Bay Journal

Steps being taken to allow public to set foot on island

Transferring management of Garrett Island to the National Park Service would allow public access yet still protect the island's natural and cultural r

  • By Lara Lutz on June 01, 2009
Dogwood blooms, right, on Garrett Island frame the view of the Susquehanna River. Garrett island is also home to abundant patches of pawpaw, which attract swallowtail butterflies, who use the island to migrate, and reproduce. The east side of Garrett Island, above, is actually growing by accretion-catching and holding sediment that washes down the Susquehanna. The island is about 20 acres bigger than it was reported in the 19th century.  (Dave Harp) Around Garrett island is a very shallow reef, which is covered with underwater grasses at the southern end, right. This provides very good fishing grounds for anadromous perch and shad. Garrett Island is home to a variety of trees, left: cherry, birch, sycamores, maples, big oaks and hickory.  (Dave Harp ) Garrett Island is the geologic remnant of what was once an offshore volcano in an ancient sea. The rocky high ground on the island's west side is the remains of the volcanic core. Basalt and quartz, above right, formed by the volcanic activity are still present. The rocks were quarried by the railroad to build supports for the bridges, leaving culverts and crevices behind. Archaeologist William McIntyre, who spent more than three years surveying the island, said, Garrett Island's terrain, above, feels like the fragment of a Pennsylvania forest dropped into the river below the Mason-Dixon line. It's rocky and hill-covered, above, not the low-lying, marshy expanse more typically associated with Bay islands.  (Dave Harp)

When Barbara Brown was a little girl, summers along the Susquehanna River were pure joy. Garrett Island, just offshore of Perryville, MD, was the center of it all. The only rules for playing on the island were-well, there weren't any.

Brown would launch into the water from a rope swing and swim to a small stretch of sand on the island's eastern shore. She'd swim home for lunch, and then swim back to the island until dinner time. Along with most of the kids in Perryville.

"It was just part of the routine, like playing basketball or baseball," Brown said.

On weekends, families rafted their rowboats near the sand bar. Campers embraced the ungroomed landscape and set up tents with a dramatic view upriver.

"The island was owned by the railroad back then," Brown said. "They didn't really care what we did on it."

Today, everyone cares. And the standing rule is simple: no public allowed.

But that may change soon.

Garrett Island maintains the allure of a wild playground, a forested expanse mixed with historic interest, a small heron rookery, and the remnants of an ancient volcano. The island also lies at the center of an emotional effort to balance the need for both conservation and public access.

Area residents, local governments, land trusts, past owners of the island and even the federal government have weighed in on a new vision for the island's future-including a possible role in the new Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Garrett Island is an oblong island of 198 acres that nearly forms a cork in the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

Artifacts have dated the earliest human presence on the island from 8,000 to 5,000 years ago. The earliest documented European presence dates to 1637, when William Claiborne established a small trading post to obtain furs from the Susquehannock Indians.

No one knows if John Smith actually stopped on Garrett Island during his 1608 voyage, but the island is noted on his map and would have made a convenient landing site.

In his journal, Smith records several days in the area and a meeting with the Susquehannock Indians. Some speculate that the meeting may have occurred on Garrett Island.

Michael Shultz, spokesperson for the nonprofit Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail, said Garrett Island could be a very significant piece of the trail.

"It's a really fine spot for interpretation," he said, "a good place from which to envision what it would have been like for the Susquehannocks to be coming down that big river and for Smith to be there at the top of the Bay, realizing he's not going any farther."

Connecting Garrett Island to the Smith trail could also be good for Perryville. Barbara Brown, now a town commissioner, is anxious to restore the island as a town asset and capitalize on the opportunity for heritage tourism.

"Garrett Island is very important, not only for public use, but for the surrounding communities," she said.

The river has become a natural focal point for tourism development because it captures both the rich history and natural resources of the area. Perryville plans a public pier along the grounds of Rodgers Tavern, a historic waterfront building adjacent to the town green and a section of the Lower Susquehanna Greenway.

