Friday, October 03, 2008

C&O National Historical Park Damage

By Marc Korman.

The Gazette recently reported that the popular towpath at the C&O National Historical Park suffered major damage as a result of Tropical Storm Hanna. As a result, the National Park Service has closed over a mile of the trail between Anglers Inn and Stoplock, in the Montgomery County portion of the park. This is bad news for our region and the towpath’s many users.

Montgomery County is home to a few National Park Service sites. Glen Echo Park, which is technically part of the George Washington Parkway, and the Clara Barton House, a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service, are wonderful places to visit. But when we think of National Parks in our community, we think of the impressive Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Last year, C&O Canal had over 2.8 million visitors who enjoyed its hiking trails, biked or walked along the towpath, or explored one of the 1,300 historical sites along the towpath. C&O Canal is geographically the longest National Park in the country, stretching 184.5 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown. Among the most popular sites in the Park is the Billy Goat Trail, a three section trail in the Montgomery County section of the Park. When I was a student at Montgomery County Public Schools, we took field trips to the Park to learn about the Canal’s history and the lock system that made it work.

The Park has a fascinating history. The canal itself was outdated from almost the moment it opened due to the increase in affordable rail transportation. In the 1950s, planning was underway to convert the derelict canal into a roadway. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, an avid hiker around the canal, joined with other community advocates to torpedo the road and have C&O declared a National Park. It took years of public advocacy, but in 1971 the Park was finally established.

The heavy damage along the towpath could not come at a worse time for the C&O Canal or the parks in general. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Service has an annual $750 million operational shortfall nationwide, meaning just to continue doing what it is already doing it needs three quarters of a billion dollars more each year.

C&O Canal’s budget of approximately $9.8 million for operations last year is 37% of what the Park’s assessed needs are based on a business plan analysis conducted by parks advocates. In the past decade, the Park’s staffing has dropped by a quarter. The Park also has over $40 million in flood damage awaiting repairs, excluding the towpath damage. There are also continued pressures from adjacent development. For example, back in 2004 Dan Snyder created a controversy when he removed trees bordering the Park, altering the landscape.

The primary response in recent years to the degradation of our National Parks has been to promote the work of important organizations like the C&O Canal Trust and C&O Canal Association. These organizations, and others like them supporting National Parks across the country, are invaluable. They will likely provide many of the resources to fix the recent storm damage.

But ad hoc private group efforts are no solution to our parks’ needs. The Bush Administration, in honor of the National Park Service’s forthcoming 100th Anniversary in 2016, has proposed a Centennial Initiative to leverage private donations with matching federal funds to renew the parks. C&O Canal’s specific Centennial plan has multiple goals, including trail rehabilitation, historic building restoration among the 1,300 historical sites, and making the park “green” by encouraging park vendors to use alternative fuels. So far, the proposal has not received much traction in Congress.

The broader National Parks issues should be addressed, but what needs to happen now is our community, led by private organizations and our local Congressman, need to come together to repair the towpath and allow unhindered access to the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Montgomery County. And if you have the time, you should go visit and enjoy the Park. But try not to go all at once, it can get pretty crowded on nice weekend afternoons.