Call it the Maryland Chain Saw Massacre.
Last week, state environmental regulators in Annapolis officially reprimanded several canoeists for desecrating public parklands. The criminals, in the name of making the Gunpowder River friendlier to fellow boaters, turned themselves into eco-terrorists. They brought chain saws into Gunpowder Falls State Park and chopped up trees lying in or near a long and special stretch of the river.
Another of the Gunpowder’s user groups—anglers—fears the boaters’ actions could prove devastating to their prized playground.
“What was done was not only illegal, it was wrong,” says Theaux Le Gardeur, a leading guru on the region’s fly-fishing scene and the guy who alerted park authorities to the cutting and pushed for an investigation. “This isn’t a place for a construction project. The Gunpowder is a special place. This is tough for us.”
Le Gardeur, who was born and raised in Louisiana, says he migrated to Maryland “because of the Gunpowder” and admits he can’t help but wax spiritual when the tributary is mentioned. He now owns and operates the Backwater Angler, the premier full-service fly-fishing boutique in the area, located near the banks of the river in Monkton, Md.
Lures with names like “Light Bright Zonker” and “Little Black Stone Fly” are tied in Le Gardeur’s shop; the $3,950 bamboo poles used to sling ’em are handmade as well.
Apparently anybody who understands spending every free hour either tying fake bugs or standing thigh-deep in a stream lobbing ’em at trout reveres the Gunpowder.
“When you’re on the water, you could think you’re in Montana,” says George Gaines, a D.C. resident who has served as president of the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national fly fishermen’s clique. “The rocks, the scenery—you can’t believe something like this is so close to Washington.”
Last year, Field & Stream, the ages-old sports-life magazine that remains the bible for old-school outdoorsmen, featured the river on a list of the six top tailwaters in the entire country. (“Tailwater” is used to describe any stretch of river that is dam-controlled.) The Gunpowder runs from the Prettyboy Dam, a WPA project completed in 1932 near Hereford, Md., to the Chesapeake Bay. Trout-seekers concentrate on the 10 miles after the dam.
To find comparably transcendent fly-fishing holes, Le Gardeur says, folks around here would have to drive either six-and-a-half hours north to a branch of the Delaware River near Hancock, N.Y., or 11 hours south to the Watauga River near the Tennessee–North Carolina border.
“And those aren’t anywhere near metropolitan areas,” he says. “The Gunpowder’s a short drive from downtown Washington, Northern Virginia, and Baltimore. There’s nothing like it anywhere, really.”
The desecration has the reel world reeling. Le Gardeur is among the anglers who talks of the tree-cutting the way a Red Sox fan would if somebody broke into Fenway Park and knocked about 20 feet off the Green Monster.
Le Gardeur says the tree-cutting could “change everything” that experienced fishermen and, more important, the indigenous fish know about the river. The removal of so much wood will surely cause a massive shifting of soot in the riverbed, he says, which could make it harder for the Gunpowder’s most prized breed—wild brown trout—to mate.
“The impact will be immediate. Immediate!” he says. “It’s now mating season. This could be very bad. I’m getting calls from a lot of people asking, ‘Should I even bother fishing the river anymore?’”
The illicit tree-cutters didn’t cover their tracks very well. When Le Gardeur was first alerted about the chain-sawing activity by a customer at his shop, he immediately suspected boaters were behind it. He and other anglers began surfing the Internet for clues and found a digital version of a smoking gun.
Or, in this case, a smoking chain saw.
In early October, somebody using the screen name “hossman” wrote on the message board of group called the Greater Baltimore Canoe Club (GBCC) that he’d had an “almost FATAL” encounter with a fallen tree while paddling in the river. In boater parlance, such an obstruction is known as a “strainer.”
By the end of that day, other posters had set up a vigilante posse to go all Deadwood on the deadwood that nearly did hossman in.
For example, “JP” posted: “I have access to a chain saw. I say we cut this strainer out. It’s been a bother to all of us for years, before anything else happens again.”
Use of a chain saw in a state park for a non-sanctioned project is expressly prohibited. Occasionally, a GBCC poster would chime in on hossman’s thread that the river doesn’t belong to just canoeists, so maybe chain-sawing to change the waterscape would be wrong and probably illegal. But such sentiments were overwhelmed by the pro-cutting faction. For at least a month, the GBCC board was loaded up with work orders and kudos for any volunteers willing to get involved in the tree-removal schemes. Some folks even posted pictures on the site of the “cleanup” of the Gunpowder.
Le Gardeur says he told the Maryland Department of Natural Resources about the postings as soon as he found them.
“These people were implicating themselves, admitting to crimes. Bragging about them, really,” he says. “It was all right there.”
On Nov. 24, using Le Gardeur’s intelligence, the Maryland Natural Resources Police issued public warnings to four of the cutters for their illegal use of the chain saws. Sgt. Ken Turner, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, says the offenders are: Martin Levine, 51, from Jessup; Stephen Forian, 40, from Lutherville; Robin Willard, 50, from Monkton; and, Henry Latimer II, 34, from Baltimore.
Turner says that no fines or other penalties are tied to the warnings, and that there was no sanction levied against GBCC as a group. However, as a result of the investigation, the DNR plans to hold a seminar with the canoe club to go over legal behaviors for boaters on state park property.
Levine, who says he has been with the GBCC since the late ’80s, says he understands why the anglers are peeved. He insists the boaters meant to do a good deed but now realize they shouldn’t have acted unilaterally. He won’t be bringing his chain saw into the park again.
“We should have been more respectful of other uses of the river,” he says. “But we did cut a dangerous spot out. If there are places to be cut, we’ll go through the parks to get it done from now on.”
Le Gardeur says he and other anglers are confounded that the penalties weren’t more severe. And he’s not sure that the state’s seminars will have as lasting or positive an impact as stiffer sanctions, including financial penalties, would have.
The way he sees it, a lack of information wasn’t what led folks to bring power tools to the river.
“I’m not anti-boater. I’m just anti–chain saw,” Le Gardeur says. “Back in Louisiana, we had a saying: ‘You can’t fix stupid.’”