Recognizing that many trails in its jurisdiction now are firmly embedded in the commuting system, the Park Service is revisiting its storm-cleanup policy for future winters.
Travelers are familiar with the idea that governments sequence the cleanup after a big storm, tackling emergency routes and highly trafficked roadways first to make them passable, before extending the snow-clearing. The Park Service is responsible for sidewalks and roads on National Park property, but with one exception: It doesn’t do trails. The exception is four miles of the Capital Crescent Trail. But other big ones, such as the Mount Vernon Trail, are not part of the Park Service cleanup plan.
Park Service personnel do play a big role in storm cleanup along parkways and across the big and little parks and squares in the region, and of course, on the Mall.
“We prioritize clearing major arteries, such as George Washington Parkway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and areas around Metro stations that are on park land,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for the Park Service. “Then we approach sidewalks, to create paths so people weren’t walking in roads.” In the District alone, she said, the Park Service clears 200 squares and triangles. Much of the work, as you can see from the photos in this posting, is done by Park Service staff members with shovels.
“We cleared almost 300 miles of roads, 155 bridges and shoveled more than 100 miles of sidewalks,” added Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the George Washington Parkway, in referring to the cleanup in the capital region.
But the trails, such as the Mount Vernon Trail or the trails through Rock Creek Park or the portion of the Anacostia River Trail that is under Park Service jurisdiction, are not part of the priority system.
The Park Service prioritizes “life-and-death concerns versus recreational assets, that’s how we focus,” Anzelmo-Sarles said. But the Park Service, like the region’s governments, has recognized that the trail system is no longer strictly a recreational asset. It has become part of the transportation system.
“Long term, we’re evaluating our snow response,” Anzelmo-Sarles said, and “that will include the multi-use trails. We’re looking forward to engaging the public in that conversation.”
But it’s not simply a question of asking everybody if they think it’s a good idea for the Park Service to clear the trails. The geography of the different trails presents different challenges. The four-mile section of the Capital Crescent Trail that the Park Service does clear under a pilot program is relatively flat, without sharp bends, since it’s an old railroad bed. “Other trails wold involve hand shoveling and other types of equipment. We can’t just take a plow down,” Anzelmo-Sarles said.
The Park Service, which drew interpretive rangers into its sidewalk-clearing effort after the blizzard, also needs to be realistic about the staffing and equipment it would have available for an all-out effort after a winter storm.
“We’re very cognizant of the value of these trails,” LaRocca said. “We want to work with the cycling community and see what makes sense. But we do have to take a hard look at the big picture and our management responsibilities and see how we can do things differently.” The Park Service is interested in exploring partnerships with groups that could be part of a trail cleanup effort.
“This will be an ongoing process as we evaluate what’s feasible and look for creative solutions,” he said.
Is there really that much of a need?
Most definitely, said Gregory Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Although fewer people are biking in winter than during the warmer months, cycling remains popular as a form of commuting, and plenty of those people are bike-commuting out of necessity, because they don’t own a car or they find Metro too expensive. The cold weather doesn’t stop them.
“What does keep people from biking is icy and snowy and unclear bike infrastructure — trails that are buried, lanes that are snowed in,” he said. On city streets, there are alternatives to the cycling lanes. Bike commuters can use the regular travel lanes. But along park trails, he said, “there are no alternatives for miles.” Billing cited the Mount Vernon Trail along the Virginia side of the Potomac River as a prime example.
How some sections of trail can be cleared and what resources that would take are important considerations, Billing said. But he was “encouraged to see that Park Service is recognizing that this is an issue. For many years it wasn’t an issue. Now the question is how to do it.”