By Mary C. Corddry
“Take a hike” urges Maryland State government. Meanwhile, Baltimore City government is closing trails long enjoyed in the three reservoirs the City manages for the Baltimore area’s drinking water.
On October 19, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hosted the State’s first Trails Summit. To underscore his commitment to make Maryland’s trails “second to none in the Nation,” Governor Martin O’Malley took this opportunity to announce the creation of a Trails Development Office in the DNR. Also, an interactive web site was introduced at the Summit, as a clearinghouse and directory of information about off-road land and water trails Statewide at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/land/MD_trails/ . The site, still under development, will feature interactive trail maps. Trail sponsors and enthusiasts may enter information about trails and activities and provide linkages to other websites. A tab for “Trails Atlas” at the top of the page gives access to the GIS information collected so far. On the website of http://shopdnr.com/alltrailguides.aspx, maps of land and water trails are for sale at a minimal cost.
A letter from Governor O’Malley to Summit attendees states that the new office was “created to enable the kind of progress that occurs when governments, stakeholders and everyday citizens work together. This new office will work in collaboration with the Maryland Department of Transportation, which has helped fund trail initiatives in the past through recreational trails grants and staff assistance…Working together, these agencies will encourage more people to connect with their natural world and engage them in plans to establish an accessible and enjoyable trails system for the use of all Marylanders.”
Last summer, regional roundtables brought trail advocates together to network and share ideas about what a Statewide trail system would look like and how it would connect with the nationwide trail system being developed. The Trails Summit continued this conversation to inventory existing trails and discuss gaps where connections are needed in order to create a trail system on land and water serving users of all skill levels and interests. The vision is to connect users with home, work, and recreational, historical, cultural, and natural areas through forms of transportation other than motor vehicles. The Maryland Department of Transportation has issued a strategic trail implementation plan—Maryland Trails: A Greener Way to Go. The federal Recreational Trails Funds Act has been providing money from the gasoline tax to fund trails nationwide.
Tom Horton (environmental author and kayaking and bicycling enthusiast) gave the keynote address. He discussed his experiences with Maryland’s current water and land trails, including his 28-day paddling trip around the Delmarva Peninsula. He pointed out that trails help people move through the landscape as Maryland’s suburbs grow and “keep out” signs are posted to control public use. Trails have had a power through time. They continue to captivate people and make them feel like owners or protectors of the landscape, even though their names are not on the deed. People need to be able to ramble. Trails slow us down and help us to reconnect and reimagine with the landscape. In Holland, the natural areas are immediately accessible to everyone and biking is hugely popular. We need to design biking and walking trails to reduce the growth of “car habitat” with its impervious surfaces that cover our watersheds and cause runoff of sediments and pollutants into the waterways and Chesapeake Bay.
DNR representatives stated that their goal is to use trails to create livable communities and get people out of cars and into the outdoors. This reconnection with the natural world and experiences is particularly important for children. DNR Secretary John R. Griffin said that the State wants to emphasize a private-public partnership to plan, develop, and maintain trails. They want to connect commuter and recreational trails and connect communities with nature. Maryland’s trails will become a necessary type of infrastructure just like highways. The North Central Railroad Trail in northern Baltimore County, Maryland’s first venture in modern day trails, overcame initial opposition from neighbors to be hugely successful with its diverse users. Representatives of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia attended the conference to share information about similar activities in their States.
Gregory Miller, President of the American Hiking Society, pointed out that hiking is the gateway nature activity that leads to a lifetime of fitness. It is inexpensive, requires little or no skill, and is the outdoors activity accessible to the most people. However, a lot of people now are afraid of the outdoors. Hiking is a way to reenergize the conservation ethic in people and to fight our current health crisis of obesity and related conditions. We need the freedom to explore—to be able to experience trails at our own speed on our own terms.
Patrick Miller of the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE) stated that their goal is for the State’s trails to be connected and usable. Everyone is out there for the same experience—to be on a natural surface trail. Non-paved trails can be developed and maintained so they do not cause erosion and do not otherwise harm the environment. MORE has developed a shared-use trail plan that it is presenting to the DNR, Baltimore City, and other land managers. Trail users need to band together to keep public lands accessible, especially now that Baltimore City has started to limit public access in the reservoir areas.
