Nature poses roadblocks to ICC

Connector: Opponents say the favored route for the highway would exact a steep environmental toll.

March 03, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - The Good Hope tributary is a tiny stream through the woods of Montgomery County - no more than a few feet wide. In many spots, a reasonably healthy adult could jump over it with little effort.

But for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and all the other officials who have wanted to build the Intercounty Connector in recent decades, the stream has been as formidable a barrier as the mighty Mississippi. Its clear water feeds the famed Paint Branch, the only place in the Washington metropolitan area where brown trout spawn in the wild.

Now, for the third time in the past 22 years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is pointing to the proposed crossing of the Paint Branch watershed as one of the leading reasons it objects to the route most often discussed for a highway that would link Rockville and Laurel.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption yesterday about a vernal pool in the path of the proposed Intercounty Connector incorrectly stated its location. The pool is in Northwest Branch Regional Park, not Rock Creek Regional Park. The Sun regrets the errors.

The so-called Corridor 1 route is favored by many Montgomery County business and political leaders because it displaces fewer homes and businesses than a northern alternative. But precisely because it would run through undeveloped areas, the environmental costs would be greater.

It "bisects major stream valley parks" and "crosses high quality wetlands embedded in interior forest," the EPA said in a letter to the state outlining its objections to Corridor 1.

John Parrish, a local activist who opposes the highway, describes the environmental risk in simpler terms.

"If you look at the water here, it's crystal clear," he says. He is gesturing to a trickle, called a seep, that comes from a nearby wetland and dribbles into the Good Hope. The clarity helps to explain why the trout thrive.

The Ehrlich administration - which argues the highway is vital to relieving traffic congestion and improving the state's economy - told the EPA it thinks Corridor 1 could be made environmentally palatable by adopting a package of "stewardship" measures to mitigate damage.

Among other things, the administration promised to build longer bridges to avoid having to fill in sensitive areas. It also said it would improve storm-water systems and create new wetlands.

But in its reply, the EPA said it still objects to Corridor 1. It has concerns about the other route, too.

A recent tour of the ICC's path with environmentalists who oppose the road offered a ground-level view of some of the obstacles the administration will have to overcome as it seeks federal approval for the ICC, especially if it chooses the southern corridor.

Environmentalists have been giving these tours for years for anyone willing to put on a pair of boots and take a hike in the woods. One stop is the Good Hope tributary.

Paint Branch watershed

Corridor 1 would run through a swath of woods about 400 feet wide bordering Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School.

"All these kids are going to be exposed to pollution," Jim Fary, chairman of the Montgomery County Sierra Club's conservation committee, says as he enters the woods, where ribbons on the trees mark the survey work of state highway crews.

Fary and Parrish are leading a reporter and photographer on an ICC tour. It is not an objective presentation, any more than was a recent tour led by the governor promoting the merits of the proposed highway. Fary and Parrish do it to make their case against the ICC, raising some of the same points mentioned by the EPA.

Parrish talks about the bird species that could be harmed if the woods are cut down. The pileated woodpecker and barred owl, he says, breed in the interior of a forest, not on the edge. If the forest is too fragmented, he says, the species lose its habitat.

The Good Hope may be small, but it's not silent. Visitors can hear its waters rippling over the rocks as they approach it.

Parrish, vice president of the Maryland Native Plant Society, says the key to the Good Hope's success as a trout spawning stream is its coolness even in summer. Young trout can't bear temperatures much above 68 degrees, but the Good Hope is fed with cool water from surrounding wetlands and protected by forest cover up to its banks, he says.

Parrish says the stream is under constant stress, however.

"The trout fishery is near the edge of its tolerance for siltation, for stream temperatures and things like that," he says. "The ICC would be the final nail in the coffin for this thing."

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said in a recent interview that his agency has brought in experts to craft strategies to minimize the impact the ICC would have on the fish population.

"There are no guarantees about anything, but we are reasonably confident we will be able to develop a mitigation strategy that would ensure the continued viability of the brown trout," he said.

So far, the EPA is not convinced. In its recent critique, the agency said Corridor 1 poses a "considerable risk that the trout population will be lost" because of added sediment, forest clearing and the potential failure of filter systems.

Northwest Branch wetlands

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