WASHINGTON – A bill introduced by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett that would allow limited sales of National Park Service lands could benefit residents along the C&O Canal in Western Maryland.
The proposal, if enacted, could provide relief for several dozen residents along the C&O Canal, mostly in Washington County, who will soon be forced from their homes, said Bartlett, a Frederick Republican.
Following the creation of the C&O Canal National Historical Park in 1971, the Park Service began buying land along the 184.5- mile canal, said Gordon Gay, the park’s information officer.
Through a variety of mechanisms – scenic easements, special permits, and, in some cases, lifetime occupancy – many of the residents were allowed to stay on what had become federal land.
The terms of the agreements reached at that time began expiring last year, and the others will do so by the turn of the century, Gay said.
“There’s a lot of reluctance to give up land when you’ve lived there a long time,” Gay said. “It’s home.”
The current management plan for the park calls for the original agreements to be honored, which means the residents will have to leave, said park Superintendent Doug Faris. “There is no valid management reason to change direction.”
Bartlett’s bill could provide a new avenue of hope for those residents, just over 80 of whom still reside on small plots of land between the canal and the Potomac River, as well as others in similar situations around the country.
Vernon Shores, 70, grew up on what is now park land at Point of Rocks, Md. His mother, Lettie, has been living there all of her 88 years.
Lettie Shores’ original agreement with the Park Service has run out, but she is staying on under a tentative agreement with the park. “Everything has been up in the air,” Vernon Shores said.
Growing up on the river was natural for the Shores family. “We love the water,” he said. “We love to fish and go on the river.”
Shores lives only a few hundred yards from his mother’s home and stops in every evening for dinner.
Bartlett’s legislation could allow them to continue with this lifestyle.
“[My mother] would be satisfied just as long as she can live there until she dies,” Shores said.
Under the bill, the secretary of the Interior Department would make a determination of which lands, if any, would be offered for sale.
The bill then requires the Park Service to attempt to find the original owners of the land or their heirs before offering it to the general public.
Another requirement of the bill is that the land, once sold or leased, must be used in a way that would preserve the natural, cultural, or historical values of the park.
All money gained from the sales or leases would be placed in a fund for the exclusive benefit of the park that gave up the land.
No hearings have been scheduled yet on the measure.
The proposal struck at least one environmental group as too extreme.
“This is a fairly profound frontal attack on the National Park Service,” said Phil Voorhees, associate director for policy of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a nonprofit group working for the preservation of national parks.
Bartlett contends, however, that his bill would give some flexibility to often-tight Park Service budgets.
“We know there isn’t as much money as people want to maintain and rehabilitate, let alone expand, our national park system,” he said.
Under current rules, taxpayers lose twice, Bartlett said. When the Park Service buys land, taxes are no longer paid on it, and the government must pay to maintain it.
Bartlett said that putting the land back into private hands would solve both of those problems, and result in savings for the government. Voorhees likened Bartlett’s solution to a situation where “if you can’t feed all of your kids, you sell some of them.” -30-