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“The wildest place in Maryland” threatened by bike paths


FRIENDSVILLE, Md. — A proposal to expand a network of biking and hiking trails across western Maryland has sparked intense opposition among hikers, whitewater rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts who might otherwise applaud the idea.

And that’s because the project — pushed by two conservative Garrett County Republican lawmakers and a group called Garrett Trails — would route the permanent two-way lanes through the heart of the scenic Youghiogheny River.

Proponents — including Garrett Trails, a nonprofit run by resort, lodging, local government and other recreational business interests — say the Youghiogheny Canyon Trail would provide better public access to a beautiful Appalachian landscape and would boost the region’s struggling economy, especially once it is connected to the Great Allegheny Passage Railroad from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. Eventually, the Youghiogheny Trail would also connect to a planned eastern continental divide loop in western Maryland.

“I can’t kayak this river anymore – I’m past my peak to be able to enjoy it – but I would definitely like to hike this river, and I think a lot of people would,” said said Rob Hammond. Hammond, a security systems consultant, said that when he lived in Cleveland he used to run the Youghiogheny Rapids about once a month and came to love the area so much that he moved to Garrett County.

“It’s a public river,” he said, “and we should have access to it.”

Opponents say the proposal would violate a landmark 1968 Maryland law that led to the designation of the Youghiogheny (pronounced YOCK-uh-gain-ee) as the state’s only wild and scenic river. They also argue that building sustainable two-lane trails along the Yough, as the river is often known, for multitudes of visitors will inevitably destroy the pristine beauty that has survived until now, precisely because of its rugged nature. and isolated.

“I think it would have an economic impact because it would cross an incredible region. However, this incredible area would be forever changed,” said Eric Harder, the Youghiogheny River Keeper of the non-profit Mountain Watershed Association. “A wild and primitive place is a place inaccessible to normal human traffic.”

The debate comes as state and federal parks have struggled to manage huge crowds driven outdoors during the pandemic. And it took on added urgency after the Maryland General Assembly poured $4.7 million in project funding into the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) budget in what opponents say was a slick legislative maneuver by supporters of the project with little transparency or public comment.

“I have a lot of questions, and I feel like my biggest problem with this is misinformation or lack of information upfront,” said Molly Rikhye, who owns a property in the Valley of the River. river and voiced his opposition in a recent town. Hall. “It was just kind of gushing all over everyone at once.”

The controversy has also raised not only familiar questions about how to open up public access to natural resources while preserving them, but also questions about the meaning of terms such as “natural” or “primitive”.

“They went after the wildest place in Maryland,” said Steve Storck, former executive director of Garrett Trails who left the nonprofit in a dispute with its board of directors over the management of a trail in the Yough Corridor. “This is the problem.”

Storck also became his former employer’s biggest critic, saying Garrett Trails operated on behalf of businesses and local governments that would profit from the trail system without the transparency required by public entities.

Michael M. Dreisbach, chairman of the nonprofit’s board of directors, says it’s no secret that the organization has been pushing for trails in the Youghiogheny River for about 15 years.

“There’s nothing stopping a trail in the canyon of the Yough River, period,” said Dreisbach, who along with his wife owns the Savage River Lodge, a resort nestled in a state forest where cabins cost up to $315 a night. Besides the lodge, which was listed for sale for a while for $7.9 million, the Dreisbachs also own other businesses, including the Cornucopia Cafe in Grantsville. Dreisbach said several naysayers, such as rafting guides and owners, have a vested interest in keeping people out.

“And at this point, it’s almost a moot story because you’ve got just a few people who constantly oppose everything you do,” said Dreisbach, a self-proclaimed Blue Dog Democrat who’s also on the ballot this year for a seat. in the Senate of Maryland.

The Youghiogheny River is the only river in western Maryland that does not flow south – hence its Algonquin name meaning “stream flowing in a contrary direction”.

The river stretches 135 miles from its source on Backbone Mountain in West Virginia, plunging through steep rocky canyons for a 4-mile stretch in Maryland before emptying into the Monongahela River outside of Pittsburgh. Its course includes the largest waterfall in Maryland and winding whitewater rapids that are among the most challenging in the eastern United States.

Over the years, the Yough Valley has also supported logging and mining, including an old narrow-gauge railroad whose trail bed has largely been reclaimed by nature. Its forests are home to 15 plant species and 11 animal species which, according to the DNR, are considered threatened or endangered.

In 1968, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act—cosponsored by House Majority Leader Representative Steny H. Hoyer when he was a state senator—which initially listed five rivers. Eventually, the Youghiogheny became the first and only to receive the designation, with a portion between Miller’s Run and Friendsville gaining additional protection as a “wild river” in 1976. (Congress also considered adding the Yough to the Federal List of Wild and Scenic Rivers but not.)

By law, MNR has the responsibility to manage and protect the Yough, including sections where regulations require that its “primeval” natural state remain undisturbed and “inaccessible except by trail.”

But what constitutes a “path” is also key to the debate. Opponents of the Yough Canyon Trail argue that only a rudimentary walking trail meets the intent of the law; proponents say a sustainable pathway — perhaps gravelled and able to accommodate two-way traffic for bikes, hikers and maybe even wheelchairs — would also qualify.

To that end, Senator George C. Edwards and Del. Wendell R. Beitzel — who secured funding for the Yough Trail after consulting with Garrett Trails — said the General Assembly Department of Legislative Services’ legal counsel advised them that the trail proposed by Garrett Trails would not violate the law. Both said the notice was not obtained in writing.

The two lawmakers recently called a town hall to explain their efforts to secure the $4.7 million in funding to build two trails from Sang Run to Kendall Trail and Swallow Falls to Sang Run.

About 60 people attended, all but three speaking out against the project.

“Personally, I’m all for the trails,” said Roger Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting who has been leading groups in the whitewaters of the river for 42 years. “I mountain bike, I hike, I do everything. But I’m definitely against a trail going up the wild and scenic corridor.

Others have argued that, especially at a time when climate change has shown the powerful impact of human activity on the environment, there should be places where crowds of people should not go. Some have suggested that preservation can bring its economic benefits. Several expressed hope that DNR secretary Jean Haddaway-Riccio would reject the Yough track like her predecessor, Joseph P. Gill, did in 2014.

Gill, in a letter dated June 12, 2014, to Beitzel and Edwards, said Garrett Trails’ plan, which included large bridges, would damage Yough’s scenic canyon, violate its protective law, and likely go to the against other federal and state environmental regulations. laws.

Haddaway-Riccio, noting that neither the governor nor the DNR had requested the trail funds, suggested his agency would review the plan with great caution.

“We are not opposed to exploring and reviewing trail expansion in the area,” Haddaway-Riccio said in a statement provided by a DNR spokesperson, adding that the agency should also take into account the protected status of the river.

“The layout of the law, along with the challenges of the terrain, will likely result in the need to adjust the location of the pathways and develop design features that would work within this corridor or to seek solutions for these pathways outside of the corridor. “, she said.

Tougher, the Youghiogheny River Guardian, said a new hiking and biking trail that extends western Maryland’s largest network but passes outside of Yough’s Canyon would be the way to go.

“We’re not anti-trail — we actually run our own bike path,” Harder said. “We just think it’s not the right place for it.”