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Potomac River Sojourn: An Island Dream

The Potomac River is the nation's river. George Washington had his home here and lobbied to have the capital city on its shores. The river flows through four East Coast states and Washington, DC on its way into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America.

In a journey by boat on the Potomac, VOA's Rosanne Skirble visits the largest island on the river, an island protected from future development by a special legal agreement between landowners and a conservation group.

Neal Brown owns an island on the Potomac. And not just any old island. Harrison Island, some 4 kilometers long and nearly 1 kilometer wide, is the largest island in the Potomac River watershed. "It's basically flat and fairly open. We have a ridge of trees going down the center of the island," he says. "And the whole perimeter of the island has hardwood trees. Some are probably 100 or years old or so. We have an old house in the center of the island and a couple of old barns. And the rest of the island is pretty much open with wild grass, wild weeds and corn and sunflower."

Neal Brown is a plumber, who with some friends and the help of a conservation group recently bought Harrison Island. Meredith Lathbury is director of land protection for the Potomac Conservancy, an environmental group devoted to the protection of the Potomac River. Together they hold a legal land agreement that guards against future development.

Lathbury: "This program provides monetary and financial incentives by providing assistance for the restoration as well as permanent protection of these very sensitive lands."
Skirble: "How does it work for you as a group? What were the requirements (for the easement)?"
Brown: "In order to satisfy the program we're planting 101 acres (41 hectares) of trees over a three year period. We have to plant and maintain those trees for three years and after that nature takes its course. We are also rebuilding some wetlands. The southern part of the island has been put into a large wetland and breeding ground. We built a berm there so there's a breeding ground for ducks and geese."

Neal Brown and friends, all hunting buddies, planted 35,000 trees this year and expect to plant another 16,000 next year. They do all the restoration work themselves, which hasn't been easy considering there is no bridge to the mainland. "Everything that comes [on the island] has to come by boat," he says. "It is very difficult to bring equipment, tools and materials. You get out here and you start working, and when something breaks down you don't jump in your pickup and go to the repair show and get a part. That's the end of the work for the day. You go to your boat, get in your truck, go to the repair shop to come back to your boat to come to the island."

Meredith Lathbury says both groups the Potomac Conservancy and the landowners come out ahead. The owners retain the title to the property subject only to easement restrictions.

Lathbury: "The easement itself just really requires that the restoration Neal is doing now be retained through time. And it provides for some management of the forest and vegetation, so he needs to do that. But really it is intended that it stays this way once it has all grown up."
Brown: "The easements are for perpetuity. They stay with the island forever. Anyone who would buy the island has to honor those easements. It's good for the island. It's good for the river, and it's good for the wildlife."
Lathbury: "And so Neal and his group are leaving a legacy of hunting and wildlife management here that is very special and unique and the Potomac Conservancy works really hard to provide those tools for landowners who voluntarily want to participate."
Brown: "My dream is to see the island self-supporting. My son, who is now involved out here with me, (I hope) that he grows up and (will) teach his son how to hunt and farm out here on this island and enjoy life and the nature out here and pass it on to another generation after that. And that's the plan. We hope the island will stay in a wildlife preserve forever and ever."

Neal Brown says that Harrison Island has become his refuge and pastime. Instead of golfing, he now comes out to the island and works.

This is the third piece in a five-part series on the Potomac River, the waterway in the eastern United States that flows through four U.S. States and metropolitan Washington DC into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America. In a canoe trip down the river VOA's Rosanne Skirble explores the natural riches of the Potomac and the struggle to protect the land and water resources of the river in the face of population growth, sprawling development and pollution.