Tubing the Gunpowder: Bring back the mellow

Floating down a waterway on an inflated rubber ring seems like the very definition of mellow. Yet so many tubers are flocking to Big Gunpowder Falls in northern Baltimore County this summer that the journey down these cooling waters has become a hot-button issue.

Encouraged by outfitters who rent tubes and floating coolers and provide free shuttle service to access points, crowds have descended on the waterway — as many as 600 people on a hot summer day (and this summer, they've all been hot). In addition to changing the mood from pastoral to party, litter is defacing the shores. Roads near the access points are lined with illegally parked cars. As The Sun's Candus Thomson recently reported, crowds can fill narrow roadways and block bike paths. Sound sylvan?

As more people use outdoor resources, such conflicts are becoming common. In this case, the government needs to step in. A river like the Gunpowder is a common property, says Robert Manning, who studies the management of parks at the University of Vermont, and without proper management it is likely to be overused, especially since there is little or no cost involved. Vendors who rent tubes can help people enjoy the experience, but these outfitters have to be subject to some kind of control to prevent abuse of the river.

The trouble is that management of the Gunpowder is a patchwork. As it snakes from Prettyboy Reservoir down to Loch Raven, the river runs through a variety of jurisdictions. On the stretches that flow through Gunpowder Falls State Park, the Maryland Park Service and the Department of Natural Resources hold sway. On stretches south of the park, where most of the instances of congestion and conflict have occurred, Baltimore County has jurisdiction. But much of the riverbank there is private property, where police officers have to be summoned by the land owners.

Right now, the major control mechanism on the use of the Gunpowder is parking. There are few legal spots, and they are quickly taken. Before the advent of the shuttles, the threat of $52 tickets for illegal roadside parking was enough to tamp down the crowds. The shuttles provided by tubing vendors ease pressure on parking, but they abet other problems. It is, for example, much easier to bring a cooler of beer if a shuttle bus is driving you to your put-in point than if you have to haul it by foot.

Officials believe that strict enforcement of alcohol laws — it is restricted under open-container laws in both the state park and the areas under Baltimore County jurisdiction — will quell much of the recent rowdiness and will eventually cut the size of the crowds and thereby ease congestion.

But the state and Baltimore County need to come up with a licensing system for commercial tubing ventures on the Gunpowder River to keep that business in balance with the environment and with the other recreational uses of the river. Creating a system of licenses for the tubes themselves would allow the officials to set reasonable limits on how many people are being shuttled to the river. By tacking a small fee onto the tube rental, the state and county could fund additional enforcement efforts and improvements on the waterway.

Baltimore County Councilman Todd Huff, who represents the area and who rented out tubes from his family farm in Sparks back in the 1970s, says he's open to the idea of some kind of fee. Mr. Huff is a Republican, and he says he's not usually wild about creating new government fees, but he's been deluged with complaints about rowdy tubers from his constituents, and he thinks it may be the only way to control the business.

Yes, it would be more complicated than simply walking up a path and tossing a tube in the water. But preserving the Gunpowder, a treasure so close to populated areas, requires strong management and some fees. Some may squawk, but traditionally the Gunpowder has been a place for birds, not party people, to holler.

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