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Why a state-city partnership is right for GFLP

In the beginning …

As we sit here today in the middle of this lovely, thousand-acre-plus urban oasis, I’d like to take

a moment to call your attention to what is not here. Looking around, I’m sure you’ll notice that

we are not in the middle of an eight-lane highway. This conspicuous lack of big rig trucks, motor

coach buses, and thousands of passenger cars zipping by at 75 miles per hour or more is

nothing short of miraculous.

That’s because, sixty years ago, almost all the powerful people in Baltimore wanted a highway

right here. Planners wanted it, government officials wanted it, business leaders wanted it. This

was the preferred route for connecting the eastern terminus of Interstate 70 with the great

north-south connector, Interstate 95.

This extension of I-70 would have carved a great gash through a large section of Leakin Park,

wiping out tens of thousands of trees, destroying critical habitat for countless forest creatures,

and effectively turning a good section of Baltimore’s largest and most beautiful park into a

concrete jungle. After slashing its way through the park, the road would then have turned south

to plow through the majority black Rosemont neighborhood before straightening out again and

joining what’s now known as the Highway to Nowhere.

So, why aren’t we breathing in diesel fumes and shouting to be heard over the roar of traffic as

we gather here on this beautiful spring day? The credit goes largely to a small group of

determined citizens who decided they weren’t going to take it lying down. These residents from

the neighborhoods north of the park fought City Hall and won. Not only that, but as that song I

played a minute ago shows, they had fun doing it. The name they chose for their group was a

world-class example of trolling, decades before ridiculing one’s enemies on social media

became a thing. They called themselves Volunteers Opposing the Leakin Park Expressway,

partly because that name precisely described their mission, and partly because its initials

spelled out V.O.L.P.E., and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation at that time was named John

Volpe. Thus, their lawsuit to keep the highway out of Leakin Park thus became “V.O.L.P.E. v.


As an aside, Art Cohen, the activist who wrote that little “Road Building Blues” song, is still

making trouble for the powers-that-be fifty years later – he’s now advising a group of Reservoir

Hill residents who have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the proposed route for

Amtrak’s new “Frederick Douglass Tunnel” project for its harmful effects on low-income,

majority black neighborhoods in West Baltimore.

I’m not here today to give a blow-by-blow account of how those hardy souls rescued the park

from devastation half a century ago, in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The story of how

they did it is a good one and was well told in a recent book by author Ev Paull, called “Stop the

Road.” I leave the telling of that tale to Mr. Paull and others who know the history far better

than I do. Instead, I bring it up as a reminder that efforts to “save” the park have been around

for a long time. The sad fact is, this park has always been imperiled, in one way or another. The

nature of the threat changes over time, but the threat never completely goes away.

What are state parks for?

The topic for this talk is, “Why a State-City Partnership Is Right for Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.”

To answer that question, we should turn first to a more basic question, and that is: Why do

state parks exist? Where did this idea come from, and what problem was it trying to solve?

Like so many other things, the modern state park got its start in California, on land that was

transferred from the national government to the state and eventually re-federalized as

Yosemite National Park. Maryland has its own claim to fame, however, as just the third state in

the nation to establish a forest management program, back in 1906 – a development that soon

afterward gave rise to the Maryland Park System.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, two factors were primarily

responsible for the establishment of the state forestry and state park systems: “the deplorable

condition, in the early 20th century, of Maryland’s forest reserves, all of which were privately

owned; and the resolve of key individuals (including politicians, philanthropists, and certain

state officials) to rectify the situation.” By World War II, most states had developed state park

systems, and by the early 21 st century, all states had such a system. Today, there are slightly

fewer than 10,000 “units” managed by the nation’s 50 state park systems.

How many state parks does Maryland have? It’s a good question. The Department of Natural

Resources’ website claims there are 77 (although some of those – including a fishing pier on the

Choptank River – would be unrecognizable as such to most visitors). Of those 77, however, only

57 have the word “park” in their name, with the remainder consisting mainly of “natural

resource management areas,” with a handful of state battlefields and one-offs such as the

Western Maryland Rail Trail.

