Call it a watershed moment for the Potomac River watershed.
The Washington area is expected to gain one-to-two-million residents in the next 15 years—growth that means more pavement, more sewage, and more threats to a scenic river that conservation groups say is already in peril.
That’s why the non-profit group Scenic Maryland announced April 20 that it has designated the Potomac River and C&O Canal between Georgetown and Cumberland, Md. as one of seven “Last Chance Scenic Places,” that will be lost without immediate protective action.
“We have a motto that is, ‘Change is inevitable, ugliness is not,’” said Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, Scenic Maryland’s parent organization.
Fry chaired the jury that selected the Canal corridor and other “last chance” places from 15 nominations by local historic and environmental preservation groups and planning agencies.
He spoke at a joint announcement by Scenic Maryland and the Potomac Conservancy — which nominated the canal corridor — on the bank of the Potomac by boat launch near Old Angler’s Inn.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th), C&O Canal National Historical Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt, Scenic Maryland chairman John Griffin and Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan also spoke, highlighting the immediacy of the threats to the river.
“We looked at places where there was an imminent and serious threat. We looked for places where the stakes were very high and we looked for places where there was a solution to the problem,” Fry said.
The other last-chance places include the historic Charles Street corridor in Baltimore, a section of the Underground Railroad route in Frederick County, Chincoteague Bay, several historic roads in St. Mary’s County, and the birthplace of Harriet Tubman in Dorchester County.
“In a word, if you look at all of these areas that we’ve designated, and ask why are we concerned about them … it’s inappropriate development,” Griffin said.
Scenic Maryland is not an anti-growth organization, he said, but works to assure that “people stop and think about it to develop in appropriate ways that don’t ruin the sense of place that these special areas bring to all of us.”
The Potomac River and the C&O Canal are particularly vulnerable to development impact because of the sheer size of the area that affects them. The Potomac River watershed covers 150,000 square miles in four states and the District of Columbia and there are thousands of landowners directly abutting the river and canal.
“It takes thousands and millions of years for a landscape to develop and that beauty can be destroyed very rapidly,” Van Hollen said. “Trees can be clear-cut of course in a matter of hours.”
Van Hollen formed a C&O Canal stewardship task force following an episode in December 2004 in which Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder clear-cut more than one acre of mature trees on his canal-front property near Swains Lock.
Last year the task force helped enact dramatic increases in penalties for tree-cutting violations in Montgomery County.
Enforcing forest rules and working with landowners adjacent to the river were two parts of a three-pronged protection strategy that Logan outlined. The last was increasing federal funding for the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
“This park needs 300 people on staff to properly do its job. Right now it has fewer than 90 and the president is calling for even more cuts in the next two years,” he said. “Those cuts will not happen in law enforcement. It’ll happen in maintenance; it’ll happen in resource protection; it’ll happen in interpretation. Those are places that the public will see a degradation of the resource and a decline in the scenic integrity of the park.”
Van Hollen agreed that Congress and the president are currently shortchanging the National Park Service and hampering its ability to protect lands that he called a legacy handed down from previous generations.
He said he hopes increase the funding. In the meantime, the Conservancy and other preservation groups face an uphill fight, with their resources spread thinly over the dozens of counties in the Potomac watershed.
They hope to leverage the “Last Chance” designation to raise money and awareness. Scenic Maryland has said that it will not announce new sites each year but rather focus on the current seven for several years to come.