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Patapsco Valley State Park trails remain closed after historic flooding; officials say they've done all they can

Brian Thomas, a park ranger from Catonsville, adorned in a bright-orange face mask, made a precise — but not gentle — incision into a dead, towering tree in the Hilton Area of the Patapsco Valley State Park on an unseasonably warm February afternoon.

Switching between a small hand ax and a chainsaw, Thomas moved in a circle around the tree, choosing where to make his next cut to control where the tree would fall. Nearby, Tabitha Aguirre, a trail crew member from Westminster, blocked the road so no park visitors would be harmed.

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“Nice and slow, niiiiice and slow,” Thomas said as the trunk of the dead tree cracked and splintered. The tree appeared to hang in the air a moment as it fell, bringing a few limbs of nearby trees down with it, before landing with a thud in the empty parking lot. With it now on the ground, the trail crew could begin chopping up the tree and dragging it into the woods.

The daily work of keeping trails open and safe is especially important at Patapsco Valley State Park, because officials say they’ve done all they are capable of doing to reopen and rehabilitate trails that have been closed since historic flooding eight months ago, and that future work to open the popular Grist Mill Trail will have to rely on others.

An alert from September spells out the status of the trails: “The Grist Mill Trail, and those leading to it, are closed. Most of the Buzzards Rock, Saw Mill, Forest Glen and Vineyard Springs trails are closed. Lost Lake remains closed.”

When it comes to reopening those trails, especially connections to the paved Grist Mill Trail, park officials likely will have to contract out the work to field experts, said Rob Dyke, Patapsco Valley’s park manager.

The work involves, for example, technical engineering of tunnels and bridges. Dyke did not have a dollar estimate of how much the work would cost.

The park saw just under 1 million visitors in 2018, but does not have specific usage numbers for any of its trails, Dyke said.

Thomas, the ranger who felled the tree, is one of only five employees in Patapsco Valley who are certified to do so, said Dennis Cutcher, a park ranger and maintenance supervisor.

Cutcher said the daily work of felling dead trees and clearing paths and parking lots is important, because it keeps rangers and the trail crews sharp, despite the hours of certification training they are required to take.

“The classes help, but they don’t make you Paul Bunyan,” Cutcher said.

Dyke said a timeline for reopening the Grist Mill and other trails would, in part, be dependent on the federal government; the state of Maryland is still waiting to see how much, if any, money it gets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for rehabilitation work. “We don’t know what’s been awarded,” Dyke said.

A FEMA spokesperson said the agency is still on the ground in Maryland and working with 20 applicants to develop plans for 111 possible projects. FEMA has obligated $2.2 million under a disaster declaration, but cost estimates for projects across the state — including nine projects that the Department of Natural Resources has applied for — are still being developed and no money has been committed to any specific project, the spokesperson said. As plans are developed, FEMA will disburse money to the state, which will reimburse the cost of individual projects to applicants.

Local legislators, like state Del. Eric Ebersole and state Sen. Clarence Lam, have described the damage to the park as “extensive” and that rebuilding the park would require “a lot of” resources and financial support, potentially from the state.

Lam said he’s been working with the Department of Natural Resources on the issue of getting trails reopened and was “exploring how the state can assist with some funding.” There are no concrete plans in place “as of now,” Lam said.

The Baltimore County side of the park was hit harder than the Howard County side because of the park’s geography and surrounding infrastructure. Dyke explained that rain fell hard and fast on both sides of the Patapsco River, but train tunnels on the Baltimore County side channeled water into powerful streams that washed out trails.

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Meanwhile, Dyke said park officials were working to reopen the Buzzards Rock and Saw Mill trails by looping them together. He hopes that process can be put out for review by the state in the next “few weeks” and be ready to go by the fall, he said.

In that same vein, The Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park, a nonprofit that coordinates volunteer work and holds fundraisers for the park, said some of its trail work plans are to be determined.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern with those Baltimore County southern trails,” said Dave Ferraro, treasurer of the organization.

Ferraro said the amount of money awarded to the park from the government would determine how much paid labor Patapsco Valley would be able to bring in, which in turn would affect how much volunteer labor is needed.

More than 500 people contributed about 3,000 hours of volunteer labor doing trail work for the friends group in 2018, Ferraro said.

“We’d love to get in there and start working on the Baltimore County trails, but we want to see where the plan is,” Ferraro said.

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