After three decades of discussion and environmental concerns, the United States National Park Service approved a Potomac River recreation zone in Georgetown to support non-motorized boat activity Feb. 13.

The zone will stretch from 34th St. NW, which falls within the Georgetown Waterfront Park, to a quarter-mile upriver from Key Bridge.

The NPS first developed the plan for the Georgetown Waterfront Park in 1987 to create a recreational area for Georgetown residents.

Although NPS National Capital Regional Director Bob Vogel signed a Finding of No Significant Impact, environmental groups have expressed concern about the negative effects of increased human activity in the area on wildlife.

District of Columbia Environmental Network Executive Director Chris Weiss said he was concerned about the project’s environmental impact on the canal’s ecology.

“If there’s more people directed to that zone, there are going to be more environmental impacts to trees and wildlife,” Weiss said. “Not that long ago, three or four years ago, I used to walk down the canal and I could count hundreds of turtles. Now there are so many people in boats going up and down the canal, I don’t see turtles anymore.”

NPS Public Affairs Officer Jeremy Barnum said he hopes the boat zone will show how the NPS can preserve land across the country, even in urban areas.

“Sometimes when people think of national parks, they think of Yosemite or they think of mountain ranges out west,” Barnum said. “This a prime example of how the National Park Service brings recreation and access to public lands right in the middle of a big city and how we preserve the historic nature of the area.”

NPS Chief of Planning, Compliance and Geographic Information Systems Tammy Stidham said environmental concerns are minimal and said the project should not have adverse effects on the Georgetown Waterfront Park or the wildlife living there.

“We don’t envision there being adverse impacts to wildlife and most of the vegetation is invasive, Stidham said. “Most of the work will be on the shoreline to make the shoreline a bit more vegetative and resilient.”

Weiss said he does not believe the project should be stopped, but the NPS should take action in preventing environmental risks to the area.

“I believe in connecting people to nature, but it has to go hand in hand with a plan to educate and help people learn to be careful and appreciate the sensitivity of nature in that zone, because it is pretty amazing the damage one person can do if they are not careful,” Weiss said.

Stidham said the NPS has no current plans to educate the visiting public on how to maintain the environment along the recreational zone.

Weiss said greater public education on pollution and land use could minimize detrimental effects along the river.

“Try to create a little appreciation and sensitivity as they participate in this very fragile slither of natural area in the middle of our city — it’s an urban river, and so there are people here, but you’re going to lose that little slither of nature unless you’re careful,” Weiss said.

Stidham said though a boat zone was not originally included in the Georgetown Waterfront Park, the need for boat access has posed a problem since the park opened. Stidham added that the NPS will be working in coordination with District Department of Transportation as well as the public. DDOT will build new sidewalks, a bike lane and perform work on the roadway.

“It’s a balance between providing visitors access to the river but still protecting the national resources,” Stidham said. “We feel like the plan not only represents what the Park Service would like to do there, but what the community would like to see happen.”

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