Garrett Trails addresses Yough 'spirited discussion'

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Jul. 15—FRIENDSVILLE, Md. — While a new statement addresses concerns about future public input regarding proposed trails in protected portions of the Youghiogheny River, a question remains as to how $4.7 million in funding was allocated for the project without a plan or community involvement.

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, via the Department of Natural Resources budget, $4 million, which was modified from an earlier $1 million listing, for the Youghiogheny River Trail Section 3 from Sang Run to the Kendall trail in Garrett County.

The Cumberland Times-News in May contacted Garrett Trails to ask if it had any connection to the situation.

Wednesday, for the first time, the organization's board of directors provided the newspaper a statement.

"Recent allocation of funding to (DNR) for the planning and development of a portion of the proposed Eastern Continental Divide Loop has generated spirited discussion about this conceptual trail network," it stated.

"As long-time supporters of the ECDL concept, the Garrett Trails Board of Directors understands and shares many of the concerns we have heard and are pleased to be able to contribute to the conversation following the completion of our largest annual fundraiser, the Garrett County Gran Fondo," it said of the event last month. "The GCGF is the source of the funds that we contribute to local trail building initiatives like the new Mosser Road Heritage Trail connecting McHenry to Garrett College."

The organization's president, Mike Dreisbach, in a Times-News interview earlier this month, answered a few questions after the newspaper requested its annual budgets.

The financial documents, as well as the Garrett Trails meeting minutes, are not posted on the organization's website.

"Garrett Trails is a private nonprofit organization composed of volunteers who live and work in Garrett County," the recent statement read, and added the group employs one paid staff member, is served by an advisory board and works cooperatively with government agencies to advocate for the interests of Garrett County residents.

"Since 2008, Garrett Trails has promoted the ECDL concept, a proposed 150-mile loop trail through Garrett County, Maryland," it stated. "This trail will connect Maryland's largest wild forests with state parks, population centers, and ultimately the Great Allegheny Passage to the north. The proposed loop will use some existing trails and establish new ones, and Garrett Trails is working with both public partners and cooperating private landowners to identify appropriate routes for the trail."

The loop and its connected trail systems would provide "a variety of trail experiences for hikers, bikers, equestrians, cross-country skiers, and other user groups," it stated of sections of road, single track and multi-use trails.

"Some trail sections will provide more accessible experiences, while others will be more rugged backcountry trails," it stated. "While the Meadow Mountain section of the ECDL is near completion, connecting Grantsville to Bittinger, much of the loop remains conceptual. Each section will require further funding and analysis to resolve the final route and character of the trail."

In the 2022 legislative session Sen. George Edwards and Del. Beitzel secured funds for DNR to explore "sustainable access to public land along the Youghiogheny River from Sang Run State Park to Friendsville using portions of the existing C&O rail corridor," it stated.

The statement also said Garrett Trails is aware of a recent trail proposal submitted to DNR "by a local resident" advocating for bridges and a rail trail style gravel path from Sang Run to Friendsville.

While the proposal references information from a 2011 feasibility study commissioned by Garrett Trails, "we want our community to know that we support the combination of a professional analysis from the DNR and feedback from the public to decide the final characteristics of any trail on DNR owned property," it stated.

"We welcome the participation and feedback of other organizations and the public in the design and development of the ECDL and look forward to working together to create a trail network that respects our unique natural resources, responds to the needs of our communities, and makes Garrett County an even better place to live, work, and play."

Josh Spiker, the organization's executive director, said via email "the board does not have any further information about ECDL funding at this time, but will share relevant information as it becomes available to them."

'Doesn't answer the questions'

Steve Storck owns land in the Youghiogheny Wild River Corridor, and has worked in the outdoor recreation industry across the country for more than 30 years.

He is the "local resident" Garrett Trails mentioned.

Storck said he submitted a proposal to DNR to share what information he had, prevent wasteful spending of public funds, and allow citizens to review the plan.

On Thursday, Storck said he appreciated that Garrett Trails issued the statement and the organization agreed the process of the proposed trail must include public input.

However, he was disappointed the group did not share whatever input it had in the allocation of the $4.7 million.

"It doesn't answer the questions," Storck said of the statement.

"Ultimately, the secretary of DNR has control," he said.

"I recognize trail development, people like being next to the water," Storck said and added there are "great opportunities" to allow folks to access the Youghiogheny.

In a best scenario, the $4.7 million would be reallocated for legal trail projects in Garrett County that wouldn't impact the wild Yough and the community would be involved in the process, he said.

"The wild will stay wild as it is today ... and primitive trails might be managed," he said. "And I'd love to see illegal ATV activities end."

In response to the organization's statement, Friendsville resident John Bambacus, a former state senator and mayor of Frostburg, said Garrett Trails has "an obligation to be forthright and forthcoming."

Garrett Trails has done a good job on past projects, he said.

But the group advocates for trails that were rejected in 2014 by the DNR secretary at that time, Bambacus said.

"Garrett Trails knew that and the delegation knew that as well," he said. "You've got to let citizens take part in the process."

Trails are important in a rural area, Bambacus said.

"They're an important part of our economy here," he said. "Just not in the wild section."

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