The Youghiogheny River, in Western Maryland, is considered a Scenic and Wild River by the Department of Natural Resources. A few years ago, I hiked along four tough miles of the river and learned firsthand to appreciate what that special designation means.
The Youghiogheny, or the Yock, flows for miles through Garrett County into Pennsylvania. The Maryland section, upstream of the town of Oakland to the town of Friendsville, is well known to white-water kayakers and rafters, visitors to Swallow Falls State Park and people who fish the Yock’s long pools and riffles.
I’ve been fishing the Yock for 30 years. Once upon a time, there was a narrow trail you could take through forest to access a long stretch of the river. That trail disappeared over time because the DNR stopped maintaining it, in accordance with the Yock’s long-standing designation as a Scenic and Wild River. The trail became blocked with fallen trees and heavy rhododendron bushes.
As a result, if an angler or hiker wanted to reach more of the Yock in that area, it became necessary to wade in the river or walk along its banks.
I did this with a fishing party of friends one September Sunday a few years ago. We had to wade or walk the rocky shoreline for most of the trek. The journey became much longer and harder than expected, and I was among those who griped about it.
But it was an amazing day.
There was no else around. The only sound came from the riffles and the occasional squawk of a blue jay or crow. There are a few places in Maryland that seem remote and wild, and the Yock is one. An act of the General Assembly in 1968 made it officially so.
Of course, tourism has become important to Garrett County’s economy, so it was not completely surprising for me to learn that $4.7 million has been allocated to build a system of trails along the Yock despite its protections under state law.
People who care about the river and its special designation pointed out two line items in DNR’s capital budget: There’s $700,000 to build a trail from Swallow Falls to an area known as Sang Run, and $4 million to build a trail from Sang Run to Friendsville.
What’s weird is that DNR did not ask for this money.
“We refer you to the legislative delegation as this project was not a DNR budget request, but was added by the legislature during the committee process,” said Gregg Bortz, department spokesman. “DNR has not begun any formal review or planning for this proposal, so as of now we do not have more information to provide.”
“The county is not involved in the project,” Kevin Null, the Garrett County administrator, told the Cumberland Times-News. “The commissioners did not request any funding.”
I made three attempts to reach George Edwards and Wendell Beitzel, the state senator and state delegate, respectively, who represent Garrett County, asking for comments, and received no replies.
I also did not hear back from Josh Spiker, executive director of the nonprofit Garrett Trails, the organization that appears to be most interested in seeing a new continuous trail running, eventually, all the way from Oakland to Friendsville. “The public should have access to public lands,” Spiker said during a recent interview on the Deep Creek Real Estate Facebook page.
But public access to a Scenic and Wild River was not meant to include a trail wide enough to accommodate bicycles, says Steve Storck, a vigilant land owner along the Yock. Such a project, he says, would “undermine the protections of the river corridor under the Maryland Scenic and Wild Rivers Act,” established to preserve the primitive qualities of the river and its adjacent lands. Storck says a trail eight to 10 feet wide was first proposed 20 years ago, but state officials have always opposed it.
That included Joseph Gill, who, as DNR secretary in 2014, wrote a letter to Edwards and Beitzel listing several reasons why the department opposed construction of a trail through the Yock corridor. Aside from the fact that the trail would be in conflict with the “wild river” designation, Gill cited several environmental reasons for leaving the land along the Yock alone.
“The state has a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and protect the Youghiogheny River,” says John Bambacus, a former state senator and mayor of Frostburg who opposes a new trail system.
Having frequently visited Garrett County, I can understand the desire for a long, mostly flat trail for hiking and biking similar to, say, the NCR Trail that runs along the Gunpowder River north of Baltimore.
But there’s good reason the Maryland General Assembly decided, more than 50 years ago, that some of the state’s remote areas needed to be left “wild.”
What’s “wild,” right? If you can hear a chain saw or an off-road vehicle growling in the distance, if there’s a road nearby, can an area really be considered “wild?”
Maybe not in the classic definition, but, given the ravages of 21st Century life, we need whatever “wild” we can get, and there’s not much left.
The state has 53 parks, 25 Natural Resources Management Areas and seven Natural Environment Areas. Maryland has seven rivers designated and protected as “scenic.” But it has only one river designated and protected as “wild,” and that’s the Yock.
Call me conservative: I say leave the Yock alone.