Advocates hopeful but wary about park plans

Initial issues with trail work raise concerns as Baltimore County charts Oregon Ridge Park future

By Christine Condon

Ralph Brown, left, president of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council, and Keith Rosenstiel, a park enthusiast, near the beginning of the orange trail. They have concerns about the trail work the county has started. Lloyd Fox/Staff

During daily hikes traversing Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville, Keith Rosenstiel often passes by the painful reminders.

The invasive grasses and vines choking the forest. The areas cleared for a gas pipeline. The grove of trees painted with bright colors for an art installation, despite the potential for ill effects. The trail that winds its way onto the banks of a stream four different times, forcing hikers to cross without a bridge.

To him, each is a reason to be wary of the park’s management by Baltimore County, which purchased the land for the nature park in 1969. “This whole park is a testament to 50 years — a half-century — of the county’s abject neglect,” Rosenstiel said.

Rosenstiel and other advocates for Oregon Ridge were encouraged, however, when the county recently unveiled a 20-year master plan for the 1,043-acre park, which calls for revamped hiking trails and invasive species management.

The plan was forged in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which ballooned the number of visitors at Oregon Ridge, and began with an influx of $10 million in county and state funds for the park, said Bob Smith, the director of Baltimore County Recreation and Parks since May.

The idea was to be thoughtful about what to do with the new funding, Smith said, and “not just say: ‘Well, we have money. I want to do a playground.’ Or: ‘So-and-so wants to do a ball diamond.’ Let’s engage the public.”

The master plan that emerged, following numerous public meetings and focus groups, argued the hiking trails should be a priority, and the county already has retained a contractor to develop a new comprehensive plan for Oregon Ridge’s aging but popular paths.

But the plan’s recommendations go well beyond that — and far into the future.

The rustic lodge, constructed in the 1960s off Beaver Dam Road for a short-lived tenure as a ski lodge at the foot of the park’s modest slope, would be rebuilt into a modern community center — better for the county meetings and community events it now hosts.

A new nature center would be built on the banks of the park’s Quarry Lake, formerly a stone-mining operation and then a swimming area. The existing nature center, a squat structure built in 1983 tucked in a “hidden corner of the park,” would become a storage area.

Those big-ticket upgrades are distant — and still unfunded — but the county is beginning to address the lower-hanging fruit.

Thus far, $200,000 has been spent on largely cosmetic improvements for the park, county spokesperson Erica Palmisano said, such as repainting the nature center, resurfacing a playground and renovating the band shell, which hosts summertime concerts.

But some of the county’s initial work also has worried park advocates, namely a few projects meant to repair failing sections of trail while a big-picture plan is mapped out.

To repair one trail, a contractor hired by the county drove a bulldozer into the forest, amputating tree roots along the way, before workers at the nature center noticed the destruction and brought the work to a halt, Rosenstiel said. Now, the trail is closed and fences have been installed to stabilize the soil on the damaged hillside.

On another nearby trail, the county’s contractor built a new wooden staircase into a hill beside the lake, with waist-high walls that advocates worry will erode quickly in rainy weather, leaving the new pathway vulnerable to cascading stormwater.

The poorly conceived trail work has shaken the faith of park advocates, said Ralph Brown, president of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council.

“On one side I’m very optimistic. On the other side it’s like: Oh, my God, can the county really do this? The master plan is like the Constitution,” said Brown, a retired pediatrician. “The Constitution says all men are created equal, but that doesn’t actually translate into reality.”

For his part, Smith said the trail work snafus shouldn’t dull the optimism behind the master plan. He said that, due to a miscommunication, the construction work went to an on-call landscaping contractor, without hiking trail expertise. The county is working to improve its procurement procedures, he added, so that nothing like it happens again.

“Unfortunately, will mistakes happen? Yeah, sure. I’m not naive enough to know that $10 million invested in a 1,100-acre park — that there’s not going to be something that maybe doesn’t go the way that we want it to,” Smith said. “We’re just going to keep working to be better at it.”

For now, the county is halting work on the trails, and leaving the rest up to the new consultant, Smith said.

It’s the latest vexing event in the park’s saga, which includes some troubling developments in recent years, Rosenstiel said.

Last year, some park advocates thought their worst fears were being realized when it came to light that the county was in talks with a private company to set up a for-profit zip line course at Oregon Ridge.

After fierce backlash, the plans — put forward by former county parks director Roslyn Johnson — were scrapped.

But the idea cast a shadow on the master plan, worrying advocates who feared Oregon Ridge could become something closer to an adventure park, rather than a natural refuge from the suburban bustle of the York Road corridor.

Rosenstiel was ultimately relieved to read the final plan. On top of rethought hiking areas and rebuilt facilities, the plan called for the county to hire a natural resources manager, who could address the park’s struggles with invasive plant species.

The problem may have been heightened by logging activities, which removed aged oaks from Oregon Ridge in an effort to regenerate the oak forest.

A relatively unchecked deer population disrupted that plan.

The deer roam the park, munching on acorns that otherwise could have become saplings and eventually full-grown native oak trees — critical habitat for local birds and other critters. And where the native species failed to regrow, invasive opportunists encroached, such as Japanese barberry, stiltgrass and tree of heaven.

The county parks system has begun its effort to hire a natural resources manager, Smith said. But it’s possible that person — at least to start — might focus on additional parks in the county system.

“With that being said, this is our largest natural park, and it will be the primary focus,” Smith said.

When it comes to rebuilding the trust of park advocates, county officials know there’s work to be done, Smith said.

“There had been a history here,” Smith said. “I’ll be blunt, that the Nature Council and some of the stakeholder groups around here had felt not supported by the county in the past, and there’d been some projects that the county did here that maybe weren’t aligned with what those stakeholder groups thought should occur.”

The county hopes the master plan will help repair the relationship, but the plan didn’t satisfy every park user.

Joanna Sales, head coach of the North Baltimore County Copperheads youth mountain biking team, said her young riders use an empty field at Oregon Ridge to practice their basic skills. But they aren’t allowed to use any of the park’s forested trails.

She proposed to the master plan writers that a separate trail be created for beginning riders and families to develop their skills.

“I don’t want to be on their trails,” Sales said of the hiking trails, “but we were asking for them to build something in an undeveloped portion of their property that would be suitable for kids to safely get out of their car, park and ride on.”

She said central Baltimore County is really underserved for mountain bikers. The city-owned Loch Raven Reservoir is the nearest option, but many trails there are illegal for mountain bikers and there’s inadequate signage, few parking areas and trailheads that often start along busy roads such as Dulaney Valley Road.

But park advocates worried about trail damage seemed to have the loudest megaphone during the master planning process, Sales said.

For Brown, the master plan’s focus on rebuilding the park’s natural woods is a blessing, but he remains worried.

He often thinks about a monument at the site of Okjokull, Iceland’s first glacier to melt away amid warming temperatures. It reads: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Maybe a sign like that should be installed in the forests of Oregon Ridge, Brown said.

“I’m not going to see a lot of it in my lifetime,” the 78-year-old said as he traversed one of the park’s trails, walking stick in hand. “But the future will know whether we did it or not.”