The tavern, built of dense gray stone to serve an 18th century ferry crossing, was a regular stop for George and Martha Washington, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette and General Jean Rochambeau. Once restored, the tavern will serve as a visitors center, possibly with a cafŽ and rental site for canoes and kayaks.

The 700-foot pier will offer public docks and a launching area. Water taxis, as well as the Lantern Queen-a replica paddleboat that already plies the river-could dock there too.

"The bottom line is to get tour boats out to Garrett Island. That's what we've always envisioned," Brown said.

It's a goal that might literally take an act of Congress.

Garrett Island has spent four years as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, making it off-limits for public use. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took ownership of the island in 2005, after a public-private scramble to save the island from development.

The railroad company sold the island in the 1990s to a private owner who considered the site for a hotel and amusement park. To avoid this fate, two area residents bought the island in 1999 with support from the Cecil County Land Trust. Their aim was to shoulder the bill temporarily while finding the island a permanent home.

"Personally, I would have preferred to see it managed by a local nonprofit, but no one could get the funds together," said Peter Jay, one of the owners in the partnership. State and county options also failed. In search of solutions, the island passed to the Conservation Fund in 2004 before moving into federal protection.

But protection came at a price.

"When I was growing up, Garrett Island was unofficial public property. Everybody trespassed," Jay said. "Now, the island is well-protected and secure, but the community can get no use out of it."

Jonathan Priday, an enforcement specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, understands the community's great love affair with Garrett Island. But the agency mission sets boundaries. "The rules for how we manage land are much more strict than other agencies," Priday said, "so I'm sympathetic."

Local residents found the new policy hard to accept. The "no trespassing" signs were removed five times. On one Fourth of July weekend alone, Priday issued 300 warnings to trespassers.

"The Fish & Wildlife Service isn't anti-people, but our mission puts wildlife first," he said.

Now, the USF&WS is reviewing a formal plan for limited public access near the sandbar.

That effort could get a boost from an Executive Order issued by President Barack Obama on May 12 that directs all federal agencies to develop a plan to expand public access to the Bay, and to work in coordination with the John Smith Trail. Like Garrett Island, 98 percent of Bay waterfront is off-limits to public access.

Brown applauds such moves. But she, along with other town officials and Smith trail advocates, say there is a better solution. They'd like to give the island a new home, with the National Park Service.

"I'm forever thankful that Fish and Wildlife has it now, because it won't be developed. But the National Park Service includes heritage tourism in its mission," Brown said. "It's better equipped to do what we'd like to see done."

Both the town of Perryville and the Friends of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail are putting this request in writing.

"The reason is two-fold," Shultz said. "First, the Park Service is better equipped to lead and develop the interpretation in this area. And second, there's a relatively small ecological asset on the island compared to its really large cultural and historical assets."

That solution might appeal to the Fish and Wildlife Service, too.

There's an understated acknowledgement that Garrett Island isn't a perfect fit for the agency. Most of the natural resources that attract federal management are in the water-fisheries, dependent on dense beds of underwater grasses-rather than on the island itself.

Distance is also a problem. Legislation made Garrett Island part of a refuge complex based at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There aren't enough resources to keep staff on site, and Garrett Island is two to three hours away by car. Longer by boat.

"Immediate response is not a realistic option. That's one of my biggest concerns," said Suzanne Baird, who manages the Chesapeake Marshlands Refuge Complex. "So we're more than willing to discuss options that would help us better manage this resource for the greater good."

Federal legislation, along with sponsorship from a Congress member, is the ultimate tool for transferring the island to the National Park Service. In the meantime, Baird says that a management partnership could shift some duties to the Park Service until a formal transfer takes place.

Garrett Island could still become part of the John Smith trail without moving to the Park Service, but human access would be limited.

Brown, of course, hopes for a different ending to the story. If it happens, Garrett Island will have taken a long and winding path to confirm a sense of public ownership that the local residents have never really lost.

"We didn't think that someday we wouldn't be allowed over there," Brown said. "We just always went."

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz

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