Of all the difficult questions children have asked Crellin Elementary School Principal Dana McCauley, this one about a stream behind her Garrett County, Maryland, school has proved the most fruitful: “Why is that water orange?”
The answer, she would later learn, was acid leaking from an abandoned coal company site. But understanding the source of the discolored water was just the beginning.
McCauley and her staff saw in the then-state-owned property a sow’s ear that could be turned into a silk purse. In 2004 they worked with the state of Maryland and the community to clean up the creek and soil, acquire the property, and build groundwater treatment ponds and walkways. Today, the water flows clear and the school’s five-and-a-half acre outdoor learning laboratory—where students study wetlands, stock the creek with trout they have raised, and tend chickens, goats, sheep and a garden on their own farm—is nationally recognized.
“It’s opened a whole new door for what we can teach the kids,” McCauley says.
She and others in Garrett County are increasingly taking advantage of the area’s natural beauty and resources to bolster education, environmental health and well-being, physical activity and community cohesion.
For example, reclamation efforts involving state, federal and private entities have revitalized the north branch of the Potomac River, which draws the border between Garrett County and West Virginia. Twenty-five years ago, it was declared “dead” because of acid drainage.
“Everybody worked together to clean it up,” says Mike Dreisbach, president of the nonprofit Garrett Trails and owner of Savage River Lodge in northeastern Garrett County. “Today it’s one of the best trout fisheries on the East Coast.”
Ironically, though, in this county whose lakes, parks and streams draw droves of outdoor-activity enthusiasts, about one-third of residents lack access to places where they can be physically active. Focus group participants in the county’s 2016 health needs assessment said even the few dollars it costs to visit a state park is an obstacle for some.
The county listened and responded. “We’re encouraging people to use natural resources that are free,” says John Corbin, public affairs specialist for Garrett County Health Department.
To make outdoor recreation and fitness more accessible to all, Garrett Trails is working to complete the Eastern Continental Divide Loop. The series of multi-use, multi-surface trails will connect Garrett County’s 76,000 acres of parks, lakes and forests with towns such as Grantsville, Oakland, Loch Lynn Heights and Deer Park. Local governments are working on plans to build sidewalks and recreational trails, linking historic sites, low-income housing and town centers.