Lisa Gutierrez, Director of the DNR’s Boating Facilities and Access Planning Division, said that a network of water trails and public access sites is being created Statewide. The Waterway Improvement Fund provides grants for these efforts. Also, the Boating Excise Tax helps to fund public access sites. The State now has over 400 public access sites to its waterways. Since 2000, 21 new water trails have been created, so Maryland now has over 600 miles of designated water trails. The goal is to have 1,000 miles by 2020. Information about these trails and access sites is available on the DNR website.
At the same time that Maryland State government is encouraging the development and use of trails Statewide, Baltimore City government is closing long used and enjoyed trails in the three reservoir areas managed by the City for the Baltimore area’s drinking water—Liberty, Loch Raven, and Prettyboy. The City is hiring a supervisor and three rangers for each of the three reservoirs to educate users and enforce the City’s watershed regulations. Enforcement will increase after the public is warned about prohibited uses.
Restrictions on public access to the reservoirs are impacting all users—mountain bikers, hikers, fishermen, horseback riders, and families enjoying a day at the lake. Tickets are being issued for “trespassing” in the reservoirs after sunset. Warnings are being issued for using trails not recognized by the City. An organized group, such as the Sierra Club leading a hike, now must obtain a Right of Entry permit from the City before an event and show proof of liability insurance.
The City does not recognize and is trying to close “single-track” trails created by trail users. The City is concerned by what it considers an out-of-control proliferation of these unofficial trails, and says that they threaten water quality and public safety. The City is only recognizing certain fire roads or “woods roads” as “trails” for the reservoirs’ diverse users. These fire roads were identified in a 1998 mountain bike access plan developed with a Mountain Biking Task Force to regulate biking access on City property. They are usually dead end, unconnected roads created and maintained by City work crews to provide access to reservoir areas by fire trucks and other public vehicles in case of fire or other emergencies. While they are well maintained in the Prettyboy area, the 12 miles of fire roads in the Loch Raven area are often rocky and deeply rutted due to overuse and lack of maintenance.
The City has started to identify the gate number of the fire roads, blaze them as trails, and install kiosks and signs with trail rules and maps. Still, it is difficult to tell which are the authorized “trails” and to find a route that goes somewhere, especially to a scenic area near the reservoir. There is another problem that Baltimore County, where these reservoirs are located, does not permit use (e.g., trails) within a 100-foot buffer of its waterways.
The Mountain Biking Task Force resumed its meetings in March 2010 to discuss impacts on the reservoir areas from biking activities and to revise the 1998 plan. MORE called a public meeting on October 28 to discuss the trail closures and the tickets and warnings being issued by the reservoir rangers at Loch Raven Reservoir. Representatives of the City’s Department of Public Works who attended pointed out that the reservoir is not a park, but provides drinking water for 8 million residents. The City has to meet Federal and State requirements governing public use of reservoirs in order to protect water quality and security. Attendees told the City staff, “We are your solution, not your problem.” Trail users help to maintain the trails and pick up trash. They are the City’s eyes and ears, reporting problems. They asked why the City is enforcing the 1998 mountain bike plan now without warning, while the Task Force is still meeting. City staff said that a trail plan submitted by MORE is being reviewed, and public hearings may be held.
Every three months, the Liberty-Loch Raven-Prettyboy Reservoir Watershed Coalition meets, which includes representatives of Baltimore City government, watershed organizations, and the reservoirs’ recreational users (including the Sierra Club and MORE). The Coalition discusses challenges facing the reservoirs (e.g., lack of tree regeneration, deer overpopulation, erosion) and activities to meet those challenges (e.g., tree planting, deer hunting, trail maintenance, selective tree cutting, erosion control, invasive plant removals).
Baltimore’s watersheds are among the largest open spaces accessible to Maryland residents and are close to a large population center. Even though they are not public parks, they have been used by the public as parks due to the lack of alternatives and their easy access and natural beauty. Recognizing this public demand and need, the City closes the road through the Loch Raven Reservoir on weekend days, to the delight of walkers, bicyclists, skaters, and skateboarders. On November 9, Maryland Public Broadcasting had a segment about mountain biking on single-track trails in Loch Raven Reservoir and Patapsco State Park. The mountain bikers called these forests a “paradise.”
For more information and updates from the City see http://www.baltimorecity.gov/government/dpw.water/rnrs/index.php and from MORE see http://www.lochraventrailaccess.com.