Greenbelters Armed with Pumpkins Win 15-Year Battle for Forest

The pumpkin walk is an annual Greenbelt tradition that began with war.


Once again Greenbelters will hold their annual Pumpkin Festival, the spoils of a decade-and-a-half battle now culminating in a happy tradition.

Paul Downs had been traversing the Greenbelt, MD, woods since he was a young boy, building altars of blue jay feathers and golden pine needles to its beauty. His walk turned into a war, though, in 1987. 

Downs said he saw a story in the Thanksgiving edition of the Greenbelt News Review announcing a development proposal for his forest haven. And that was it.

"I had seen a relentless pillage of the Maryland rural areas turned to one development, after one strip mall, after one highway," Downs said. He feared the last of the Greenbelt forest was going to be leveled for residential housing.

There were less than 300 acres left of what had once been a teeming 800-acre forest, according to Downs.

He started putting ads in the paper, telling town folk to come out to the woods and see for themselves what they stood to lose to development. Downs believed residents might fight harder for the woods if they experienced it, rather than seeing it as merely a blueprint on paper.

In early 1988, the Committee to Save the Green Belt, which Downs now serves on as president, was formed with 20 to 30 members. Early leaders included Councilmember Rodney Roberts and current Greenbelt Forest Preserve Advisory Board Chair Ruth Kastner.

Right away forest advocates started taking heat. Citizens, and even some committee members, said they should compromise. But Downs wouldn't even consider a deal that involved meeting developers half-way through the downed trunks of leveled woodlands.

Roberts took the battle to City Council, proposing strategies for saving the forest, according to Downs.

Roberts, Downs and other committee members also held pumpkin walks and bird walks and every kind of event imaginable "to get citizens to be aware of the treasure within our midst," Downs said.

A court battle landed the contested woodlands into the City of Greenbelt's hands, and forest advocates breathed a short-lived sigh of relief. More than a decade-worth of battles still awaited them, Downs said.

Powerful people in the city had their own ideas on developing the land, from turning it into apartments for seniors to converting it to multiple ballfields, according to Downs.

He and fellow advocates continued to build citizen pressure to preserve the woods in perpetuity for future generations, and the annual carving party and pumpkin walk played a part.

For 15 years Downs and committee members took Greenbelters through the forest, introducing them to the woodlands that enveloped their green city. And on Oct. 27, 2003, they hit pay-dirt.

Whoops, cheers and applause broke out in Council chambers and spilled into the hallway when the Greenbelt City Council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance to put 225 acres of city land into two forest preserve areas, according to the Greenbelt News Review.

It's a victory that residents have celebrated each October since with the pumpkin walk, some not knowing why. Downs is concerned that there's a whole new generation of people who have moved here who don't know what it took to save the forest.

"The story if not left alive. We'll have to do it again," he said.

This year on Saturday, the committee has added a 5K zombie race to its festival offerings. Participants may run into one or two of the walking dead on their journey, but the trees — they'll be living. Later in the day, the traditional pumpkin carving and pumpkin walk will be held. 

Along the way, some festival-goers will simply enjoy the forest, but others will remember fondly the green knights who kept the woodlands safe so generations to come could still walk through them.

For event details take a look at the Pumpkin Festival schedule.

Doug Love October 25, 2012 at 12:21 PM
Beautifully written! What an honor to be considered a Green Knight! I'll be telling my puppy stories about it this weekend. And for the rest of you, I have some blood-curdling (or at least milk-curdling) stories to tell at the trailhead just after dark!
Sheila Maffay-Tuthill October 25, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Many thanks to Paul,Ruth, Rodney, Doug and all who led this fight! I attend the Pumpkin Festival every year with my family and wouldn't miss it. Thanks also to Allison Smith Bolten for keeping the Pumpkin Festival going!
Alan Turnbull October 26, 2012 at 11:43 AM
I remember, soon after moving into Greenbelt, going out one weekend on a guided walk in the woods that I’d seen posted in the News Review week after week. Rodney Roberts and his dogs led the way. The memories blur together, but I think that other members of the Committee to Save the Green Belt Doug Love and Yoni Siegel, and probably Paul, were there too. This may sound grandiose, but these people (and others I've forgotten, sorry!) will deserve thanks from generations to come, for having the foresight and commitment to get this land preserved as everything else around Greenbelt was being gobbled up. Time well spent, you guys!


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