Far easier to count is the number of state parks in Baltimore City, which is and has always been

exactly zero. In fact, the city is one of only two jurisdictions in the state with no Maryland Park

Service lands, the other one being Wicomico County, which has about one-sixth Baltimore’s

population. And although Baltimore does receive an annual grant from the state Department of

Natural Resources, it’s important to note that about one-third of city residents lack reliable

access to a vehicle, which effectively shuts them out from accessing the state park system.

Moreover, Baltimore’s lack of a state park within its borders makes it unusual among major

Northeast cities. Boston, for example, has Roxbury Heritage State Park and, interestingly,

Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park – a partnership among 11 different entities

including the National Park Service, the City of Boston, the Massachusetts Water Resources

Authority, and several nonprofit organizations. Philadelphia’s 275-acre Benjamin Rush State

Park boasts one of the largest community gardens in the world, while West Rock Ridge State

Park’s stunning vistas draw tourists from all over to the city of New Haven. Meanwhile, New

York City tops the list with no fewer than nine state parks within its borders.

A headline in the Baltimore Sun from several years back reads, “Maryland state parks have

become so popular, they’re turning people away.” That article was from August 2018, a year

and a half before Covid-19 transformed state parks into lifelines for millions of people seeking

connection with nature, relief from boredom, and escape from the fear, stress, and mental

health ravages wrought by the pandemic.

With movie theaters, restaurants, theme parks, and most other recreational options

unavailable to them, Americans took to their state and national parks in huge numbers.

Maryland was no exception, with state park visitation reaching a record-breaking 21.5 million

during 2020 – more than three visits for every person in the state.

Marylanders’ embrace of their state parks has outlasted the pandemic and mirrors a

nationwide trend. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there were

1.18 billion visits to state parks in 2022, more than three times the number of visitors to

national parks.

The business case for state parks

Why are state parks so popular? Perhaps because they provide so many different kinds of

benefits to so many people. Can anyone here think of another resource or institution that does

all of the following: provides recreational opportunities; improves public health; protects the

natural environment; preserves cultural and historical heritage; and creates jobs and economic


Each of the benefits I just identified could probably be the subject of its own lecture, but I want

to dwell for a minute or two on that last point, the economic value of state parks. In

researching our proposal to create a new state park in Baltimore, I came across the following

astonishing statistic. We’re about to go a little deep into the policy weeds, but this is important,

so please bear with me.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, employs

a tool called the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account. Despite its name, this tool has nothing

to do with space flight and satellites. According to the BEA, the Satellite Account “measures the

economic activity as well as the sales or receipts generated by outdoor recreational activities,

such as fishing and RVing. These statistics also measure each industry’s production of outdoor

goods and services and its contribution to U.S. GDP. Industry breakdowns of outdoor

employment and compensation are also included.”

In other words, this thing measures the total economic value created by outdoor recreational

activities. Now, here’s what the BEA had to say, specifically about Maryland’s state park system:

“For every dollar the state invests in state parks, $29.27 is generated in economic activity.” I

think that’s worth saying again: One dollar invested results in $29.27 for the economy. The

same report noted that, “In 2020, outdoor recreation-related expenditures contributed $5.5

billion to the State’s GDP and sustained 69,377 jobs, which represent 2.6 percent of all

Maryland employment.” That’s 5.5 billion, with a “b.” Nearly 70,000 jobs. This is huge. The

outdoor recreation industry is this state and nation is massive and continues to grow.

So, let’s stipulate that state parks are economic growth engines. Let’s stipulate, as well, that

Maryland has few places in greater need of economic revival than West Baltimore. In the

neighborhoods just east of the park, constituting the 21216 Zip Code, the poverty rate is 21.8

percent and less than half the adult population is employed. I won’t go into detail about all the

reasons for this, except to observe that much of what one sees today in West Baltimore was

created by a century of racist housing policies and systematic disinvestment by federal, state,

and local authorities, combined with decades of deindustrialization and failed approaches to

the scourge of drug addiction.

Over the decades, tens of thousands of people who were able to flee abandoned their homes

and neighborhoods, leaving the tens of thousands who were unable to leave trapped in a

prison of poverty, crime, and despair. For those who are interested, there are some very good

books about this, including “Not In My Neighborhood” by my former Baltimore Sun colleague

Antero Pietila and “The Black Butterfly” by Professor Lawrence Brown.

