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The ‘wildest place in Maryland’ is under threat — from biking trails

The Youghiogheny River, seen Aug. 8 in Friendsville, Md., is the state’s only wild and scenic river. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

A proposal to expand a network of biking and hiking trails through Western Maryland has triggered intense opposition among hikers, white-water rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts who might otherwise cheer the idea.

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

Supporters — including the nonprofit Garrett Trails, an organization led by resort, lodging, local government and other recreational business interests — say the Youghiogheny canyon trail would bring greater public access to a gorgeous piece of Appalachian landscape and boost the region’s struggling economy, especially once it’s linked to the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail running from Cumberland, Md., to Pittsburgh. Eventually, the Youghiogheny trail would also connect to a planned Eastern Continental Divide Loop in Western Maryland.

“I can’t kayak that river anymore — I’m past my prime being able to enjoy that — but I would certainly enjoy hiking up and down that river, and I think a lot of people would,” said Rob Hammond. Hammond, a security systems consultant, said when he was living in Cleveland, he used to run the Youghiogheny rapids once a month or so and came to love the area so much he moved to Garrett County.

“This is a public river,” he said, “and we should have access to it.”

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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 durable two-lane trails along the Yough, as the river is often known, for multitudes of visitors will inevitably destroy the primitive beauty that has survived until now precisely because of its rugged, secluded nature.

“I feel that it would make an economic impact because it would go through an amazing area. However, that amazing area would be changed forever,” said Eric Harder, the nonprofit Mountain Watershed Association’s Youghiogheny Riverkeeper. “A wild and primitive place is somewhere that’s inaccessible to normal human traffic.”

The debate comes as the nation’s state and federal parks have strained to handle huge crowds driven outdoors during the pandemic. And it’s taken on additional urgency after the Maryland General Assembly tucked $4.7 million in project funding into the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) budget in what opponents say was deft legislative maneuvering by the project’s backers with little transparency or public comment.

“I have a lot of questions, and I feel like my biggest issue with this is the misinformation or lack of information from the get-go,” said Molly Rikhye, who owns property in the river valley and voiced her opposition at a recent town hall. “This was just kind of sprung on everybody all at once.”

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

“They’ve gone after the wildest place in Maryland,” said Steve Storck, a former executive director at Garrett Trails who left the nonprofit in a dispute with its executive board over running a trail through the Yough corridor. “That’s the issue.”

Storck has also become his former employer’s biggest critic, saying Garrett Trails has operated on behalf of businesses and local governments that would profit from the trail network without the requisite transparency that public entities require.

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

“There is nothing that precludes a trail in the Yough river canyon, period,” said Dreisbach, who with his wife owns the Savage River Lodge, a resort embedded inside state forest land where cabins go for as much as $315 a night. Besides the lodge, which was listed for sale for a time for $7.9 million, the Dreisbachs own other businesses, too, including the Cornucopia Cafe in Grantsville. Dreisbach said that, if anything, several opponents, such as rafting guides and property owners, have a vested interest in keeping people out.

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“And at this point, it’s almost a moot story anymore because you only got a couple people that are constantly opposed to everything you do,” said Dreisbach, a self-described Blue Dog Democrat who is on the ballot this year for a seat in the Maryland Senate.

The Youghiogheny River is the only Western Maryland river that doesn’t flow south — hence, its Algonkian name meaning “stream flowing in a contrary direction.”

The river runs 135 miles from its source on Backbone Mountain in West Virginia, dropping into steep rocky canyons over a four-mile stretch in Maryland before emptying into the Monongahela River outside Pittsburgh. Its course includes Maryland’s largest waterfall and twisting white-water rapids that rank among the most difficult in the eastern United States.

Over the years, the Yough valley also has supported logging and mining, including an old small-gauge railroad whose trail bed has been mostly reclaimed by nature. Its forests shelter 15 plant and 11 animal species that the DNR says are considered threatened or endangered.

In 1968, Maryland’s General Assembly passed the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act — co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) when he was a state senator — that initially listed five rivers. Eventually, the Youghiogheny became the first and only one to receive the designation, with a portion between Millers Run and Friendsville gaining further protection as a “wild river” in 1976. (Congress also considered adding the Yough to the federal roster of wild and scenic rivers but did not.)

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

But what constitutes a “trail” is also key to the debate. Opponents of the Yough canyon trail argue that only a rudimentary foot path fits within the law’s intent; supporters say a durable trail — perhaps covered with gravel and able to accommodate two-way traffic for bicycles, hikers and perhaps even wheelchairs — would qualify, too.

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

The two lawmakers, both Garrett County Republicans, also called a town hall earlier this month to explain their efforts to obtain the $4.7 million in funding to build two trails from Sang Run to Kendall Trail and from Swallow Falls to Sang Run.

About 60 people attended, all but three of whom spoke against the project.

“Personally, I’m for trails,” said Roger Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting, who’s been leading groups through the river’s white-water rapids for 42 years. “I mountain bike, I hike, I do it all. But I’m really against a trail going up in the wild and scenic corridor.”

Others argued that, especially at a time when climate change has shown the powerful impact of human activity on the environment, there ought to be places that crowds of people shouldn’t go. Some suggested that preservation can bring its economic benefits. Several expressed hope that DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio would reject the Yough trail as her predecessor, Joseph P. Gill, did in 2014.

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

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Haddaway-Riccio, noting that neither the governor nor the DNR had requested the trail funds, suggested that her agency would take a very cautious look at the plan.

“We are not opposed to exploring and considering expansion of trails in the region,” Haddaway-Riccio said in a statement provided by a DNR spokesman, adding that the agency would also have to take into account the river’s protected status.

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

Harder, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, said a new biking and hiking trail that extends the larger Western Maryland network but runs outside the Yough canyon would be the way to go.

“We’re not anti-trail — we actually manage our own bike trail,” Harder said. “We just think this is the wrong location for it.”

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