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Activists Spar Over Federal Protection for Patuxent River

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page AA03

Question: If the Patuxent River is "scenic and wild," is it also "wild and scenic"?

A grammar teacher would say yes -- absolutely. But in the world of ground-level environmental politics, the answer is not as clear.

The Patuxent, which forms part of the western border of Anne Arundel County, is one of nine streams on the state's list of "scenic and wild" rivers -- a largely toothless designation dating back to the 1970s.

But recently some local activists have stirred up controversy by suggesting that it be included on a separate federal list of "wild and scenic" rivers.

Supporters of that move believe the federal designation would bring an infusion of money for the river and provide protection against future dams, power plants or other large and disruptive projects.

But opponents, including farmers and members of local Soil Conservation Districts, say they worry about federal oversight and red tape.

"We don't want another government agency [that] tells us what we can and we can't do. We've got enough of them," said R. Calvert Steuart, an area chairman for Southern Maryland conservation districts.

As it stands now, members of the Patuxent River Commission are still debating whether to ask for a federal study of the river, which might or might not result in a recommendation that it be declared wild and scenic. The commission, a group that helps with government planning for the river but has no regulatory power, first came up with the idea about two years ago.

Marc Lieber, who chairs the commission, said his group was intrigued by the idea of making the Patuxent the first federal wild and scenic river in Maryland. The apparent benefits: Advocates for the Patuxent might have a better chance to obtain grant money, since they would be able to advertise their river as one of an elite few. Also, the National Park Service could serve as a bulwark against pollution or damming.

The commission voted to ask the state's congressional delegation to support a study that would determine if the river met the national wild and scenic criteria.

The Patuxent flows through fairly populated areas and is arguably not as wild or scenic as, say, Alaska's Unalakleet River, which is on the list. But the federal government allows more developed rivers to be included if they are found to have outstanding recreational or historic value.

In all, more than 150 rivers have received the special designation. The river studies, which include scientific work and input from the public, often take several years and cost several hundred thousand dollars in federal money, officials said.

At the time of the commission's initial decision to pursue the study, one member said that the idea was a no-brainer, that "everything sounded like apple pie and ice cream," Lieber recalled.

But opposition soon appeared from local Soil Conservation Districts, which are charged with overseeing farming and reducing runoff. Opponents worried that the Park Service, instead of being a voice for local people, might turn into a tyrant and begin restricting farmers and blocking riverside building.

"The more agencies get involved, the more difficult it is to resolve anything," said Y.D. Hance, a farmer from Calvert County who has been a leader of the opposition.

So who's right? Technically, it is possible that the National Park Service could begin to intervene on issues such as docks, highway bridges and dredging in the Patuxent, said Chuck Barscz, an agency official.

But Barscz said the agency's first priority would be to collaborate with local residents and intervene when they wanted help.

"We have a stick, and we can use it, but we'll use it in concert with local people," Barscz said.

Because of the controversy, the issue has stalled and the federal study has not yet been requested by the congressional delegation. Lieber said the commission was likely to reconsider the issue at a January meeting in the hopes that a consensus emerges about how best to proceed.


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