Now consider the implications of all of this for West Baltimore. The story of West Baltimore in

recent decades has been a depressing narrative of what can’t be improved, can’t be built, can’t

get done. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on large-scale projects like the Sandtown-

Winchester Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, with seemingly little to show for the

investment. And the bad news just keeps coming. We lost the Target store at Mondawmin Mall

in 2018 (and that “we” includes me, because I live a mile away and used to shop there). Now

we hear that the Giant on Edmondson Avenue is closing, potentially creating a massive food

desert south of the park.

Could the establishment of a state park here help spark an economic revival in the

neighborhoods near the park? It’s a provocative question. For the first time in a long while,

positive things are happening in parts of West Baltimore. A Chicago firm with a strong track

record has taken ownership of the long-troubled Edmondson Village Shopping Center and is

promising major upgrades. The state of Maryland is pouring funds into housing and community

development in Northwest Baltimore, in conjunction with the major redevelopment plans for

Pimlico Race Course. A state park here could bring jobs and visitors to West Baltimore. It could

function as an anchor institution, encouraging people to buy homes and start businesses here.

The state-city partnership concept

Now if you agree with me that a state park may have important benefits for West Baltimore,

you may still be wondering, where did this notion of a state-city partnership come from? The

title of this lecture declares that a partnership between the state Department of Natural

Resources and the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Department is the best way forward for

Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park. Why is that the case?

Let’s go back for a moment to 1983, that momentous year when the Orioles last won the World

Series. Ronald Reagan was the president, Harry Hughes was the governor, and William Donald

Schaefer was mayor. The Road Wars of 1960s and 1970s Baltimore were at an end. The rabble-

rousers of V.O.L.P.E. had succeeded in keeping the highway out of the park, although the

efforts of the city’s determined activists were not enough to prevent the tragedy of the

Highway to Nowhere, which divided neighborhoods and forced out thousands of residents in

service of a doomed transportation project. Almost as painful, the Rosemont neighborhood

where I-70 was intended to pass through saw a steep decline when hundreds of properties

were condemned by the city. Although that section of highway was never built, most of the

residents displaced to make way for it didn’t return.

Its mission accomplished, V.O.L.P.E. largely ceased operations – although as Barry Blumberg, a

V.O.L.P.E. alumnus, reminded me the other day when I had the pleasure of meeting him, the

organization still exists. But 41 years ago, as tourists flocked to the still new National Aquarium

and Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey was named World Series MVP, a new entity came into being,

calling itself Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.

For the last four decades, members of the Friends group, known affectionately as FOGFLP, have

served as Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park’s volunteer caretakers, protectors, advocates, and

defenders. We are the ones you’ll find bagging trash, helping maintain trails, and organizing

family friendly activities throughout the year. Drawn by the park’s beauty and their affinity for

the outdoors, we would much rather be lovers than fighters. However, like V.O.L.P.E. before

them, the Friends of the Park have at times gone to battle on behalf of this place they love so

much. That has meant challenging questionable projects such as stream “restorations” that do

more harm than good. It has often meant spending hours on the phone and in meetings, trying

to get city Rec and Parks to give this place the care and attention it deserves. And when push

came to shove, it even meant filing a lawsuit intended to block an outrageous giveaway of

precious park land from the city to BGE for placement of its new granite gas pipeline.

Despite the valiant work of FOGFLP and others, the park has suffered for decades from many

afflictions, including but not limited to: trash dumping, illegal encampments, unauthorized

gatherings, and generally crumbling infrastructure such as poor signage, inadequate trail

maintenance, and inattention to matters as basic as, for example, a lack of bathroom facilities

or the collapsed tennis court fence that you probably noticed as you made your way up Eagle

Drive this morning. While many factors are to blame, the leading cause of the park’s sad

condition has been institutional neglect, which has led to underutilization stemming from

safety concerns and general negative perceptions. To put it bluntly, this place has a bad

reputation, and it can feel like nobody cares about it.

