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Catoctin Mountain Park's 70th anniversary: Return to natural beauty

Susan Guynn
News-Post Staff

 A leafy mixed hardwood canopy shades the land and all who visit Catoctin Mountain Park. On a hot summer day, the lure of cooler temperatures brings visitors from the surrounding towns and cities for a respite from the heat and a quiet place to relax.
But the Catoctin Mountains haven't always been this beautiful.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Catoctin Mountain Park, a national park that began as the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, established in 1936. In 1954, about half the approximately 10,000 acres was transferred to the state and became Cunningham Falls State Park. The remaining acreage stayed with the National Park Service and was renamed Catoctin Mountain Park.

By the 1930s, the mountain had been ravaged by logging, charcoal making for the iron industry, bark stripping for tanning, clear cutting for farming and wood cutting for heat. Fire, erosion and over-farming had robbed the soil and the mountain of its natural beauty. It bore little resemblance to the mountain today.

The government acquired the mountain land, along with thousands of other tired plots of land around the country, to demonstrate how federal and state agencies could work together to restore tracts of land to their natural beauty.

"It was the Great Depression and one out of every four people was out of work. President Roosevelt had to come up with something to help," said Sally Griffin, supervisory park ranger at Catoctin Mountain Park. "A lot of the land in this area had been used for the agriculture industry, and other industries, for a long time. The land was not as productive."

One of Roosevelt's projects was to take land no longer productive and turn it into something productive again, she said. It was called the Recreational Demonstration Area Program.

Catoctin was one of 35 areas in the program, according to "Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Parks" by John Means. One of the program's goals was to put men to work developing the land into recreation areas.

"At the same time he created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Both groups came to Catoctin and built it as a park," said Ms. Griffin. The WPA workers arrived first, using skilled labor from the area. They built cabins, a contact station and a blacksmith shop. The CCC, designed to teach unskilled workers a skill, followed, building roads and log cabins, and replanting the forest again.

The programs not only helped the land renew itself but "allowed the people to be renewed by providing jobs when the economy was tough," said Ms. Griffin.

The finished park and its cabin camps were to provide mountain or outdoor experiences for city residents, particularly Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Four public cabin camps were planned for the park. Three -- Misty Mount, Camp Greentop and Camp Hi-Catoctin -- were

built; construction never began on the fourth. One of the camps, Hi-Catoctin, was to serve the families of federal employees, but became the private retreat for the President of the United States and closed to the public. Camp Round Meadow was built by and for the WPA as a base camp and later used as a group camp when buildings were added in the '60s by Job Corps. In the '70s, the camp became a seasonal folk culture center. The first structure built in the park is in Round Meadow; it now serves as the resource management building, according to Ms. Griffin.

The original park contact station, where a park ranger lived and guided visitors during the peak visiting seasons, was the last building constructed by the WPA. Soon after, World War II called for all able-bodied men and the park was closed to the public. From 1942 to '47, the park was used for U.S. military operations training, a place of R&R for British sailors and training for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which preceded the CIA. "It was one of five training areas for the OSS," said Ms. Griffin.

After the park reopened to the public, "it took a long time for locals to feel they were welcome again," said Park Ranger Debra Mills, who has served at the park for 28 years. "It was into the '60s before locals really started coming back."

Today, people visit the park to hike, photograph nature, camp, cross-country ski in winter, ride horses and fish in Big Hunting Creek, one of the region's most well-known fly-fishing waters, and "just to get away," said Ms. Mills.

The park's camps are popular with groups. Camp Greentop has hosted the League for People With Disabilities every summer since it opened in 1937. Frederick County Public Schools, church groups, Scouting organizations and homeschoolers are among the groups that utilize the camps' facilities. There have even been a few family reunions and weddings at the camps.

The cabins at Misty Mount and Greentop are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as historic districts. Most of the buildings are constructed of local stone and logs cut from the chestnut trees killed by the blight that wiped out the nut-bearing tree on the East Coast.

