Former senator: $4.7 million for Yough trails puts 'cart before the horse'

·6 min read

May 27—FRIENDSVILLE — What has changed since the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in 2014 rejected plans to develop trails along protected areas of the Youghiogheny River?

Some Garrett County residents are asking that and other questions, while an advocate for the trails believes the law will allow them.

Reasons

Eight years ago, Joseph Gill, DNR's secretary at the time, responded to a letter from Del. Wendell Beitzel and Sen. George Edwards requesting to develop a segment of the Eastern Continental Divide Loop Trail through the Youghiogheny Scenic Corridor.

"The policy of the state is to preserve and protect the natural values of these rivers, enhance their water quality, and fulfill vital conservation purposes by wise use of resources within their surrounding environment," Gill said. "We are unable to approve development of this area for numerous reasons."

Those grounds included reconstruction of an old rail line that would involve replacement of several bridges, environmental regulations that would preclude such construction and flooding along the river.

On Friday, Beitzel said he had his own "numerous reasons" to recently allocate $4.7 million in DNR's capital budget for proposed trails along protected sections of the Youghiogheny River in Garrett County.

More than two years of lockdowns caused by COVID-19 showed many folks were interested in outdoor recreation.

Before that happened, Beitzel, Sen. George Edwards and other Western Maryland delegates for years tried to convince state officials to review and expand uses and provide for maintenance on state parks and lands.

The goal was "to provide some economic opportunity and to provide more opportunities for outdoor recreation," Beitzel said.

Garrett County has the highest percentage of state land in Maryland, he said.

"But in a lot of these cases, you can't even access it," Beitzel said of areas including the wild and scenic corridors of the Youghiogheny River. "There's no trail at all, not even a primitive trail that goes all the way from Friendsville to Sang Run to Swallow Falls and into Oakland."

Project

Garrett Trails, which states it's "a nonprofit, volunteer organization," has been working on a plan to promote, expand and connect trails in the county, Beitzel said.

"Eventually (they) want to tie the Yough corridor trail into the Great Allegheny Passage trail," he said. "That would let people come in biking and hiking into Maryland."

The recently passed Great Maryland Outdoors Act addresses infrastructure, capacity and accessibility needs within the Maryland Park Service.

Meanwhile, federal money became available "to finally provide more funds for DNR," Beitzel said.

"The budget that was passed contains $4 million for development of the Yough trail for the portion of Friendsville to Sang Run, and an additional $700,000 ... to develop a trail from San Run to Swallow Falls," he said.

If the trails cannot be developed, the money will "go back into (DNR's) budget and they can request a repurpose for other uses or it will go back to the general fund," Beitzel said.

Protected

Maryland created the Scenic and Wild Rivers System by an act of the General Assembly in 1968, which "mandates the preservation and protection of natural values" associated with rivers designated as scenic and/or wild.

"Nothing has changed" in the law, Steve Storck, who owns land in the Youghiogheny Wild River Corridor and has worked in the outdoor recreation industry across the country for more than 30 years, said Friday.

Storck was also director of Garrett Trails in 2013.

He talked of other areas of the county that would benefit from trails.

"For me, this is the wrong plan," he said of development along protected sections of the Youghiogheny.

Beitzel said he was "absolutely" aware that the proposed development was in protected sections of the river.

"The intent is not to not let anybody at all walk (along) it," he said of the law.

"We have no desire to do anything other than to put a hike and bike trail up the old rail grade that was constructed and put up there years ago," Beitzel said.

Garrett Trails provided estimates for the cost of the trails construction project, which DNR will control and manage, he said.

DNR Media Relations Manager Gregg Bortz said no formal planning effort for the trails has begun.

"This budget item was not a DNR request, so we do not have further details on it," he said.

According to correspondence from Garrett County Administrator Kevin Null, county commissioners "had no prior knowledge that the request for funding had been submitted" by Beitzel and Edwards.

Opposition

Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun recently authored a commentary, "Leave the Yock, Maryland's officially 'wild' river, alone."

In it, he wrote "there's good reason the Maryland General Assembly decided, more than 50 years ago, that some of the state's remote areas needed to be left 'wild.'"

Beitzel, who plans to retire from office, commented on the piece.

"What I'm really surprised by is the outside opposition by the New York Times and The Baltimore Sun and the articles that they're writing, thinking that this is the only place in the world that nobody should be able to see, touch or go to," Beitzel said and added that tourist activity to the proposed trails would enhance economic status in Western Maryland.

"These people from the city want to come out here ... and enjoy it and we just wanted to give them a better opportunity to do that," he said.

"(But) people down east, they want to regulate us to death," Beitzel said.

"They shut down natural gas possibilities ... our paper mill is gone, our coal companies are gone and I've been fighting these issues in the General Assembly for 16 years," he said. "Truthfully, I'm getting tired of fighting."

He said he believes there's a way to create the trails and satisfy protective regulations.

"I'm hopeful we can come to terms with those people that are opposed to this," Beitzel said. "We just need to be doing things that are progressive and beneficial for job creation, too."

Friendsville resident John Bambacus, a former state senator and mayor of Frostburg, said a feasibility study should have been conducted, and other proper processes followed, before the money was allocated for the proposed trails.

"This is putting the cart before the horse ... and ignoring what the law says," he said Friday. "The public has a right to comment on it."

Messages left by the Cumberland Times-News for Edwards, Office of Outdoor Recreation Executive Director Daryl Anthony, and Garrett Trails were not returned as of Friday evening.

Teresa McMinn is the Digital Editor for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or tmcminn@times-news.com.