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Canal a landmark in crisis

June 27, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - On any given day, visitors to the C&O Canal might find a blocked section of towpath, a crumbling lock house or a closed visitor's center.

It's all evidence of a budget crisis that gets worse every year, according to a recent report by the National Parks Conservation Association.

According to the report, the canal's $8 million budget should be more than doubled to $21 million to keep the towpath in good working order and adequately explain the park's cultural and historical significance to visitors.

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"You can only stretch a budget so far," said Joy Oakes, the association's mid-Atlantic regional director.

The association is lobbying Congress to boost funding for all national parks, including the C&O Canal, which runs 184.5 miles along the Potomac River. Nearly 80 miles of the park are in Washington County.

The association wants Congress to give the National Park Service an extra $190 million for operations at all 387 parks. An undetermined amount of that would go to the C&O Canal.

The House of Representatives has approved a $55 million increase for fiscal 2005, according to the House Appropriations Committee. The $1 billion budget now is being reviewed in the Senate.

Maryland senators Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, both Democrats, signed a letter supporting a large increase in funding.

The Park Service has received $515 million in operational increases over the last decade, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

But Oakes said that hasn't kept pace with increasing demands on the parks.

Much of last year's budget increase, for example, was swallowed up by 4.1 percent pay raises for employees, she said.

The House Appropriations Committee also found that Park Service employee travel was costing more than $50 million, so that has been restricted.

Also, the committee placed a temporary moratorium on major construction partnership projects because those on the books already carry a potential total price tag of $300 million.

"If only a portion of these projects were funded, it would have a devastating impact on both major backlog maintenance projects and on the operating budget for the parks" because it would take money away from those, according to the committee's budget summary.

Oakes said the Conservation Association helped managers methodically analyze the needs at the C&O Canal and other parks.

Graduate students from some of the top business schools spent two or three months in the park doing research.

"Even though these numbers look kind of wild, it's based on rigorous analysis," Oakes said.

The analysis of the C&O Canal is outlined in the association's 24-page report.

According to the report, the C&O "protects thousands of years of human history, from pre-colonial American Indian sites to Civilian Conservation Corps campgrounds."

The park began life as a canal, which was used to ship cargo between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Md., from 1850 to 1924.

There are 1,365 historic structures in the park, which are subject to frequent flooding because most of the park lies in the 100-year flood plain of the Potomac River.

Flooding and lack of maintenance also have closed sections of the towpath.

At Big Slackwater near Dam No. 4 in Washington County, hikers and bikers have to travel five miles on paved county roads to bypass the two-mile closed section.

"Those roads weren't designed to have that kind of traffic," said Christine Cerniglia of Rockville, Md., president of the C&O Canal Association. The association is a group of people involved in protecting, preserving and promoting the canal.

The park has nearly 140,000 museum and archive collection items, such as tools and equipment used in the construction, operation and maintenance of the canal, the report said.

Aside from a few items exhibited in park visitors' centers, the vast majority of the items are in storage in Landover, Md.

Some visitor centers have only one full-time ranger. If that person calls in sick, the visitor center doesn't open, the report said.

In addition to the historical and cultural resources, the park also is home to more than 200 federal and state rare, threatened and endangered species.

The association's report can be found at www.npca.org.

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