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Delegation deserves credit for promoting towpath-repair funding

February 25, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Fifty-seven years ago, plans were rapidly ramping up for what was to be a vehicular parkway basically tracing what is now known at the C&O National Park.

Thanks to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who challenged the Washington media to walk the expanse alongside him, sentiment shifted and the narrow ribbon of wilderness was preserved as a natural sanctuary.

Had the highway been built, and had the great flood of a decade ago washed away a significant section of roadbed, great energy would have been spent to make repairs, and the project would have been completed in a matter of months, if not weeks.

But because the paramecium-shaped park turned out to be home to more relaxed forms of transport - bicycles, horses and booted feet - the damage has gone unmended, leaving nearly three miles of the towpath impassable.

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The breach is above Big Slackwater, a mellow, lake-like riverbend created by Dam # 4, once part of the canal's water-feeder systems.

The detour around the break means that cyclists must negotiate a tricky set of narrow back roads, fighting for space alongside boat-towing pickups in a hurry to get to the boat launch.

The roads have a number of blind humps, and are unspeakably dangerous and somewhat unfriendly. Several years ago, an inspired motorist spray-painted "no bikes" at several points in the pavement.

Some cyclists unfamiliar with the situation reckon that it's just a "suggested" detour. I've watched them, against advice, plunge their pack-laden bicycles into the forested trail, only to return a half-hour later spitting brambles and sandstone.

To its great credit, the Washington County delegation wants to fix this, and is sponsoring a $200,000 bond bill that would help fund an engineering study for the project, which may take $15 million to complete (although it's hoped to be less).

Though a small sum in the grand scheme of things, it's a crucial step to putting the project in the pipeline.

Those who use the park will have little problem justifying the expense. Those who do not use the park may be excused for asking the legitimate question: Why spend $20 million on something that could be wiped away by another flood six months after its completion?

If nothing else, the odds are on our side. A 100-year flood is a statistical name for an inundation that happens on the average of one per century. If memory serves, the Potomac suffered three 100-year floods in the space of 15 years, so we should have some time in the bank.

And natural disasters, particularly around water, are always a risk. Few suggested we not rebuild New Orleans for fear of another Katrina, and few suggest sands not be dredged from public beaches after major storms shift the ocean's floor.

In fact, that's the point of the C&O park - it's a product of nature, and sometimes nature is going to be more "productive" than at others. Natural ruin is part of the cost for allowing us to snuggle up against its soothing soul.

Others have made the economic and historical arguments for towpath repair better than I could, so I will defer to them. In brief, however, the towpath attracts a lot of tourists and was once a lifeline of transport and a way of life for our forefathers.

But beyond that, something greater is happening - the "missing link" to the west has been completed, which means the 185-mile C&O Canal will be joined to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, creating the East Coast's longest rail trail, from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh.

This summer, 500 cyclists will ride the path en masse, in celebration of its opening. These will be riders from all over the country, if not all over the world, and they will be sure to note that the one missing tooth in this 330-mile smile will be the three-mile gap at Williamsport in Washington County, Md.

The Great Allegheny Passage is likely to become a major feather in the cap of the American bicycling fraternity. Just as all bikers want to ride "the Holy Grail of Rail Trails," - a lengthy former jetty extending far into the waters of Lake Champlain near Burlington, Vt. - all serious cyclists will want to ride the Great Allegheny Passage.

On a smaller scale, it will be something of an Appalachian Trail for bicyclists.

If the riders on the inaugural passage this June are told that they must detour from the historic route at Big Slackwater, but that plans are under way to fix the problem, they will understand. If they are told that they must detour and that nothing is being done about the problem, they will not.

Same for the thousands of riders who will follow in their wheelsteps. Soon they're planning their trips from D.C. to Harpers Ferry and from Hancock to Pittsburgh - leaving our county out of its rightful place in history.

Most important, of course, are local riders and hikers, who have for years now been denied one of the more scenic sections of the route.

There's no need to retell the story of how our park funding has been gutted these last six years. We celebrate progress, but without nature as our baseline we cannot know what that progress means. Worse, we cannot escape back to where it all began and reconnect with the earth and its natural beauty.

Nature is the bath that washes away the tensions produced by progress. In both appreciation and funding, it deserves every bit as much consideration for our tax dollars as any other project in the land.

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