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Staff photo by EMILY BARNESJim Long, coordinator for the Mattawoman Watershed Society, gestures at his surroundings Tuesday as he talks about Mattawoman Creek during a group boat ride. The boat tours were held after a press conference in Mattingly Park in Indian Head to announce the creek's appearance on American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers list for 2009.
Tuesday's overcast sky with patches of sunlight was a fitting metaphor for the news that Mattawoman Creek made the No. 4 spot in a national conservation group's list of endangered rivers.
Presented by American Rivers, the 2009 list is a dark reminder of the fragility of an ecosystem, but it could be a catalyst for a collective change of mind when it comes to public policy.
"This is a very auspicious occasion, and an ignominious award," said Terry Cummings of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
A small crowd of creek supporters and media representatives gathered in the late morning at Mattingly Park in Indian Head to attend the outdoor press conference to recognize the tributary's appearance in the report.
Among those braving the wind and threat of rain was Jim Long, coordinator for the Mattawoman Creek Watershed Society, who criticized the notorious cross-county connector, which local creek advocates believe will harm the pristine waterway..
"Mattawoman Creek: Will it be preservation or renovation?" Long said.
Included in the county's transportation plans decades ago, the connector has only come into the spotlight in the past few years, when there was a renewed push for its completion.
The county commissioners' hope is to update the northern portion of Billingsley Road, and create a link between proposed economic developments in Bryans Road and Middletown Road in Waldorf.
The fate of the last three phases of the connector is undecided; the road requires state and federal approvals to be built.
"The purpose of the road is not to be a growth corridor," said Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) after a March meeting between the commissioners and environmental activists. "The environment is best served by building this road. If we don't do it, I cannot pledge that we'll be able to protect the creek."
Hodge's worry stemmed from the fear of privately built roads not following the environmental protections the county-approved connector would be required to follow.
Since news of the projected businesses, homes and traffic that would be a product of the road came to light, environmental groups and county residents have dug in to prevent the county from breaking ground.
"An overabundance of impervious surfaces kills rivers and creeks," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker. "This highway is not for moving people, it's for developing land."
Should the creek fall to the mercy of a construction site, the area stands to lose invaluable habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna, including largemouth bass, the focus of more than 100 tournaments held annually in the creeks waters, according to material handed out by creek advocates.
"This will be death by a thousand cuts." Baker said of the connector.
Currently the county is at a standstill for the next several months as it waits to hear a decision from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the federal Army Corps of Engineers regarding permits. The MDE will have an answer June 1, unless an extension is requested. The corps has not set a deadline.
The approaching deadline led to the nomination of Mattawoman Creek for the list of the country's most endangered rivers.
"One of our main criteria for nominations is whether there is a decision in the next year or so that could be affected by the listing," said American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder. "The list can hopefully be used to persuade decision makers to make the right choice."
The nomination and decision process stretches seven to eight months, Wodder said, and the nominees come from American Rivers' local partners across the country.
"The rivers come in all shapes and sizes. Wild, remote, others are in the heart of an area," Wodder said.
The organization's river experts and scientific advisory groups study the nominees to choose the top 10. While every report is different than the last, Wodder said some bodies of water do make it on the list multiple times. This is Mattawoman Creek's first appearance. But does the national recognition extend beyond a press conference? According to Wodder, the list is helpful in protecting the endangered rivers mentioned each year.
"The list doesn't always work, but the overall track record has been very good," Wodder said.
One such is example is the San Mateo Creek in California, which was in jeopardy of being destroyed by a toll-road proposal in 2007 and appeared shortly after in the American Rivers report.
A year later, a decision was passed down that was "the final nail in the coffin for the road," Wodder said.
So what of the Mattawoman Creek's fate? Wodder gives the issue "reasonable hope," with the help of the report. "This is such an immediate issue, it lends itself to a good, rapid decision," Wodder said.