Columnist John Kelly Share Tales of Bad Etiquette by Park Visitors

By John Kelly
Monday, May 18, 2009

Earlier this spring, while walking near Sligo Creek in Montgomery County, I saw a man down by the water digging up some plants. A couple of days later, my wife spotted someone else doing the same thing just off the paved path that runs through the park. "You know," she said as she jogged past, "you're not supposed to take plants."

"It's weeds! It's weeds!" he said.

Who knows what they were. If they were weeds, why did he want them?

I wondered how much of a problem this was, this harvesting of park plants for who knows what purpose. Laura Cohen, a ranger at Prince William Forest Park, said the bigger problem is what people bring in to the park. Firewood's a no-no, because it might harbor the emerald ash borer. Snakes -- released as unwanted pets -- can play havoc with native bird populations.

But perhaps Laura's oddest story involves a man who painted a squirrel orange and released it into the park.

Now, there are probably many reasons you might want to paint a squirrel orange. Here was his: A squirrel had been stealing seed from the man's bird feeder. He'd caught it and repatriated it many times, but he couldn't be sure if he was dealing with multiple squirrels or one squirrel that kept coming back.

"He was at his wits' end, and he was giving the squirrel his last chance at freedom," said Laura. "He painted it orange so he could tell if that particular squirrel came back to the feeder."

This is not allowed. Nor are you allowed to mess with the small whorled pogonia, a rare type of orchid that grows in the park. The locations are kept secret to avoid plant-nappings. But that doesn't mean harm doesn't occasionally befall the plants. A few years ago, a park scientist noticed a group of researchers emerging from a part of the forest where the small whorled pogonia is known to grow. He went to investigate.

Although the researchers had not stolen any plants, they had strayed off the trail, inadvertently walking atop a patch of the endangered species. They were charged with "trampling."

If only they had looked down at their feet and shouted, "Be careful! It's a small whorled after all!"


Also a problem: people who take cultural artifacts from the park. There are about 70 old homesteads in the park, and relic hunters sometimes dig up stuff. That, too, is forbidden.

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