Oasis for Trout in Md. Connector's Path
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
A generation ago, in a conference room in suburban Maryland, plans for an east-west highway were drawn. About the same time, a fisherman was squatting on the bank of Paint Branch stream, marveling over the first brown trout to be born in Montgomery County -- in a tranquil spot along the proposed highway's path.
It was the mid-1970s, a time when urban planners and ecologists dreamed big. In the 30 years since, the fortunes of the $2.4 billion intercounty connector and the humble brown trout have converged time and again. Twice, the trout won as environmental concerns trumped the highway project.
This time, with considerable political support and public sentiment behind the proposal, anglers and environmentalists said they fear that construction would destroy the habitat where the trout spawn naturally.
In the woods under a viaduct in eastern Montgomery, Nick Weber arched a hand-tied fly over clear waters yesterday and wondered whether the realization of one dream will mean the death of another.
"The fact that the fish can reproduce here says so much about the ecology in this region," said Weber, president of the Potomac-Patuxent chapter of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group.
"It's an indicator of the quality of environment that we have."
A day earlier, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced that the state had chosen a southern route for the 18-mile connector highway that would pass over the creek between Gaithersburg and Laurel, connecting Interstates 270 and 95.
Environmental activists, reluctant to give up their decades-long fight, said they are contemplating legal action if the Federal Highway Administration grants its final approval in the fall, as expected.
Advocates said they have spotted legal problems with the environmental study that was sped up and completed in 2 1/2 years -- about half the time such studies usually take. Ehrlich made a personal appeal to President Bush to put the study on the regulatory fast track.
That speedy review, advocates argued, led to a study that was too narrow and failed to consider other options for moving traffic through Montgomery and Prince George's counties more cheaply and without doing environmental harm.
Key to their consideration is the brown trout and parkland around Paint Branch that the Environmental Protection Agency has called "an unsurpassed natural resource in the region."
Across the country, activists have used litigation to stall such activities as logging and dam-building that could harm endangered creatures. But the brown trout isn't rare. It isn't even a native species.