Missing or broken gates, dumped trash that reappears almost as soon as it is removed,

dilapidated trails and bridges – these things send a message that bad actors hear loud and

clear. And although the park’s reputation for danger is exaggerated, the sexual assault of a 71-

year-old woman last November played into the worst stereotypes about the place, while also

spurring residents to demand action. In response, the city hired a small number of citywide

rangers and increased trash removal and police patrols in the park.

These were positive, necessary and welcome steps. However, we believe that to truly thrive

and properly serve the community, Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park needs its own dedicated team of

park rangers assisting visitors, reporting problems, running family programming, and signaling

that this park is cared for and protected. It also deserves a guaranteed annual funding

allocation for repairs, trash removal, trail maintenance and general upkeep. These things are

only possible as part of the state park system.

Baltimore has many fine parks, but Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park is unique. With its mature forest,

diverse wildlife, scenic trails and historic structures covering more than 1,000 acres, this is a

special place, worthy of a creative solution to preserve and improve it for future generations.

Identified by Audubon as the area’s most important bird habitat, it is one of the largest urban

forest parks on the East Coast and should be the envy of other Mid-Atlantic cities. With proper

resources and management, we’re confident it will be.

To be clear, our proposal is not an indictment of the city’s management of the park, whose

condition reflects more than a century of disinvestment and racist policies affecting West

Baltimore. The city’s underfunded Department of Recreation and Parks oversees a massive

system of more than 250 facilities and nearly 5,000 acres, and it simply can’t provide the

resources that this complex landscape requires.

That being said, this has been a city park for a long time. Many city workers know the place

well, and love and care for it to the best of their ability. That’s why our proposal calls not for an

outright takeover by the Department of Natural Resources, but for joint management by the

state and city, with an important advisory role for FOGFLP recognizing our unique position as

volunteer custodians and protectors of the park for the past 40 years. This partnership will

marshal the strengths and resources of the state, city, and volunteers to increase public access,

community benefits, and tourism.

Take a moment to imagine the possibilities for this park with a major infusion of state funding,

resources, and expertise. Picture its historic landscapes staffed by knowledgeable, friendly

rangers offering creative programming for families, youth, and seniors on a beautiful fall day.

Envision walking paths, playgrounds, ballfields, and historic buildings, upgraded with long-

needed investments and alive with activity, alongside well-maintained bike trails connected by

a Greenway to other parks throughout the region. Think what it would mean to have a Youth

Conservation Jobs Corps Center in the park – joining the existing Outward Bound site and Carrie

Murray Nature Center in introducing young people to natural wonders and the importance of

service, work, and play.

And that’s just the beginning of what’s possible if this plan comes to fruition. A visitors center

to orient guests and teach them about the park’s history? Why not! Well-maintained sites for

overnight camping? Absolutely. Large, attractive signs welcoming visitors to the park and

directing them to its main features? Yes, indeed. A deer population well-managed by state

wildlife experts who have the experience city officials lack? You bet. We can make all of this

happen – and more.

How we’ll make it happen

There have been other attempts to “fix” Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park over the years. There was an

incredible burst of energy and activity 25 years ago, when the Gwynns Falls Trail was opened to

great fanfare. But the excitement faded over time as the trail fell into disrepair and the Gwynns

Falls Trail Advocates group dissolved. In the years before the pandemic, an idea emerged for

the park to join something called the Old Growth Forest Network, a Maryland-based

organization dedicated to preservation of mature forests in cities across the nation. The

concept proved somewhat challenging, and it withered for lack of support in the Baltimore City

Council. Technically, the plan to join the network still exists, but there has been little forward

movement since the pandemic.

There was even a proposal, early in this century, for the state to take over the park. But that

plan failed to generate enthusiasm or much support. Also, if we’re being honest, FOGFLP has at

times been a little too comfortable with the status quo of an underutilized park, seeing it

almost as a semi-private zone of influence. In other words, greater access to and use of the park

has not always been the goal.

This most recent effort to chart a new direction for the park traces its roots to 2022, when the

Maryland General Assembly responded to a surge in state park visitation by passing the Great

Maryland Outdoors Act. Recognizing the growing popularity of public parks, this legislation

earmarked significant new state funds for the operation, maintenance and capital

improvements of State Parks and also increased funding to Baltimore City Parks and Recreation.

