A new organization working to protect the Potomac River got off to a big start in December by organizing a huge cleanup — the removal of four, 50-foot girders, each weighing 6,300 pounds, from an island near the American Legion Bridge outside Washington.

Exactly how the girders, considered the biggest pieces of trash in the river, got there is a mystery. But the newly formed Potomac Conservancy arranged to have a helicopter lift the girders and haul them downriver where they were loaded onto trucks and hauled off for recycling.

Use of the Skycrane helicopter — which recently had been used to remove and replace the “Freedom” statue atop the Capitol — was donated by the Erickson Air-Crane. The George Hyman Construction Co. assisted in the girder removal job.

The event was organized by the conservancy to build support for preserving the Potomac River Gorge and the nontidal river upstream of Washington.

The conservancy was incorporated in the fall of 1993 in Maryland and operates in Virginia as well.

Conservancy leaders hope to obtain easements through voluntary cooperation with landowners to protect and enhance the scenic, environmental, and recreational attributes of the Potomac. It has cooperative agreements to co-hold easements in Virginia with the 5,000-member Fairfax Audubon Society and in Maryland with the Maryland Environmental Trust.

The conservancy will also sponsor scientific studies on invasive exotic plant species and other aspects of riparian corridor health, and plans periodic river cleanups and other educational and conservation programs.