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Canal families fight back

August 28, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

WILLIAMSPORT - Families who are being evicted from recreational spots along the C&O Canal have hired a national activist to help them.

Charles Cushman of the American Land Rights Association urged the families to picket the National Park Service and begin a massive letter-writing campaign.

"You can't worry about making these people mad if you want to save your house," Cushman told about 60 members of the recently formed organization "Save the C&O Canal Families from the Park Service."

The group met Saturday at Williamsport's Town Hall.

In the 1970s, after Congress created the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park, the park service bought land along the canal from more than 1,100 people.

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About 200 people signed land-use agreements that ranged from two years to 25 years and in some cases ended with the person's death.

Most of the remaining agreements are in Washington County.

Many of the former landowners say the government intimidated them into selling the land by threatening them with condemnation.

Some of the leases are due to expire Sept. 15 and Cushman urged those people to stay and arm themselves with videocameras.

The park service won't evict them for fear of negative publicity, he told them.

Cushman praised the efforts of U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., whose office has been negotiating with the Park Service to reach a compromise.

John Darnell, an aide to Bartlett, gave few details about the ongoing negotiations.

"We have a real uphill battle. We're arguing for you as strongly as we can, but I don't want to get your hopes up," Darnell said.

Richard Stonesifer of Poolesville, Md., spokesman for the citizens' group, said that's encouraging.

"The Park Service is willing to negotiate when they weren't willing to negotiate before," he said.

Darnell said the families using the canal land need to show how their continued presence can help the Park Service.

For instance, lease renewals can generate money for the park service and residents can offer assistance to canal users in case of emergency.

Darnell said he couldn't offer much hope for people whose properties were in the flood zone.

And even if the Park Service agrees to lease the properties, there is no guarantee it will be to the original owner, he said.

Cushman said the group needs to be more aggressive in building community support for their position.

To show an example, Cushman handed out copies of an Aug. 5 newspaper clipping from the Bangor (Maine) Daily News.

The photograph showed demonstrators in prison costumes. One carried a sign saying, "Free Saddleback Park Service Hostages."

Residents near the Saddleback Ski Resort are trying to develop a ski area near the Appalachian Trail that the Park Service is trying to protect, he said.

"The Park Service is really nervous about me being here," Cushman said.

C&O Canal Park Superintendent Doug Faris could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The citizens' group, which met for the first time in June, has raised $13,570, said Treasurer Blaine Weaver.

It has paid Cushman $7,215 and printed bumper stickers for $313, he said.

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