaders really exemplify things that are still going on in NOVA Parks today,” said Paul Gilbert, the agency’s executive director. “They’re as relevant to the public today as they were 60 years ago.” The three founders served different roles in the organization and they testified before Congress to seek funds for parks.

Gabrielson, a noted conservationist, was NOVA Parks’ chairman from 1959 to 1975. Headlong development was occurring in Northern Virginia following World War II and under Gabrielson’s direction the agency began acquiring significant land parcels along rivers, Gilbert said.

A confidant of Franklin Roosevelt, Gabrielson took a keen interest in nature during his childhood in Iowa, and later wrote a guide about North American birds.

Gabrielson lived in Oakton and donated land there to the Fairfax County Park Authority, which created Gabrielson Gardens Park, located in Difficult Run Stream Valley Park. (A bridge at the park also was named after him, but it since has been replaced and renamed in memory of Thornton and Mary Elizabeth Burnet, longtime supporters of the Hunters Valley community.)

Hackman, an Arlington resident, was “way ahead of her time” during an era when few women held leadership posts, Gilbert said.

“She was a very dynamic civic leader,” he said. “She viewed parks as critical to quality of life.”

Hackman focused on the importance of nature and parks to people’s mental health and a vibrant community, Gilbert said.

A civic activist who audited law classes at American University, she passed the bar exam without a college degree and later started her own law firm. Hackman also was involved in school-integration efforts in the late 1950s.

Gabrielson brought Fairfax County into the fledgling park authority, Hackman pressed for Arlington’s inclusion and the third founder, Walter Mess, reeled in Falls Church. Mess served on the agency’s board for 45 years, including 30 as chairman.

Mess served with the Office of Strategic Services in World War II and undertook clandestine missions in Burma and Thailand. He spent time in San Diego during the war, saw the impact of that city’s first-class parks agency and lovely Balboa Park, and dreamt of bringing larger parks to Northern Virginia, Gilbert said.

“He was a successful businessmen and brought the entrepreneurial spark to NOVA Parks,” Gilbert said.

Mess helped found one of the agency’s most heavily used attractions, the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail, which runs from Purcellville to Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood.

The agency, which changed its name to NOVA Parks in 2014, began with Arlington and Fairfax counties and the city of Falls Church and later came to include Loudoun County and the cities of Fairfax and Alexandria.

NOVA Parks has preserved more than 12,000 acres of land. Only 12 percent of its funding comes from member jurisdictions; the rest derives from park operations, Gilbert said.

Mess, Hackman and Gabrielson pulled together multiple jurisdictions to form the agency and in the process helped solidify the identity of Northern Virginia, he said.

“Great things are done by people with lots of drive,” Gilbert said. “We certainly have some big shoes to fill with these three.”