Not long after World War II, when federal officials unveiled plans to turn the former Chesapeake and Ohio Canal into a highway to speed drivers from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C., Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was a voice in the wilderness. Douglas, an inveterate hiker and outdoorsman, thought the plan would destroy the natural beauty of the 185-mile canal and Potomac River corridor.
When The Washington Post editorialized in support of the highway plan in 1954, Douglas wrote to the man who wrote the editorial, inviting him to “take time off and come with me. We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched.”
The editor and dozens of others took Douglas up on the offer. Their multiday hike along the canal eventually led to passage of The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act in 1971.
Early this summer, Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn hatched the idea of kayaking the length of the Merrimack River, a 117-mile route from Franklin, New Hampshire, to Plum Island. Glenn wasn’t looking to save the waterway from a federal project, but he saw value in bringing attention to the river as an economic, environmental and recreational resource for the region. The Merrimack needs help to make it healthy again, after centuries as the sewer pipe for upstream cities and towns, and, more recently, infusions of untreated sewage after heavy storms.
As Glenn and seven others paddled on their second day of the trip, Aug. 8, Massachusetts officials were putting the spotlight on another big area of concern — growing traffic congestion throughout Greater Boston. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation report pointed out the obvious, that congestion is most severe in metro Boston, with frequent gridlock and unpredictable traffic flow.
As Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack put it, “The commonwealth has reached a tipping point with respect to congestion.”
Some people on social media urged state officials to get behind the wheel on a daily basis to live the life of a frustrated Greater Boston commuter. The idea is akin to Douglas inviting The Washington Post editorial writer to “take time off and come with me” to experience the canal and hiking trail firsthand, or to Glenn and others taking up paddles and meandering their way downriver.
The action Justice Douglas took in 1954 brought attention to a natural corridor that he and many others saw as a resource worth protecting and promoting. That attention, sustained over many years, eventually brought recognition to what is now a national historical park visited by thousands of hikers, campers and nature lovers each year.
The Merrimack River has always been an important resource for recreation and commercial interests, but the latest focus aims to rally forces and finances for essential upgrades of stormwater systems and treatment plants.
Those efforts will take years of attention, not just by the people who followed last week’s kayak trip down the Merrimack, but by countless more who embrace the river for the great resource it is, and should be.
The traffic congestion quagmire, brought into focus by the MassDOT report, is something experienced daily by thousands of commuters.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Stephanie Pollack probably don’t need to get behind the wheel at 6 a.m. to be stranded in traffic backed up on the Tobin Bridge to appreciate the stress and headaches felt by the region’s commuters. But there’s a lot to be said for walking the walk, paddling the river or driving the roads to understand the need for sustained efforts to solve big problems and to get things done.