Eden Mill Center Deals With Success

COMMENT

August 22, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The opening of Eden Mill Nature Center last year was the fulfillment of a long-standing dream of Frank Marsden III.

Organizing a development committee, raising funds, devoting full-time volunteer efforts to establish the center in Eden Mill Park near Pylesville, Mr. Marsden saw the fruits of his labor last year when more than 2,000 visitors and uncounted school classes wandered through the nature trails and exhibits. About 1,100 of them took part in the twilight canoe trips that this avid canoeist set up to explore Deer Creek.

But this year, the canoe program has been canceled. Concerned about damage to the old Eden Mill Dam, the state's engineers told the county last fall to open the dam and drain that portion of Deer Creek behind it. And Mr. Marsden's hopes of running nightly canoe trips along the creek ran aground on the shallows.

"This should have been our big year," the former auto dealer said. "Canoeing is a wonderful way to experience nature. There's a whole world out there for people to appreciate."

He's been a canoe enthusiast for more than two decades. He recently paddled the length of the Susquehanna River, more than 440 miles from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Havre de Grace, in a fund-raising campaign to purchase Harford's Kilgore Rocks as a public preserve. A year ago, Mr. Marsden paddled solo the length of Chesapeake Bay.

Eden Mill Nature Center has been a success this year, even without the canoes. Nature programs and star-gazing nights attract eager crowds. The picnic area is popular, and hundreds of hikers enjoy the walks along the trails through fields and woods. School children visit the center as an outdoor classroom.

It's a tribute to the power of volunteers, who developed, maintain and run the center's program. Their effort has greatly enhanced the value of Eden Mill Park, the 57-acre tract at the confluence of Deer Creek and Big Branch that was purchased by Harford County 30 years ago.

In that time, little was done to develop its recreational use. Horseshoe and volleyball areas, grills and picnic tables were added, along with a parking area for fishermen who have used the creek for angling over the years. The dam and the gray clapboard grist mill, built in the early 1800s, stood untouched. (Eden Mill was converted to a hydroelectric generator and then idled years before the county acquired it.)

The popularity of the nature center has not been universal. Some neighbors complain that they have been cast East of Eden since it opened.

They say that Eden Mill Road has become an obstacle course, with cars parked illegally all along the way to the park, instead of at the old mill. Pedestrians blithely walk in the middle of the narrow, winding gravel road, as if it were part of the nature trail system instead of an access motor road for people who live there.

Residents also claim that nature center visitors toss their cans and cups, bags and other debris along the roadside or on their property.

"This has been nothing less than a gigantic headache since its opening," groused Andy Denbow, who lives near the park. "All of the neighbors that I have spoken with have nothing good to say about what's happened to the park."

Because of the crowds, especially on weekends, he claims that wildlife have nearly vanished from what was a quiet, small natural area. The nature paths cut by the center have actually diminished the abundance of nature. "The more people you have, the more problems you have," Mr. Denbow said.

A month ago, the county posted "No Parking" signs along the hilly rough road. But there are no trash cans at the entrance to the natural trails, to collect the human refuse. Park visitors have to walk a quarter-mile along the side of the narrow road, exposed to traffic, to reach the hiking trails. There is no apparent pedestrian connection between the mill (where the center is located) and the trails' entrance.

Visitor conduct has improved this summer, residents say. But it's true that the more people who participate, the more human intrusion (and waste) imposed on the natural environment.

That some visitors are thoughtless or careless isn't an argument against Eden Mill Nature Center; it's a reminder that the center needs to reinforce the message of respect for the environment and the neighbors.

The park has been around for years, and previous visitors weren't always so neat, either. But numbers increased dramatically with the center and the canoe programs: Mr. Marsden expected more than 3,000 people to sign up this year. That sudden explosion of human pressure can be difficult to control.

The open dam has reduced traffic this year, but the numbers will soar next year as more people discover the attractions of the center, and the canoeists return. The county is spending $800,000 to repair and restore the 18-foot-high masonry dam.

Ironically, the state ordered the park to release the dammed water because of an unfounded concern that the old mill next to the dam was in danger of collapse. When the dam was opened, however, inspectors found some cracks and erosion that needed repair. Work is to be completed by the year's end.

Even with its problems, Eden Mill Nature Center is a welcome addition to Harford's environmental education facilities. The exhibits and trails enhance our understanding, and lead to a quiet appreciation of our natural surroundings.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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