As Roy Rogers and Dale Evans often sang, “Some trails are happy, others are blue.”

Last month, a community meeting held in Eldersburg to discuss the decision by Baltimore to decommission seven fire roads or fire trails in Liberty Reservoir that was done with zero notice and left many residents seeing red. Although these fire roads are designed to provide fire departments with access to otherwise remote areas in need of an emergency, the local community and tourists use these unpaved roads to hike and ride on horseback. Judging by the standing-room-only turnout at the meeting, it was evident that the edict by Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works (BCDPW) sparked a major brush fire.

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Liberty Reservoir is a 3,100-acre manmade body of water nestled in between Baltimore and Carroll counties. The reservoir, along with Loch Raven and Pretty Boy reservoirs, is used to supply drinking water to 1.8 million people in Baltimore and portions of the surrounding region, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties. The reservoir and the 9,200 acres of land surrounding it are owned by Baltimore. The city allows guests to use the reservoir and surrounding lands for recreational uses including hiking, bird watching, horseback riding, row and paddle boating, and even seasonal archery hunting. Although Liberty Reservoir features multiple trails, the city government has allowed equestrians and hikers to use the many fire roads as trails as well.

A volunteer organization, Friends of Liberty Reservoir (FoLR), exists with a mission to work with the BCDPW and reservoir staff to protect water quality and preserve the fire roads for the safety and enjoyment of all. In 2017, several members of FoLR from Carroll noticed that some of the fire roads were not being maintained and were in treacherous condition. Some of the fire roads were being washed away due to unmaintained drainage pipes and culverts, causing destruction to privately owned homes and farms that border the reservoir, making the roads impassable for emergency vehicles and leaving the water polluted.

In January, a BCDPW watershed section manager told the FoLR via email that these neglected fire roads and others had been decommissioned several years ago. The city official went on to explain that once a fire road is decommissioned it is no longer maintained by BCDPW, allowing natural vegetation to grow back and return the road to a more natural state. More importantly, it was made clear that the decommissioned fire roads have been off limits and usage of them by the public in any form was considered trespassing. If caught on the banned trails, guests could become unexpected law-breakers and receive fines and citations from the Baltimore Environmental Police or Maryland Natural Resources Police.

So why should the city maintain these select fire roads and allow the public to use them again? Many of the folks that live around the reservoir bought their homes or farms because of the easy access to these fire roads. Not only will these property owners be unable to use the roads for recreation, but, as a result of erosion and flooding caused by the lack of maintenance on these closed roads, their properties are being damaged. Several of these roads provide the only entrance to treasured, 19th-century cemeteries, including one for freed slaves. These historic locations are now unmaintained and unvisitable.

Some residents have also expressed concerns that, because of the closing of these fire roads, first-responders will now be unable to travel to certain parts of Liberty Reservoir, which could be troublesome if a hunter were to be injured or if there was a forest fire. Another major concern expressed by residents was the fear of committing a crime without even knowing it. Presently, most Liberty Reservoir visitors have no idea which fire roads are open and which are not. Most of the trails and fire roads are interconnected and unmapped. A law-abiding hiking enthusiast could easily and unintentionally end up walking on a forbidden fire road and suddenly find himself or herself being pursued as an outlaw.

FoLR member Stephanie Brennan told me that the FoLR want to work with Baltimore to resolve this unfortunate situation and that, so far, city staff have been nothing but polite and professional. “We truly believe a harmonious resolution can be found that keeps these areas open for all to enjoy while protecting the water supply,” Brennan said.

In July, Commissioner Ed Rothstein, representing District 5 and Eldersburg, became aware of the issue. “He was very responsive,” Brennan added. Rothstein will be speaking to the FoLR at their next public community meeting on Sept. 19 at the Finksburg public library at 7 p.m. Since learning about the problem, Rothstein has become very engaged and is encouraged that a solution can be found in time. “I believe that we can find the right course of action by forming a partnership between our local governments and the community,” Rothstein said. “Together we can come up with a viable plan that allows recreational use while maintaining a safe and secure environment.”

The FoLR hopes that by working with the local governments, Baltimore will eventually allow the public to legally use the fire roads once again. If the city remains committed to its decision to no longer maintain these particular fire roads, the FoLR has volunteered to step up and help with maintenance.

While I understand that the reservoir’s primary function is to provide clean and safe drinking water to the public, and that Baltimore allows recreational activities to take place only as a secondary function, generations of Carroll County citizens have enjoyed the reservoir and have used it for recreational purposes for as long as they can remember. Ultimately, it is up to the City of Baltimore to decide the fate of the fire roads, but it should welcome open dialogue with the county and the communities that house its reservoir.

Like Rogers and Evans said, “Happy trails to you, until we meet again.”

Christopher Tomlinson writes from Hampstead. Reach him at CCTtomlinson@gmail.com.

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