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Considering Great Falls Park

New management plan, environmental study, examine how a prized natural resource is being used.

The approach of a January deadline for public comment on a new management plan for Great Falls Park (GFP) has prompted some local residents to speak out about the park they hold dear.

Others say they had no clue that changes for the park are in the works.

The National Park Service (NPS) administers the park from Turkey Run as part of the George Washington National Parkway (GWNP).

Two years ago, according to GWNP superintendent Audrey Calhoun, park officials launched a process to develop a new management plan and prepare an environmental impact statement for GFP.

Three management “concepts” and seven “management prescription zones” were described in a recent mailing to local residents who attended a public meeting last year.

But the document is hard to read, said Robin Rentsch, a Great Falls resident who has ridden in the park for 30 years, and hard to find, said Mary Alice Brundage, whose husband, Dean, leads trail rides into the park.

On Monday, a quiet day at the park, there were no visible signs that a decision process is under way, other than copies of the proposed “concepts” that were passively displayed in the Visitor Center, next to a guest log that revealed one of the problems park officials face.

On Sunday, Jan. 11, the log listed visitors from Japan, the United Kingdom, Holland, Massachusetts, Germany, Brooklyn, and Tel Aviv, but none from Great Falls or McLean.

But local residents who hike, bike or ride horses into the park rarely sign in at the Visitor Center.

One of them, Kirsten Grish of Vienna, said, she comes to the park for rock climbing and hiking but was unaware of the proposal for a new park plan.

John and Ida Falk came to the park from Maryland to bring Daffy, their large black dog, on an outing. They prefer the Virginia side of the river, John Falk said, because “you can’t take a dog on the boardwalk to look at the falls” on the Maryland side.

And the Virginia visitor area has “better bathrooms and snack areas,” said Ida Falk.

Neither of the Falks had heard about the plan to update the way the park is managed.

“I like the way it is right now,” said Ida Falk. “It’s very nice.”

RENTSCH IS A MASTER naturalist trained by the Audubon Society and a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation, who has advised Fairfax County park officials on how to accommodate horses in parks. “I come at this from both sides,” she said.

Rentsch acknowledged that park officials must consider the broad spectrum of park visitors.

“This is really not just about what the locals want,” she said. “Half a million people a year visit this park. This is an escape for people who live in a much more developed part of the county.

“This is their big back yard. They come to picnic and celebrate family situations,” she said.

In one of the proposals imbedded in the three alternative concepts, the general management planning team suggests bans on horses, dogs, boats, and public river access at Sandy Landing, where kayakers can safely put their boats in the river below the turbulent falls.

In another, parking for boat and horse trailers would be added at the quarry, a site reached from an unpaved “old carriage road” used in emergencies.

Those proposals show the diversity among the proposed concepts, said Park Planner Deborah Feldman.

“IN THE BEGINNING of the process, you try to put forward as many proposals as possible,” she said.

That doesn’t mean any of the suggetions will wind up in the final GMP, she said. A draft of the plan will be vetted at a public hearing in May or June before it is adopted, she said.

The final plan will be published as “the Record of Decision,” signed by the NPS regional director, and announced in the Federal Register.

The Environmental Impact Statement will measure the impact of various activities on the natural and cultural resources at the park, Feldman said, “But the final proposal can be made up of different elements from all three of these separate alternatives.”

“Of their three alternatives, you can pick and choose, and comment on different things,” Rentsch said. “But it’s an extreme position on all three.

“You have essentially a no-change option, one that emphasizes natural and cultural resources and kicks out bikers, horse, and people walking dogs, or the third one, with all these concessionaires bringing in groups and lessons for everything: kayaking, horseback riding and rock climbing. That calls for paving the beautiful little meadow in the rock quarry,” Rentsch said.

“It is a black-and-white world in that plan. But they can accommodate active recreation and still protect the park. Both can exist there quite nicely.”

Gus Anderson, a kayaker from McLean who visits the park frequently, said he doesn’t like the idea of licensing concessionaires “to do a canoe shuttle from Sandy Landing. They would allow vehicles along the carriage road.

“It would mean vehicular traffic in an area that doesn’t have it now,” Anderson said.

“It sounds like they are trying to expand the boating opportunities, but in a way that I think is more intrusive and disturbing than is necessary and appropriate.”

Park planners say some aspects of park management are mandated by public laws and policies that protect endangered plants and natural resources.

As it descends through a spectacular natural gorge named for Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, the Potomac River breaks into white water that challenges kayakers and mesmerizes tourists.

History buffs like to visit the ruins of canals built by the Patowmack Company between 1785 and 1802 to make the river navigable. George Washington was one of the principals of the company.

In 1790, the town of Matildaville was established on the Virginia side of the Potomac below the falls, but neither the canal nor the town lasted more than 30 years.

Today, locals use the park and the river for family picnics, whitewater kayaking, canoeing, hiking, biking, angling, rock climbing, riding horses, walking dogs, jogging, bird watching, and simply escaping from stress.

Under the management plan and environmental impact statement being prepared, many of those could be disallowed as “recreational” uses, particularly if they are judged to deteriorate natural resources such as rock walls or trails.

The six “decision points” facing planners are these:

• How to manage and preserve natural and cultural resources;

• How much education and interpretation to provide for visitors;

• What kinds of recreation to allow, and who will manage them;

• How to share the trails used by bikers, horses, and hikers; how to maintain them; and how they should connect to roads outside the park;

• How to manage cars and traffic, including parking;

• Where to place buildings for park offices and police, including a holding cell.

The seven management zones are defined as canal, cultural, natural, visitor, administrative, and transition zones, and a zone uniquely established for Mather Gorge.