After more than a decade of trying, the state has struck a deal to acquire the last large tract still in private hands along its premier stretch of whitewater river.
The $2.7 million contract to purchase 783 acres on the wild and scenic portion of the Youghiogheny River in Western Maryland is scheduled to go before the Board of Public Works today.
If approved as expected, the acquisition will substantially complete the state's program of preserving one of the nation's most famous stretches of whitewater. The upper "Yough" (pronounced YOCK), as the river is known, draws expert rafters and paddlers from around the country to its churning, rocky rapids in Garrett County.
Del. George C. Edwards said the property is the "gateway" to the whitewater part of the river.
"It is one of the most unique resources the state has," the Garrett County Republican said. "I don't know that you can find anything like it east of the Mississippi."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening said that with the purchase, the state will have acquired 4,300 of the 4,700 acres along the portion of the river designated by government as "wild and scenic." The rugged, forested property runs along both sides of the river between Sang Run and Friendsville.
Glendening said the state needs to protect "the full experience" of the river. "You do not want to be rafting past a bunch of motels, fast food restaurants and private homes," he said.
The purchase is the latest in his administration's efforts to acquire large tracts in scenic and environmentally sensitive areas.
Among the best-known are 4,700 acres of land and water at Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, which the state agreed to buy for $7.8 million; Chapman's Landing in Charles County, purchased for $25.3 million; and 58,000 acres of Eastern Shore forest and wetlands acquired from Chesapeake Forest Products Co. for $33 million.
State officials have been attempting for more than a decade to acquire property along the Upper Youghiogheny to forestall development and protect the stream from environmental degradation.
Michael Nelson, director of land and water conservation for the Department of Natural Resources, said the tract provides critical habitat for several endangered species. Rare animals include North America's largest salamander, the hellbender, and its cousin the green salamander. Endangered plants include the smooth rose.
The contract calls for the state to buy the property from the Frantz family for $3,500 an acre and to sell the Frantzes 290 acres elsewhere in the county. Nelson said the price reflects the environmental sensitivity of the area.
"They did drive a good bargain, but it is consistent with the price we have paid to acquire other properties along the river," Nelson said.
He said said one reason the family sold is that it did not want to be perceived as unfriendly to the environment. "They really are trying to do the right thing here," Nelson said.
Frantz family members declined to discuss the purchase.
The agreement could help ease tension between local landholders and the whitewater companies that have become a crucial component of Garrett County's tourism industry.
The state's decision in the 1970s to designate the Youghiogheny as wild and scenic -- and to restrict how adjoining private property could be used -- sparked fierce resentment among longtime residents.
The Frantz family is one of several along the river that have depended on timbering in the rugged gorge for income. Environmentalists and rafting companies have frequently complained that local landholders were cutting trees too close to the river's banks.
Roger Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting Expeditions in Friendsville, said the Frantzes have had a tense relationship with boaters and fishermen.
"They really have not wanted anybody to go onto their land," said Zbel, who called the state's purchase "a huge step in the right direction."
John Surrick, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said the state's plans call for little development except improvement to access points at both ends of the whitewater stretch.
"The goal is to keep the wild portion of the river wild," he said.
Persuading local families to sell their land to the state has been arduous process, complicated by some residents' suspicions of state government.
"The families in this corridor are very protective of their property. They are a conservative lot," Nelson said.
Land acquisitions by the state are controversial in the county, where residents contend that the state owns far too much land.
Edwards said the purchases along the Youghiogheny have the support of the Garrett County commissioners. He noted that whitewater rafting has become an important contributor to the county's tourism industry, especially around Friendsville.