- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2001

There are very few places along the George Washington Memorial Parkway where the average citizen can actually get out on the Potomac River and enjoy the benefits of a cleaner river. Yet if the National Park Service has its way, public access to the tidal Potomac may be further reduced. That's because the park service is threatening to close Belle Haven Marina at the end of this year when the lease expires.

Parkway Superintendent Audrey Calhoun claims that they have done their best to keep the marina open but that a new law makes concession owners responsible for any and all capital improvements, including Belle Haven's deteriorating bulkheads, slips and electrical systems. What they don't say, however, is that they have known about the problems for years at the marina and have done very little to reverse the decline.

That's because the National Park Service now wants the marketplace to provide those public services that, it says, it cannot afford. This policy, however, does not favor small franchises like the Belle Haven Marina, which is now grappling with how to pay for the new docks, bulkheads and other safety improvements the park service says it must provide in order to get a new, long-term lease. Indeed, parkway officials readily admit that the new law will squeeze out all but the biggest franchises like Guest Services Inc. (GSI), whose local monopoly includes the Daingerfield Island Marina, Thompson's Boat House and the stables in Rock Creek Park and make it impossible for the Belle Havens of the National Park System to survive.

GSI, which operates 20 concessions in four local parks, including the George Washington Memorial Parkway, can easily raise the $4.5 million to dredge the river to keep its waterfront facilities at Daingerfield Island and Columbia Island connected to the river. In return, the park service has waived the franchise fees owed by all of GSI's local concessions until they can recover their capital investment. On the other hand, small Belle Haven Marina, which offers much more in the way of visitor services, and to a much broader segment of the community, can expect no federal support.

Something is very wrong with a policy that doesn't protect one of the parkway's recreational jewels. Where else on the upper tidal Potomac can you go to rent (or store) a kayak or a canoe so near to a rare tidal wetland? Where else can you also rent a sailboat or take sailing lessons? Where else can you also lease a slip, or store a boat on land, so you don't have to waste energy by pulling it back and forth to the river? (The marina leases about 70 slips and provides land storage for a similar number of boats, powered and non-powered, at affordable rates.) Where else on the parkway can a fisherman launch a vessel albeit for a small fee and be just minutes away from so many good fishing holes? No other concession along the entire George Washington Memorial Parkway offers, with so little fanfare and expense, such a variety of water-related recreational opportunities to the public, in a gentle way, so as not to harm important parkway resources, such as the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Refuge.

Belle Haven Marina should be saved precisely because of what it is not a big waterfront marina with a fancy restaurant, large parking area for users, gas pumps and high-cost slips. Rather than closing it, or cutting services like the storage of boats there, which helps prevent air pollution and congestion, the National Park Service and Congress need to address the real problem how to help sustain smaller concessions which do not have deep pockets and cannot easily raise large amounts of capital to upgrade all facilities at once. The irreplaceable public benefits of this small marina should not be lost because the park service's concession law is flawed and budgets are tight.

Perhaps if President Bush would fulfill his campaign promise to increase funding for our national parks, the park service would not need to close tiny Belle Haven Marina to help fix leaky sewers in Yellowstone Park or pay for metal safety barriers along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Andrew H. MacDonald lives in Alexandria.

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