Paddlers with chainsaw bark up wrong tree

December 02, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

Sometimes, it's important to see the forest and the trees.

By illegally taking a chainsaw to small trees along the Gunpowder River, several members of the Greater Baltimore Canoe Club proved blind to both.

It might not seem like a big deal as you walk along the riverbank below Prettyboy Reservoir. Four weeks after the incident, the trunks that end abruptly at the water's edge still look freshly cut, and the severed pieces lie waterlogged below. What's a couple of trees in a thick forest?

But make no mistake, the cutting "has become quite a drama," said Maj. Chris Bushman, acting assistant superintendent of state parks operations. "Who would think you could just go into a state park and cut trees? Who are these guys? It threw us for a loop. ... There's no doubt it was a renegade action."

It also is a perfect example of what happens when one group of well-meaning outdoors enthusiasts is inconsiderate to another group, in this case paddlers to anglers.

In whitewater terms, wood across a river or stream is called a "strainer" because it snags debris floating downstream and creates a hazard. But the water under that wood also is prime trout habitat and, in the case of the Gunpowder, part of an overall environment that has won it a designation as a Blue Ribbon Trout River. Field and Stream has sung the river's praises as one of the Mid-Atlantic region's best.

This particular strainer occurred in an area in Gunpowder Falls State Park known as The Gorge, where kayakers play in the froth and anglers stalk trout.

Talk of taking matters into their own hands began in early October, when one paddler misjudged the current and became one with the strainer. His account of the incident in the club's online forum, labeled "Mental Mistake," quickly attracted responses and calls for action.

One reply said: "I have access to a chainsaw; I say we cut this strainer out. It's been a bother to all of us for years, before anything else happens again. If anyone wants to join in let me know - we'll set it up."

Not everyone was ready to be deputized as a vigilante lumberjack. Several club members warned that the activity might be illegal. One cautioned: "We need to remember that the kayakers do not own the [Gunpowder Gorge]. It is enjoyed by others doing other things than kayaking. How would everyone feel if the fisherman built a bridge across to access the other side easier that was too low for us to paddle under? Would we just go tear it down?"

Chatter disappeared for almost a month, until Nov. 4, when a photo of the finished product appeared on the forum with the headline "What Strainer?"

Four days later, a forum member identified the work party as "a GBCC group" and listed the members. He continued: "We have intentions of cutting all strainers from Falls Road to Masemore or Bluemount" roads.

The writer owns a tree-care service. Photos taken by fishermen the day of the cutting and turned over to state officials show his truck parked along the river.

Anglers and some paddlers expressed dismay.

Natural Resources Police and Maryland Parks Service conducted an investigation. On Nov. 24, four people received written warnings.

Again, you might say, "So what?"

Here's what:

In 1987, members of Trout Unlimited brokered a deal with the Department of Natural Resources and the city of Baltimore to ensure a minimum flow of cold water from the Prettyboy Reservoir into the Gunpowder. State fisheries biologists and Trout Unlimited members worked together to stock trout and plant thousands of trout eggs in the river's gravel.

Naturally reproducing brown trout began showing up three years later. Rainbows followed in 1991 but never swam farther east than Falls Road.

That stewardship continues. Stringent fishing regulations ensure that all that hard work is not hauled away for dinner. Each year, members of Trout Unlimited help state biologists conduct a trout census and conduct cleanups.

But the Greater Baltimore Canoe Club is not some irresponsible bunch.

Founded in the early 1970s by a Sierra Club member, the GBCC incorporated in 1976 "as a nonprofit organization to promote responsible recreational canoeing and kayaking, to develop a water safety program, and a conservation program," according to its Web site. It has more than 300 members.

So it's sad that a few of them had to muddy the waters.

Bushman understands the concerns of anglers.

"Trout Unlimited worked hard to make the Gunpowder great. We share their passion and pride in that stream," he said. "That's why the balance is always heavily in favor of the resource. We only cut trees in rare, rare instances. That's why we don't condone this."

Bushman said the park service would have removed the strainer if it had posed a hazard. But no one contacted Gunpowder Falls State Park for an assessment, he said, and in this case, the trees were not a hazard, just an inconvenience.

"In whitewater, there are times when you have to get out of the river and go around," Bushman says. "There's a word for that. It's called portage."

Preventing damage is nearly impossible, he acknowledges. But this incident proves that with the help of the public, vandals can be caught.

"When we find out who does these things, we're going to come down hard on them," he said. "We will not stand for it."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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