The new law also created the opportunity that is before us today by defining a partnership park

as “a unit of the state park system managed by the Department of Natural Resources in

partnership with a local government or a nonprofit organization.” That brief section of the 2022

has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revive, revitalize, and reimagine Gwynns

Falls/Leakin Park.

This partnership concept may well be an idea whose time has come. Maryland already has a

partnership park of sorts: the connected state and national parks near Cambridge celebrating

the life and times of the great Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Two more

multi-agency partnerships are in the works, both brought into being by the Great Maryland

Outdoors Act: Port of Deposit State Historical Park in Cecil County, and Freedman State

Historical Park in Montgomery County.

Last summer, FOGFLP began reaching out to state and local officials in hopes of starting a

conversation about this idea, and engaged a consultant to develop model legislation. After I

was hired as executive director in November, the process rapidly accelerated. I reached out to

the local community, attending nearly a dozen neighborhood association meetings – including

several who had no history of interaction with the Friends group. I worked with our local

council members to pass a City Council resolution unanimously supporting our plan. We won

the backing of eight neighborhood associations and more than a dozen major environmental

groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Mid-Atlantic Audubon, and Blue Water

Baltimore. We found a legislative champion in 41 st District Delegate Malcolm Ruff, who worked

his heart out on behalf of our cause. Crucially, we won the support of Department of Natural

Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz, who testified in favor of our bill, as did the director of Mayor

Brandon Scott’s Office of Government Relations.

In the end, our bill passed overwhelmingly, and I was thrilled to be present when Governor Wes

Moore signed it into law earlier this month. But we need to be realistic. While House Bill 1358

represents a huge step forward, it falls short of our original legislative goals. When the law

takes effect one week from today, it will not immediately establish a new state park on this

land. Instead, the law initiates a process that we fully expect will lead to the eventual formation

of a state-city partnership for management of the park.

Unfortunately, legislators got cold feet when the Department of Legislative Services estimated

that building out a state park here could cost $20 million to $30 million. I like to point out that

building a public high school in Baltimore or its suburbs can easily cost $100 million – and so,

we’re talking about creating a public resource that will last for generations and serve an area

with a population of more than a million people, for less than one-third the cost of a single

school. But that’s an argument for another day.

So, what happens next? The bill calls on the state DNR and Baltimore Rec and Parks to do

several things: 1. Convene focus groups with community members and stakeholders that live or

work near the park. 2. Develop a list of priority needs and associated cost assessments for park

operations and improvements. 3. Establish a Stakeholder Advisory Committee to advise the

department and Baltimore City including at least one member of FOGFLP and at least six

members of park, environmental, historic preservation, and neighborhood organizations. 4. No

later than December 1, 2025, submit a report to the General Assembly on the scope and

funding needs of the new state park. The hope, of course, is that the result of all this will be a

recommendation that the state establish the state-city partnership park, and that the General

Assembly will do this during its 2026 session.

All this suggests that we are at the beginning of a long and unpredictable process, and while we

don’t control that process, we have high hopes for influencing it. To me, the most immediately

important piece of the bill is its third element: creating the Stakeholder Advisory Committee.

FOGFLP is guaranteed a seat on the committee, and we intend to maximize this opportunity.

After all, we are the experts on the park and its needs – more so than city Rec and Parks,

certainly more so than the state DNR. We have ideas about who should be on that committee,

and we have ideas for the future of the park. FOGFLP speaks for, cares for, and exists for

Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park and has done so for over 40 years. When it comes to the future of this

place, our voice must be heard, and it will be heard.

Before I leave you, I wanted to share some visual aids that offer a sense of where we see the

biggest needs for near-term upgrades to the park. We hope to do much more than what you’re

about to see in these slides, but even if this is all we accomplish, it will represent a tremendous


Where is the park? 

On the western edge of Baltimore, right where Interstate 70 terminates.

39° 18′ 23″ N, 76° 41′ 27″ W
39.306389, -76.690833

Contact Us

Mailing Address:

Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park
15 Benway Court
Catonsville, Md. 21228

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