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Environmentby Timothy B. Wheeler/ Bay Journal11:17 amJul 5, 20240

A city-state partnership seeks to rescue Baltimore’s beautiful but beleaguered Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park

The idea of giving the state an important role in maintaining and promoting Baltimore’s largest park may be catching on

Above: Volunteers clean fallen limbs from a meadow at Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park in Baltimore. (Cyndy Sims)

Leakin Park is a green oasis in the urban landscape of western Baltimore. Established more than 100 years ago to protect Gwynns Falls, a Patapsco River tributary, the park has managed to survive largely intact as the city grew around it.

Park advocates defeated a plan hatched in the 1960s to build a freeway through it, and citizens fought more recently, with less success, to limit the loss of forest from a BGE gas pipeline and stream restoration projects.

Despite the recent setbacks, Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park is still a vibrant wilderness where visitors are likely to see a fox crossing the road and birders may spot dozens of species on a spring morning.

Many neighboring residents still fondly recall hiking, bicycling and picnicking there, but others say its appeal has declined because of its physical condition and concerns for safety.

A collapsed tennis court fence, sagging signs, burned-out lights and litter are among the more obvious marks of neglect.

The park is also subject to multiple environmental assaults thanks to the city’s overall dilapidated infrastructure, such as the 2019 ruptured city water pipe that killed nearly 2,000 fish in one of the park’s streams and a subsequent break fouling the same stream.

Less apparent, yet perhaps more insidious, is the park’s reputation as a dumping ground for murder victims that was echoed far and wide by the popular true crime podcast “Serial.”

It’s an exaggerated rep, says Mike Cross-Barnet, executive director of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park (FOGFLP). Nonetheless, a 71-year-old woman was sexually assaulted there last fall, sparking a public outcry and lending urgency to the group’s efforts to enlist the state’s help in turning things around.

Now under legislation passed by the General Assembly, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will join with the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks to explore a joint arrangement to run and maintain what could become the first state park in Baltimore.

In response to the assault, the city hired four park rangers and is looking for a fifth.

The response is not enough, says Cross-Barnet, noting that although the rangers’ office is located in Leakin Park, they are responsible for patrolling all 262 of the city’s parks.

Steps provide access to the Jastrow Trail at Gwynns FallsLeakin Park in Baltimore. (Baltimore HeritageCC0 1.0)

Rotted steps provide access to the Jastrow Trail at Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park. (Baltimore Heritage)

“We can’t keep up”

With about 150 members, FOGFLP does what it can, cleaning up litter and doing some maintenance. But Cross-Barnet said, “we can’t keep up with the needs of this place.”

Even so, the park still has a lot going for it.

Nearly 2,000 people turned out for the 35th annual Herb Festival in late May. Every second Sunday, a group of historic railroad enthusiasts offers free miniature steam train rides, while every Saturday features a 5k run.

The Carrie Murray Nature Center, named for the mother of Baltimore Orioles great Eddie Murray, offers field trips and environmental education programs, and Outward Bound, the experiential school for at-risk youth, has a 17-acre campus at the park.

The 2024 Herb Festival in Gwynns FallsLeakin Park in Baltimore drew nearly 2,000 adults and children who browsed among 40 vendors and exhibits.(Friends of Gwynns FallsLeakin Park)

The 2024 Herb Festival drew nearly 2,000 adults and children who browsed among 40 vendors and exhibits. (FOGFLP)

Still, the park’s potential is far from being realized, advocates say.

Among the possibilities, Cross-Barnet suggests, are camping facilities, a visitor’s center, better trail signage and, above all, more rangers.

Baltimore City is one of only two jurisdictions in Maryland without a state park, he pointed out. If more people were drawn to use it, it might help relieve crowding at other state and county parks.

“This could be a boon for West Baltimore,” Cross-Barnet said, “a real point of pride for the city and, honestly, a regional destination.”

The legislation to make it a state park enjoyed universal support of local residents, state and city officials, conservation advocates, and environmental scientists. All described it as an ecological and community asset worth preserving and enhancing.

Jim Brown, policy director of Audubon Mid-Atlantic, said the park is “vital” to the survival of more than 200 bird species that either live there year-round or stop over during their annual migrations, including Baltimore Orioles, Eastern Wood Thrushes and Black-and-white Warblers.

Ela-Sita Carpenter, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, credited her childhood visits to the park with inspiring her career.

Walking the trails with her family, she recalled enjoying “the freedom and space of the outdoors,” which wasn’t available in her own neighborhood. Later, in research for her Ph.D., she studied bats in and around the park.

“My career in wildlife biology has taught me that spaces like these can be beneficial to both wildlife and people.” Carpenter told the legislative committee. “To do this we need people to advocate and enjoy the park, and to do that, we need a park that is safe, welcoming, and shows visible signs of care.”

 Orianda, a stone mansion built in the 1850s, is part of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park in Baltimore and used by the Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound school. Timothy B. Wheeler

Orianda, a stone mansion built for Thomas Winans, son of railroad pioneer Ross Winans, is part of the sprawling park and used by the Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound school. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

Jockeying over Control

The exact terms of the partnership have yet to be worked out.

Del. Malcolm P. Ruff (D, 41st), who was the bill’s chief advocate, told lawmakers that he envisioned the city retaining ownership of the land while the state ran and maintained it.

But the bill was watered down before calling for community outreach to determine the path forward.

Reginald Moore, the city’s parks director, said he welcomes the opportunity to discuss ways to collaborate with DNR on maintaining and improving the park.

But significantly, he said he wasn’t sure the city wanted to give up control over such a large forested tract.

Baltimore Parks Director Reginald Moore says he’s ready to discuss ways to collaborate with the state.

Moore noted that even though state lawmakers approved new staffing and resources for state parks in 2022, DNR’s resources could be just as limited as the city’s given the state’s current budget straits.

Stakeholder Advisory Committee

The legislation calls for DNR to submit a report by the end of 2025 detailing the physical parameters of the new state park and funding needed for maintenance, capital improvements and staffing.

Meanwhile, the state and city are expected to meet with neighboring residents and park users and form a Stakeholder Advisory Committee.

If an agreement is reached, it would be the fourth such partnership in Maryland.

DNR collaborated with the National Park Service more than a decade ago to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Dorchester County.

It is moving now to develop two other history-oriented “partnership parks” – one in Montgomery County honoring a formerly enslaved man who helped create the first Freedman school there, and one in Cecil County on the site of a free Black community established in the mid-1800s.

Angela Crenshaw, director of the Maryland Park Service, expressed her eagerness to explore state involvement with Baltimore’s largest park.

She recalls getting two Girl Scout badges there and “walking along the creek with my friends and having a good time.”

Hopefully, the same good will can be forged between government partners, and “we can all work together to make sure this is beneficial to everyone,” Crenshaw said.

• In a slightly different form, this story was first published in the Bay Journal.

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