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Great Falls National Park Gets a Makeover

With $1 million to spend on the maturing jewel of its park system in Northern Virginia, the owners of Great Falls National Park have declared it is time for a makeover.

As much as it is cherished for the unexpected majesty of the falls and the rich textured beauty of the plants and animals that live there, people with “a Disney World mind-set” seem unprepared for the life-threatening danger of the rock walls and tumultuous current of the river.

Used to simulated river currents and rock faces in theme parks, the public is lulled into thinking they’ll be safe wherever they are, said one park manager.

“So do kayakers,” said Deputy Supt. Dottie Marshall. “We have some world-class kayakers who can handle any water level. They make it look so easy. Visitors see them., and they think anybody can do it,” she said. “It is really dangerous.”

To address such concerns, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the division of the National Park Service that manages the park, has invited the public to comment on what they love about the park and what they’d like to change, if anything.

“We really don’t have an agenda,” Marshall said. “We are putting out [a list of] what we see as problems, and also looking for other points of view so the management plan can respond to everyone’s issues,” she said.

The process of “scoping” the park’s condition and compiling an environmental impact statement will begin with a meeting in Great Falls on Tuesday, Jan. 28, and continue through the winter of 2004, she said.

“We’ve identified five areas where we need to make some definition at the park,” Marshall said. She named the following:

* Vehicular circulation. The park’s one public entrance is the northern extension of Old Dominion Drive at its intersection with Georgetown Pike. On the prettiest days of the year, traffic routinely stacks up along the entire length of the entrance road to Georgetown Pike;

* Pedestrian circulation. Because of the way the park evolved, “social trails” evolved throughout the park. “We want to look at a managed trail system,” Marshall said;

* The diversity of the park’s resources sometimes results in unintended conflicts, such as bird habitat and preservation of the ruins of the canals that were originally designed by George Washington to bypass the “Great Falls”;

Hikers, bikers and horses are supposed to use different trails. “When horses deviate and get on hiking trails, it tears it up quite a bit,” Marshall said;

* Some recreational uses, such as rock-climbing, damage the natural resources at the park. The pitons that rock-climbers hammer into the rock walls of the Potomac Gorge cause the rocks to disintegrate over time;

* Park facilities such as stores and food service facilities are inadequate, said Marshall. The visitors center was recently air-conditioned for the first time.

“THIS IS REALLY an interesting process. It is a national park. While we encourage a seamless park system — River Bend Park, owned by Fairfax County, is just up the road, and we’d like to have partnership arrangements with them — there is some distinction to being a national park,” said Marshall.

Since the small community of Matildaville was first established along the banks of the Potomac, development of what is now a national park “evolved, as opposed to being planned,” said Marshall.

That explains why some park features seems disconnected, such as the maintenance area that is the first sight to greet park visitors.

Due to a recent change in the way parks are administered, the park now retains 80 percent of what it collects in entrance fees, so there’s almost $1 million available to pay for improvements, Marshall said.

“We actually do have a revenue stream. We could implement some of the findings of this management plan, as opposed to having great ideas and no money to implement them,” said Marshall.

“George Washington Memorial Parkway manages several sites. This is the only one with its own revenue,” she said.

Park management is already proceeding with some projects, she said.

At Sandy Landing, the only place that provides safe access to the river below the falls, the ramp has been undermined. Money from entrance fees is being spent to stabilize it, Marshall said.

“We just finished having the visitors center air-conditioned. We are going to be putting in a boardwalk and making one of the overlooks handicapped-accessible with our fee dollars,” she said.