Western Maryland town comes out against bike trail project by Youghiogheny River

The town of Friendsville has declared its opposition to building a durable bike trail through one of the most pristine areas of the Youghiogheny River, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a controversial project that had already lined up millions in state funding.

Friendsville Mayor Spencer R. Schlosnagle and its town council urged state lawmakers to consider an alternative route that would keep the funds in Garrett County but avoid a stretch of the river that has been designated wild and scenic since 1976.


“We cannot in good faith destroy this wilderness area which is unlike any other to be found,” Schlosnagle wrote.

Friendsville’s letter caught supporters of the bike trail off guard, with some saying the town has done a turnabout.


“I’m extremely disappointed that the Town Council would take that kind of action,” said Wendell R. Beitzel, a former Maryland state delegate who worked to line up $4.7 million for the project.

“For my opinion, it shows there’s a lack of foresight and leadership on behalf of the town,” Beitzel said. “I think we provided an opportunity for them to have a meaningful access trail for people to be able to see and access that wonderful resource that the state has.”

The Youghiogheny River in the Youghiogheny Wild River Scenic Corridor protected area is seen on Aug. 8, 2022, in Friendsville. A proposal to expand a network of biking and hiking trails through Western Maryland has triggered intense opposition among hikers, whitewater rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts who might otherwise cheer the idea.

Friendsville’s declaration comes as opponents of the Youghiogheny (pronounced “YOCK-uh-gain-ee”) project — including whitewater aficionados beyond the region who prize the Yock’s swift and twisty rapids — feel momentum shifting following the election of Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat. Opponents have also been cheered by Moore’s nomination of Josh Kurtz to head the Department of Natural Resources, which is charged with managing and protecting the scenic river. Kurtz previously served as Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the bay’s watershed.

“The mood kind of changed after the election,” said John N. Bambacus, a former state senator for Allegheny and Garrett counties who has long fought to protect the river canyon. “This is the first time any elected body — and I might add, unanimously — has taken a position against developing the wild corridor. That’s the significance of it. We were hopeful that they would come around, and they just came around.”

Opposition has also coalesced among rafters, kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts. American Whitewater Journal issued a staff statement in its winter 2023 edition saying they generally like hiking and biking trails — not least when needed to lug a kayak out — but the upper Yock was not the spot for such a project.

Opposition to the trails project stiffened last year after the Maryland General Assembly set aside funds for the DNR to begin planning the trail in a section that is protected by state laws and regulations intended to preserve its primitive nature.

Backers, led by the nonprofit Garrett Trails, said a hiking and biking trail would provide greater public access to one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most wild and beautiful spots — but that’s exactly what alarmed opponents. They argued that constructing a two-lane, gravel-strewn trail in the canyon, along with two bridges, would mar the landscape, threaten endangered plant and wildlife species and bring crowds that would destroy what makes the setting so special.

The Youghiogheny River in Western Maryland.

“Once you go through there and disrupt nature, you can’t go back,” Friendsville Town Council president Pamela S. Humberson said. She said that Garrett Trails and the two lawmakers who lined up the money last year — Beitzel and former state Sen. George Edwards — had not done a good job informing the town’s leaders or the public about what they were up to. She said all six council members, including her, were unanimous in their support of Schlosnagle’s letter.


Edwards said Friendsville’s leadership had shown support for the idea in the past and accused opponents of spreading misinformation, saying nothing in the plan would violate the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act or its regulations that protect that section of the river. “Contrary to what some of the opponents say, there is nothing in the wild river law that says you can’t put in a trail,” Edwards said.

The Evening Sun


Get your evening news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the

Michael M. Dreisbach, Garrett Trails’ president, said he hadn’t seen the Friendsville letter and declined to comment.

The mayor’s letter — which was dated Feb. 16 and addressed to Sen. Mike McKay and Del. Jim Hinebaugh Jr., both Republicans representing Western Maryland — acknowledges that the town had been open to exploring the possibility of creating a trail between Friendsville and Sang Run that would conform to state regulations in the wild and scenic corridor; the trail would also eventually fit into a broader network envisioned for the region to include the Great Allegheny Passage Rail-Trail running from Cumberland to Pittsburgh and the planned Eastern Continental Loop Divide Trail in Western Maryland.

But as it became clear that the $4.7 million would be used to build a “high development” trail for two-way traffic, along with new bridges across the river, the town’s leadership decided the project clashed with the decades-old mission to preserve the river’s primitive nature, Schlosnagle’s letter says.

“So, I was kind of dumbfounded,” Schlosnagle said in an interview.

The letter — which Schlosnagle said he handed to Moore personally at an event in Annapolis last week — urges lawmakers and the DNR to use the trail funds set aside for the Youghiogheny River canyon for an alternative route that would run between Friendsville and Youghiogheny Lake and include a new bridge over existing bridge trestles.


The state parks agency is still evaluating how to use the $4.7 million, DNR spokesman Greg Bortz said.

“Any plan would adhere strictly to the provisions of the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act,” Bortz said in an email. He also said local officials and members of the public would be included in the planning process.