Former state trails coordinator: Development inappropriate for 'Maryland's only wild river'

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Jul. 28—FRIENDSVILLE, Md. — John Wilson recalled the first time he entered areas of the wild Youghiogheny River in Garrett County.

"It's so primitive ... I was almost ready for a dinosaur to come running out of the woods," he said. "There's simply not another place like it."

Today, Wilson, who spent more than 30 years working for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is concerned about potential development in protected sections of the Yough.

Senate Bill 291, signed in May by Gov. Larry Hogan, included a $700,000 grant to the Garrett County Board of Commissioners "for the acquisition, planning, design, construction, repair, renovation, reconstruction, site improvement, and capital equipping of capital improvements at Sang Run State Park at Youghiogheny River Trail Section 2 from Swallow Falls to Sang Run, including maintenance and repair projects."

The bill also allocated $4 million, which was modified from an earlier $1 million listing, into the DNR budget for the Youghiogheny River Trail Section 3 from Sang Run to the Kendall trail in Garrett County.

Funding for the proposed trails was "sort of buried within the overall state budget, which is a big document," Wilson said.

As the department's Scenic and Wild Rivers coordinator in the 1990s, he wrote the management plan for the Youghiogheny River.

Wilson, who retired roughly three years ago, was also the department's statewide trails coordinator.

Development of trails, including construction of bridges, are inappropriate for "Maryland's only wild river," and would be incompatible with the state's Scenic and Wild Rivers Act, he said.

He talked of the "wild" Yough's rare species, intact forests, and wetlands.

"It's just not a place where you want a developed trail," Wilson said.

He said there have been previous attempts to build trails in protected sections of the Yough, including in 2014 when he and other DNR staffers reviewed a proposal from Sen. George Edwards and Del. Wendell Beitzel.

That idea was rejected by Joseph Gill, DNR secretary at the time, who wrote, "We are unable to approve development of this area for numerous reasons."

Mark Belton, DNR secretary from 2015 to 2019, was also against the proposal, Wilson said.

"This was not an appropriate place," he said of the proposed development.

'Explore sustainable access'

Garrett Trails, which describes itself online as "a nonprofit, volunteer organization dedicated to the development of a well used network of high-quality, sustainable trails that provide access to Garrett County's historic, municipal, and environmental treasures," recently wrote on social media of the $4.7 million funding.

"In the spring 2022 legislative session Senator Edwards and Delegate Beitzel were successful in securing funds for the DNR to explore sustainable access to public land along the Youghiogheny River, as part of the Eastern Continental Divide Loop concept," the organization stated.

"Our role in that process was to respond to their request for a cost opinion about a trail from Oakland to Friendsville, and we consider it their responsibility to address questions about the legislative process," it stated.

Garrett Trails advocates for the Eastern Continental Divide Loop, "which is envisioned as a 150-mile hard-packed, multi-user trail through the heart of Garrett County that bridges the connections between existing trails, and also connects to larger trail networks outside the county," the group's website states.

"Over the years, we continuously told Garrett Trails this wasn't something DNR supported," Wilson said and added that local government leaders in the past have been made aware of proposals to develop protected areas of the Yough. "It wasn't a secret."

The wild section of the Yough offers a water trail, and is "rather unique in the country," Wilson said.

Fisherman, hunters and boaters use the Yough, he said.

"There's all kinds of access," Wilson said. "It's just the access to the wild section is limited as it should be."

There are better ways to spend $4.7 million, and a different trail would generate money as well as the one proposed for the protected sections of the river, he said.

A healthy recreation plan includes diversity, and overdevelopment should be avoided, Wilson said.

"Garrett County has more miles of trail than any other county in the state," he said. "It's not like they don't have a lot of trail access."

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