Garrett Island access may increase under new plan
— Garrett Island may soon change which federal agency governs its wellbeing, and that could lead to greater public access to the property that was once a haven to local boaters.
Already Perryville, Port Deposit and Harford County have signed letters of support to move the 200-acre island in the Susquehanna River from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the governance of the National Park Service.
“Cecil County has introduced it and Havre de Grace will be introducing (the support measure) soon,” added Mary Ann Lisanti, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway.
However U.S. Fish and Wildlife plans to fight it.
Kyla Hastie, FWS assistant regional director of external affairs, said there is no support for the transfer in her agency.
“We have hired a new manager for our Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which manages Garrett Island, who starts in July,” Hastie said via email Tuesday. “It will be a high priority for her to meet with local, state and nonprofit partners to hear their interests and discuss options for public access.”
Hastie said Tuesday afternoon that “a transfer to National Park Service doesn’t necessarily mean more public access to the island.”
“We want to work with NPS and the local community too look at opportunities that best suit everyone,” Hastie said. She deferred any additional comments until the new manager was in place next month.
Meanwhile work continues toward the transfer.
Jody Couser, spokeswoman for The Chesapeake Conservancy, said such a move would happen legislatively.
“The process for such a transfer is set by the Game Range Act, which requires an Act of Congress for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to transfer land to the National Park Service,” Couser said via email. “A member of Maryland’s congressional delegation would need to introduce a bill, and once passed by both the House and Senate, the president would need to sign the bill for it to become law. It’s a process similar to any other legislation introduced in Congress, but with strong community support like we see here, it can happen.”
The island is rich with wildlife, but because of years of camping and other visitors before the access was shuttered, some of the relics are gone or damaged. Historians say the island was visited by the first Europeans to land here, that it had trading posts and other human activity.
Following private attempts to protect the island from development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed control of Garrett Island in 2004 and deemed it off limits to the public in 2005, although it took three more years for that rule to be enforced.
Public outcry in response to the ban led to limited access only on the sandy shore where boaters’ congregate. Still, the USFWS’ offices are hundreds of miles away in Dorchester County’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge so enforcement was left to Maryland Natural Resources Police and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Margaret Barrow was one of those whose voice was heard in the effort to maintain access to the island. She launched a petition campaign that eventually resulted in that limited access to one side of the island.
“To open it up for public use would be such an asset,” Barrow said Tuesday. “It would encourage people to visit this area. It can be a destination.” Couser agreed. “What appeals to us about a transfer to NPS is increasing public access and cultural resource interpretation, so that more people can enjoy and appreciate this special place. From what we are hearing from the local community leaders, this is more in line with what the local communities would like to see happen there,” she said.
A meeting next week with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (DMd.) will start the legislative process, Lisanti said. Seven years ago during a visit to the island, however, Cardin did not voice his support of such a transfer and it remains to be seen if he has changed his mind.
The senator voiced his concern that the park service did not have enough personnel to oversee the property and did not want potential work on the island to be stymied by a drawn-out transfer process.
Lisanti said that once the transfer is complete, Garrett Island will be the first piece of property that the park service will hold title for throughout the Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail.
“The director of the National Park Service is ecstatic,” Lisanti said, adding that the Fish and Wildlife leadership who she spoke to is also on board with the idea.
“For seven to eight years, they’ve been partnering with us for River Sweep,” she said, referring to the annual April cleanup day devoted to the waterfront. “They’ve come to know us and that credibility has gone a long way.”
The island could not only be part of the national water trail, but also the LSHG trail and so much more, Lisanti said.
“To have a national park sandwiched in between Cecil and Harford County, and at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, is good for these areas, good for these towns,” Lisanti said.
She envisions Perryville, Port Deposit and Havre de Grace finally having a water taxi service to shuttle visitors from shore to shore and a tourism boom with all its connected benefits. She said that for too long travelers have driven past these towns on Routes 40 and Interstate 95.
“Now the age old question is how do we get them to stop?” she said. “If we give them access to the water they’ll stop.”
Barrow had one wish when the park service begins its plans for Garrett Island.
“It would be great if the main access to the island would be on the Perryville side,” she said.
An angler drops his hook into the water off Garrett Island. The 200-acre island in the Susquehanna River may transfer its governance from one federal agency to another.