FROSTBURG — In the past, Francis Precht has taken his classes to study at Finzel Swamp preserve. A new addition to the area, however, might force him to consider an alternative plan for the spring semester.
Precht, geography professor at Frostburg State University, on Dec. 28 encountered a gate blocking entrance to the property.
“I tried again the following Saturday and the gate was again closed with ‘no trespassing’ and ‘private property’ signs posted,” he said via email.
He contacted The Nature Conservancy, which has owned the 326-acre preserve for five decades and allows the public to visit the site year-round during daylight hours.
“A window into ice ages past, Finzel Swamp is located in a frost pocket, an area where the surrounding hills capture moisture and cold air that conspire to create a landscape more reminiscent of habitat found much further north in Canada,” TNC’s website states.
That description is now preceded by a note to potential visitors to the site.
“It has been brought to our attention that a new neighbor has installed a gate that blocks access to the preserve. Please know that we are working diligently with legal services to determine how to best resolve this issue. We will continue to provide updates on this matter as we have them.”
The new neighbor, which owns the land where the gate is located, could not be reached for comment, and their attorney did not respond to an email from Cumberland Times-News that asked for details of the situation.
Deborah Landau, a TNC conservation ecologist, said the organization has a deeded right-of-way to the preserve.
The gate was recently opened, but there’s been no official agreement between its owners and TNC officials.
In addition to bird watchers and native plant enthusiasts, Finzel Swamp is frequently used by FSU and Garrett College professors.
In 2012, a group of FSU students installed a station at the preserve to monitor weather conditions in relation to water levels, and ultimately gather data on climate-change impacts to the area.
Landau said TNC has received many calls about the gate.
“Finzel Swamp is one of our most popular preserves,” she said. “People have picked blueberries at Finzel Swamp for generations (and) this is the first time in 50 years that access has been blocked.”
Kevin Dodge, director of the Natural Resources and Wildlife Technology program at Garrett College, said Finzel Swamp offers studies of various insects, birds and amphibians.
“It’s popular for class trips,” he said. “It’s a special place. It’s a real privilege to have this in our area.”
According to the National Audubon Society’s website, “Finzel Swamp Preserve, in the mountainous region of western Maryland, is a rare example of a mountain bog, a palustrine wetland with a relict forest community of tamarack, spruce, and alder.”
Finzel Swamp is a habitat typical of more northerly climates, the site states.
“Accordingly, it hosts a number of bird species near the southern edge of their geographical range and confined in Maryland to the boglands of Garrett County.”
Species that have bred at the swamp include the Sedge Wren, which is endangered in Maryland.
The Maryland Ornithological Society plans to hold its annual convention in Cumberland this year.
Jim Rapp, who helps with public relations for the convention, said 164 species, including Belted Kingfisher and common nighthawk, have been documented at Finzel Swamp in the month of May, which is when the upcoming convention will be held.
At that time, the group hopes to explore the preserve and see as many species as possible.
“Particularly the species of warbler, flycatcher, vireo and tanager that migrate to Finzel Swamp or through Finzel Swamp from southern wintering habitat on their way to spring and summer breeding territory,” Rapp said via email.
Finzel Swamp is one of 43 Important Bird Areas in Maryland, he said.
The Audubon IBA network represents the best habitats for at-risk birds as well as birds that are vulnerable to a wide range of threats, Rapp said.
“We hope this (gate) issue is resolved before the MOS convention so that our attendees can visit,” he said.