The discovery of several impeccably preserved and incredibly secret World World II facilities has done more than get historians interested; it’s forced the National Parks Service to find the perfect compromise for the park’s natural areas, historical sites and popular demand of picnic spaces by the community. Last night the NPS held a public town hall meeting at Fort Hunt Park to give the concerned community a chance to ask questions about the potential plans.
Major concerns from the community included changes to the walking and biking paths, loss of picnic pavilions and athletic fields, and the potential misuse of the $250,000 to build a visitor’s center that could end up costing much more.
“We’re looking long range, and not everything would happen at once. It would happen in phases, and there is no list of which improvement would happen first. All the potential changes can be adapted and combined, and every major action will require further review on a site by site basis,” Sheffer said. “Everything will depend on further archaeological and environmental review. We can’t just bulldoze a path through one of the largest swaths of forest on the East Coast to make a new trail. We have to work together to find the best use of the park.”
Park authorities reported an overwhelming use of the picnic facilities from locals and out of town visitors but are eager to give equal attention to other areas of the park. Many attendees refuted the reports of overcrowded facilities, except on the busiest holiday weekends, and were worried that any reduction in athletic fields or picnic space would be detrimental to the community.
“So much of staff time is spent on scheduling picnic times, instead of attending other park duties,” a park ranger said. “We looked at these alternatives to balance everything and be able to give our attention to the important untold history here.”
One local, Susan Elliot, has been coming to the park since the 1970s. "I feel very strongly about protecting this park. I come here several times a week to walk and I have concerns about pedestrian safety and the shrinking paths,” Elliot said. “I know it’s not overcrowded, and I’ve never seen it packed. I’m here at enough different times throughout the week to know. I’ve only seen it overcrowded at big events.”
According to NPS, two historic WWII sites are located near already established paths and those trails would need to be adapted for increased visitor traffic. A visitor center is another proposed option, but NPS is well aware of the cost of staffing and building the visitors center, and the potential cost may limit the building size.
“This is a rare case of a National Park that also serves as a heavily trafficked community park. The National Parks Service has to follow all the laws and rules that apply to a National Park,” Sheffer said. “The NPS goal is to protect and preserve natural and historical sites all over the country. The interpretive areas are extremely underutilized and by better interpreting the site, we can plan better for its use.”
The public has until Oct. 6 to submit comments, concerns and potential ideas online or by mailing them to Superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Turkey Run Park, McLean, VA 22101. NPS will review them before they release their suggested plan for the park, and all community comments will be released to the public at that time.
“The Park Service thinks the picnicking is overcrowded, and the public doesn’t. There is some disconnect there,” environmental scientist Brett Schrader said. “The are trying to make use of the interpretive areas of the park, while maintaining as many recreational services as possible. Protecting the natural and historical parts of the park is just as important and community use. The public is talking about losing things, but all the uses would remain. But they’d be a little bit different.”