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Md. weighs private use of state forest in Garrett

GRANTSVILLE — GRANTSVILLE -- State officials are weighing two business ventures that would create badly needed jobs in Garrett County but also would require unusual private use of publicly owned forest.

In one venture, James Oberhaus, a Frostburg businessman and his partner, Patriot Mining Co. of Morgantown, W.Va., are seeking state approval for coal-mining deep underneath 498 acres in Potomac-Garrett State Forest in southern Garrett County.

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Mr. Oberhaus proposes leasing the tract from the state. In exchange, he would give Maryland a highly sought 216-acre tract next to Savage River State Forest in the northeastern part of the county, as well as mineral rights to another 2,800 acres in the forest and royalties from coal mined at the leased site.

In the other, unrelated venture, Michael Dreisbach, of Hagerstown, and Jan Russell, of State Line, Pa., want to build a $3.7 million lodge on a privately owned parcel within part of Savage River State Forest in the northeastern part of the county.

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Mr. Dreisbach and Ms. Russell want the state government to allow them a right of way to their acreage from a public road, saying they will widen and improve a 1.6-mile dirt road to the tract.

Backers for both projects say that, combined, the two new ventures could generate more than 100 jobs -- most of them with the mining venture -- and provide tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.

That is not small change in rural Garrett County, which is heavily dependent on tourist dollars.

So far, neither plan has prompted much public response. Property owners near Savage River State Forest, though, have raised concerns about lodge hunters trespassing on their land.

A public hearing on Mr. Oberhaus' coal-mining land-swap proposal is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. today at Garrett Community College in McHenry. Contractual arrangements for both projects must be approved by the state Board of Public Works in Annapolis.

The coal-swap would be a first for the state Department of Natural Resources, Deputy Assistant Secretary Mike Nelson has told forest advisory board members.

"We've never done this before," he said, "but we think there's enough positive benefits to bring it before you."

Mr. Nelson said the state has been eyeing the 216 acres -- called the Mount Hope tract -- it would gain in exchange for many years. The parcel also is being sought by developers because of its attractiveness and proximity to Interstate 68.

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Obtaining the mineral rights to the other 2,800 acres also would consolidate ownership of land rights for a large section of the forest, Mr. Nelson said. The state wants the mineral rights to protect the land and has no plans to do any coal mining. Mr. Nelson said there are other instances in which the state owns property rights, but not mineral rights, on public land.

Some advisory board members are voicing concern that drainage from any new mining could pollute nearby Laurel Run and other tributaries of the Potomac River.

But Mr. Oberhaus said deep mining the south-county site would have little or no environmental impact. The coal has a low-sulfur content and any drainage would be treated on a nearby site that is being mined now. The forest's surface would not be disturbed, he added.

Under Mr. Oberhaus' proposal, the state would receive a 3 percent royalty on the sale of coal mined from the leased site after the partners receive $927,000 in royalties. That figure is the estimated value of the Mount Hope tract and the mineral rights the state would receive under the proposal.

Mr. Oberhaus could not estimate the amount of profits the state might reap from the deal but did estimate that as much as 1.9 million tons of coal could be produced from the site.

"We really think this is an opportunity for the state to acquire some things they want, and it will let us do something as partners in business," Mr. Oberhaus said.

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Mr. Dreisbach and Ms. Russell initially wanted the state to help pay for $200,000 in road improvements to their 37-acre tract because the road would allow public access to the forest. But state officials said money is not available for such a project.

"It's a unique situation," said Patricia J. Manown, a DNR spokesman. "We've had homeowners ask to build a road through state land to private property but never a request from such a large commercial enterprise."

The 12,000-square foot lodge would serve as a training center for businesses that want to take advantage of a natural, outdoor setting. The 30-room lodge also would offer seminars in hunting, kayaking, canoeing and other outdoors sports and hobbies.

Several property owners next to the forest are raising concerns about visitors trespassing on their land. That, Mr. Dreisbach replies, would be an enforcement issue for park officials.


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