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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Savoring the Yock, the wild and scenic river along ‘Maryland’s last frontier’ | COMMENTARY

The Youghiogheny River in western Maryland was designated for special protection as a "scenic and wild" river by the Maryland General Assembly.

I drive through counties — Howard, Harford, Anne Arundel, Carroll or Frederick — and I see earth movers tearing up the landscape and houses being built, and I think: If Baltimore was a better city, if more people wanted urban life, if there were affordable, detached single-family homes built on all the old vacant lots, the whole region would be better off: Baltimore would have a growing population and there would be more open space and woodlands in the suburbs.

I had these fantastical thoughts again the other day. I drove along a stretch of Old Court Road in Baltimore County that, last I journeyed there, was farmland, or it might have been woods or a meadow. I don’t recall exactly, but it was definitely not what I found — a paved street with half-acre lots for new homes.

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There was a sign posted by the builder, so I was able to locate details of the development: There will be 24 houses in a “quaint neighborhood” with easy access to the Beltway and Baltimore. The houses will come with four to seven bedrooms and start at $984,990.

Oh, happy day.

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Suburbanites fight to keep what’s left of open space or lower the density in proposed developments. Sometimes they win, but most land battles seem to go the developer’s way, if not immediately, then eventually. Every time I hear some local councilman or county executive mention controlled growth or smart growth, I look around and ask, “Where?”

According to the Census Bureau, Maryland’s population went from 5,773,552 in 2010 to 6,177,124 in 2020. During that time, Baltimore’s population fell, the suburbs grew. Greater affluence means bigger homes and expensive homes, especially in coveted places that somehow escaped the first waves of suburban development.

Such is life around metropolitan Baltimore. We’re used to seeing open spaces turned into a series of cul-de-sacs or shopping centers. Some find it depressing. Others cheer growth. Some just accept development as inevitable and keep their eyes on the road.

“Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia collectively developed an average of 33,000 acres of open land per year between 2009 and 2019,” reports the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Much of the loss — roughly 14,000 acres per year — occurs on farmland, though forests are also impacted.”

And so, given this metropolitan perspective — distress leavened with acceptance of the inevitable — I come again to a subject first reported in this column last May: An effort to establish a major hike-bike trail along Maryland’s only official “wild river,” the Youghiogheny in Garrett County.

This beautiful river is 190 miles from Towson — way out on the Western edge of the state. So what’s the connection?

Given what I just described — the increasingly crowded nature of metropolitan Baltimore — plus the growth of the Washington suburbs, the spreading development around Frederick and Maryland’s population trends generally, why would we want to ruin the last bit of “wild” with more human traffic?

Why don’t we leave the 21-mile Youghiogheny corridor, designated for special protection as “scenic and wild” by the Maryland General Assembly more than 50 years ago, just as it is?

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The state’s management plan for the Yock, published in 1996, clearly states that any lands purchased within the corridor “be left in their natural state in order to preserve the primitive undeveloped character of the river.”

There are unofficial trails along parts of the Yock; I’ve hiked some of them. If you ask around, you can find them. There are access points for hikers, birders, anglers and kayakers. Many visitors have been able to see a gorgeous stretch of the Yock from a trail through Swallow Falls State Park.

That should be enough.

But some people in Garrett County want more. They want to boost tourism and think a trail suitable for bikes, something like the NCR Trail north of Baltimore, is just what the Yock needs and the public desires.

So a couple of Garrett County politicians, Sen. George Edwards and Del. Wendell Beitzel, in what appears to be their final act before retirement from the legislature, managed to get fellow lawmakers to set aside $4.7 million for a trail system.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources did not ask for the funds. In fact, in 2014, the DNR secretary told Edwards and Beitzel that a trail was not suitable for the “scenic and wild” Yock.

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But, now that the money has been allocated, DNR is seeking a “pre-engineering report” of a trail system.

“We are not opposed to exploring and considering expansion of trails in the region,” the present DNR secretary, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, said in a statement published in the Cumberland Times-News. “However, trail development of this scope and size requires diligent and thoughtful planning processes.”

She said an engineering report would ensure that “any trail development considered in the corridor is fully consistent with law and regulations governing Wild and Scenic River designations.”

Still, the mere prospect of these trails has a bunch of people distressed and they are fighting to keep the corridor as wild as possible. “The Youghiogheny,” says John Bambacus, a former state senator from Frostburg, “is an ecological gem … and Garrett County is Maryland’s last frontier.”

Give the legislators who designated the Yock “scenic and wild” credit and respect. They saw what was coming to Maryland and wanted one place left “wild” for future generations. That’s us. We should be grateful, and leave it at that.


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