The original left wing of the visitor center, on Md. 77 and Park Central Road, was the last project of the WPA. It was called the Blue Blazes Contact Station and served as home and office for the park ranger. The original fireplace can still be seen in the center's exhibit room.

"The WPA headquarters were in Round Meadow," said Ms. Griffin. "Once the cabin camps opened, there was more traffic by here," said Ms. Griffin. So a contact station for the public was built in closer proximity to the road they traveled. "It was built right before the park closed (during World War II)," she said.

The president, projects and perils

With the presidential retreat, Camp David, located within the boundaries of Catoctin Mountain Park, there have been some changes in park operations. For one, there are more frequent security closures that limit the public's access to certain areas of the park.

"(Security is) certainly a new trend for us. Whenever we have the president here we do have expanded security closures," said Mel Poole, superintendent of Catoctin Mountain Park. "For about the first 40 days after 9/11, we had a total lockdown. Nothing was going on here. We worked with the Secret Service and Camp David staff to tighten the closure so we could get the camps open and operational for the season.

"We don't really lose too much, in terms of facilities, with the closings. The only thing we really lose is access areas in the central park on Park Central Road. Your route of travel may change," said Mr. Poole.

He said there are always unauthorized vehicles that attempt to enter the closed areas, "and they are dealt with accordingly. They enter closed areas at their own peril," said Mr. Poole. "We close areas in this park for lots of different reasons to keep the public safe."

"(Sept. 11, 2001) changed a lot of things," said Ms. Griffin. After 9/11, visitation to the reopened park was stable, while parks closer to the Washington, D.C., area saw significant loss of visitors. She said more groups are using the park's facilities than are individuals.

Ms. Griffin pointed out the recent installation of new wayside signs along the Charcoal and Blue Blazes Whiskey trails, and the handicapped accessible Spicebush Trail. A three-year project, the signs have more info graphics.

Two issues that are impacting the park's ecosystem are invasive plants and a super-sized deer herd. Both are destructive to the native plants that grow in the mixed hardwood forest. The deer browse on saplings and shrubs. Invasive plants, such as Japanese stiltgrass, crowd out and shade native plants. While the green grass looks lush growing along sunny roadsides and covering the forest floor, it's rampant growth has the potential to alter the forest's plant and wildlife diversity.

"Everything is linked to something else," said Ms. Griffin. "Our goal is to keep as many different types of native species as we can."

The park service is about to release its white-tailed deer management report to the public. There will be public hearings in September and October for comments before the final plan is implemented.

"There were four alternatives and we picked one based on the economics of the alternative and what is environmentally best," said Mr. Poole.

A "bumper crop" of fawns born in the park this year will add to the herd's problems. "The herd is not healthy, it's one of the problems we have," he said. "From the road, they appear healthy but their weights are down and they have high levels of abdominal parasites. Looks are deceiving."

Mr. Poole has been the park's superintendent for about 10 years. In that time, "some things are timeless and some things seem to change every 15 minutes," he said.

"In some respects, the park is a lot healthier from an ecological perspective, aside from the deer issue," he said.

And there are recent projects "that will pay big dividends down the road." A recently paved parking area was surfaced with a pervious material that allows water to permeate instead of running off into the stream. The last of four cell towers in the park was recently installed, the end of a multi-year project. "Now you can make a wireless phone call from anywhere in the park -- if you use Verizon," said Mr. Poole.

As the "neighboring" private lands are bought and sold, Mr. Poole says development could present potential problems for the park. "If land use stays the same, it's not a big issue, but if it changes we're concerned about that." He also sees the recent designation of U.S. 15 as a National Scenic Byway as a boost not only to park tourism, but the county, too.

A proposed name change for the park was shelved a couple of times when Thurmont officials opposed renaming the park to Catoctin Mountain National Recreation Area.

Catoctin is one of 17 units in the National Park System that does not have the word "national" in its name. According to the bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and passed by the Senate, the name would be more appropriate based on the park's history and use, and would further distinguish it from the neighboring state park. However, the House failed to pass it and, for now, the name remains the same.

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