Roughly a quarter-mile down Section B of the Billy Trail, the path turns to the left. From there it runs along a ravine at the bottom of which flows the Potomac River . Approximately 100 yards across from the shoreline lies Offutt Island, an uninhabited piece of land that last week was ensured to remain in its natural state for years to come.
The 10-acre island was donated anonymously last week to The Nature Conservancy, which will use it as a nature preserve, said Mary Travaglini of The Nature Conservancy.
"We want to watch out for the conservation of [the island]," Travaglini said.
Having the land in the hands of a conservancy organization ensures that the natural habitat on the island will be preserved for the future.
"I think it’s great that the island won’t be developed," said Georgeann Smale of Bethesda, who founded the Billy Goat Trail Stewards program.
The island is home to such rare plant species as leatherwood, riverbank goldenrod, scarlet ammannia, wild false indigo and Wood’s sedge, Travaglini said. It is also home to such invasive species as bamboo, stinging nettles, garlic mustard, English ivy and wineberry. Removing those invasive species will be a priority for The Nature Conservancy in their conservation efforts of the island, Travaglini said.
"There are a number of ways [invasive species] can get in," Travaglini said of the invasives on Offutt Island. Floodwaters are a major contributor, as are birds that drop seeds and deer and raccoons that swim to the island with plant seeds stuck in their fur, and humans that track seeds over with their boots, said Travaglini.
The stretch of water between the Maryland shore of the Potomac River and Offutt Island is popular among local kayakers and canoeists, Smale said.
THE NATURE Conservancy also owns or co-owns two other islands in the Potomac Gorge, according to a press release from the organization. Conn Island sits just above Great Falls and Bear Island is co-owned with the National Park Service. Bear Island is the site of the popular Billy Goat Trail Section A. Offutt Island is one of the few privately owned islands in the Gorge; most other islands are owned and managed by the National Park Service or State of Maryland.
"The donor’s gift and support to The Nature Conservancy will enable us to continue our good conservation work in the Potomac Gorge, collaborating with public and private partners to protect and restore the area’s natural resources for plants, animals and people," said Stephanie Flack, the Conservancy’s Potomac Gorge Project director. "The natural areas and biological resources of the Potomac River Gorge are critical to the quality of life in our region by contributing to air and water quality and providing recreational escape from the hustle and bustle of city life."
"I think what’s important … is that people are welcome to visit the island," Travaglini said. She added that visitors should contact The Nature Conservancy prior to visiting the island and should not collect any vegetation or animals while on the island. "We would ask that people practice ‘Leave no Trace’ principles anywhere they travel, especially areas that are set aside for conservation.
To ensure the island’s health collecting any natural materials from the island is prohibited, as is smoking, camping, fires or cookouts; bringing dogs or other pets to the preserve; hunting; releasing animals or introducing plants; and disposing of trash or other waste, including biodegradable materials, according to the press release. The island can be accessed by canoe or kayak but swimming and wading in that stretch of the Potomac is illegal.
To contact The Nature Conservancy about accessing Offutt Island, call 301-897-8570.