The year was 1987 and a developer had a grandiose plan to replace 100 acres of the Great North Woods with residential buildings and streets, said Bob Zugby, chair of the Outstanding Citizen Selection Committee. At the Labor Day Festival that same year, Paul Downs asked the band Magpie to dedicate their song, The Land Knows You’re There, to those woods.
Flash forward 30 years to opening day of this year’s Festival when Downs accepted the Outstanding Citizen award for his environmental efforts to save what is now referred to as the Greenbelt Forest Preserve. “Now I feel like I’ve come full circle,” he said on Friday. “What started as this effort that I was told ‘would never work’ and ‘that the land would get developed,’ here we’re celebrating tonight my part in it. I feel like I need to pinch myself.”
Downs is the 45th winner of the town’s highly anticipated annual Outstanding Citizen award, which recognizes a person who exemplifies the Greenbelt tradition of volunteering and community service. As a co-founder and spokesperson for the Committee to Save the Green Belt, Downs organized citizen meetings, petition drives, guided forest walks, door-to-door campaigns and the very first Pumpkin Walk, said Zugby.
Downs said more specifically that he also has led bird walks, mushroom walks, flower walks and moonlit walks over the years in addition to hosting a booth at the Labor Day Festival. His committee battled proposals from developers for over a decade up until 2003, when the Greenbelt City Council voted unanimously to create a 225-acre forest preserve to protect the woods for generations to come, according to the preserve’s website.
“But he didn’t stop there in his efforts on behalf of our natural environment,” said Zugby. Downs continues to volunteer for Indian Creek, the Butterfly Brigade, the Greenbelt Forest Preserve Committee and Greenbelt’s Community Gardens. Downs is also known for his artistic sculptures created from sticks and stones that he finds in the Greenbelt woods. The sculptures have been exhibited in galleries throughout the area, said Zugby.
“He deserves it. He did an amazing thing. He changed the fabric of Greenbelt,” said Downs’ partner Susan Barnett, whom he refers to as “the first lady of the woods.”
Read more of this story in the September 7 News Review.