The Potomac River is one of the most interesting and beautiful rivers in the eastern United States. I have canoed along much of its upper reaches. As the main stem of the river runs between Maryland and West Virginia and Virginia, it changes from a wide and bucolic stretch of water to dramatic falls channeled through high palisades. The shores of the river and the surrounding area are as compellingly beautiful and beguilingly changeable as the river itself. The Potomac flows through territory that changes from rural woodland to historic Harpers Ferry at the confluence with that other fabled river, the Shenandoah, to Great Falls, and finally to Washington, the nation's capital.
But this scenic and historic setting is fragile. The pressures for development and recreation use of the river shore are coming to the Potomac as they have come to many parts of the countryside within reach of urban areas. The problem inherent in these pressures is not so much in the changes they engender as in the possibility that a lack of forethought and planning will result in unattractive and inefficient development and needless loss of access to the river.
What can be done? I think that the first step must be for landowners and residents of the river area, outdoor enthusiasts, naturalists and representatives of government at all levels to get together to discuss their common interests. No one group with an interest in the Potomac, and certainly not the federal government, should dictate to the others how the river shore should be used in the future. What is needed and what will work is a cooperative study and planning process.
This forum of citizens and governmental representatives would have an important agenda. It would identify locations along the river that are either ecologically fragile or important because of their potential for wildlife, recreation and scenic beauty. Land management techniques such as easements, public access agreements with private landowners, and other methods can be employed to enable the goals of the area people to be carried out. It should make plans to provide for the protection and promotion of such existing uses of the area as farming and forestry and those industries and other developments that are consistent with acceptable goals. The forum should also provide standards for recreational use of the river, which will indicate, for instance, the kinds of uses that are appropriate for various sections of the river.
The forum would also have a more general agenda for planning. Among the elements to be included in a plan would be a statement of the values that the plan would be intended to protect and that would guide future planning and development; a proposed boundary map of the area to be covered by the plan; a description of the role of local officials and citizens in the planning and management of the area; recommendations for land use and conservation; recommendations for the coordination of local, state and federal programs and policies with each other and with private interests; recommendations for places where public use will be allowed; recommendations for financing the plan; and recommendations for the way the plan for the area should be managed.
This would not be planning imposed by outsiders, but a cooperative effort by the people most affected by decisions about land use along the river and the governmental bodies responsible for enforcing any legally binding ) decisions. Furthermore, none of the recommendations would be effective unless they were ratified by the appropriate level of government and the necessary ordinances and laws adopted.
A whole range of steps to guide future land use could be recommended, encompassing local or county zoning ordinances for some areas; purchase of easements and development rights to keep certain lands in their existing use; public purchase for protection or recreational development in another type of area; and no change in other sections of the river. These recommendations would be made only after a careful study of the needs and character of the Potomac shore area and after public hearings. Such a process would result in a plan that would have local public support and would assist in decision-making for land use along the Potomac River. In the last Congress I introduced a bill embodying these concepts.
But the cooperative effort that I think is necessary does not have to wait for federal legislation to go forward. If the people and the governments in the Potomac Valley want to plan ahead for the changes that inevitably come to any area, then they can work together voluntarily. Because local efforts and support are vital to the process that I have described, I think a voluntary planning group might be successful. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin could be the agency through which a voluntary effort is begun. The opportunity should not be lost to give the citizens of the Potomac River area a voice in the future of their land.