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Maryland opens a new state park, and OHV riders get first dibs

Maryland opens a new state park, and OHV riders get first dibs
An off-road vehicle makes its way along a muddy trail in Wolf Den Run State Park in an event organized last year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Off Highway Vehicle Alliance. (YouTube)

The way the Maryland Department of Natural Resources describes it, the 2,000-acre Wolf Den Run State Park in Garrett County is a nature-lover’s dream:

“The property comprises three distinct parcels, including approximately three miles of frontage on the Potomac River’s North Branch, three brook trout streams, mixed forest, and unique rocky bluffs rising 900 feet above the Potomac River. All three parcels include areas of rugged, mountainous terrain with numerous ephemeral streams, meadows, small tributaries, and wetlands.”

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If you like camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, birding or horseback riding, this new park, near the town of Kitzmiller and the West Virginia border, sounds idyllic. And there’s a bonus: The land is no longer mined for coal, and hundreds of its acres have turned green again. By purchasing it in 2017 with $3.67 million in federal funds and funds from Program Open Space, Maryland took another step into the great reforestation that has been underway in the eastern states for years.

But Wolf Den Run has not been set aside as a place of remote tranquility. It has been motorized. It is now Maryland’s only park for OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) enthusiasts. For a fee, they will be allowed to drive their two-, three- and four-wheel machines over many miles of trails. In fact, an area known as Huckleberry Rocks quietly opened for them this month, with 12.5 miles of trails, half of which can accommodate vehicles such as Jeeps.

The Maryland Park Service’s description of Huckleberry Rocks comes with prose fit for amusement park rides: “The Wallow is a string of seasonally-filled depressions. You will get wet! ... Race Track is a former competitive course. Test yourself and your machine.”

While the state insists that Wolf Den Run will be for all traditional users, and the trails for “shared use,” OHV riders appear to have first dibs. James Ratino, president of the Maryland OHV Alliance, says he hopes all three parcels of the property will eventually have OHV trails.

In fact, they already do. The land has an OHV history. A report prepared for the state last year by an outdoors consultancy, Applied Trails Research, found between 80 and 90 miles of OHV trails, including a motor-cross track and several criss-crossing race routes. “While this is rather high for a typical state park trail density,” the report said, “the vast majority of these trails exist in open corridors that have been utilized for recreational purposes following their industrial utility.”

The report says the “routes were never managed or developed for sustainability or water management.” Applied Trails Research found “significant erosion present in many locations” and warned that, without management, sediment flow and mine acid drainage will continue into the North Branch and its tributaries.

The Applied Trails report warned that “developing a trail system that is manageable will take years of time and effort” and “developing state park infrastructure, amenities and management capacity will also require significant capital.”

A member of the Maryland General Assembly raised that concern after he read the report and watched a YouTube video of Wolf Den produced by OHV enthusiasts.

“I am very concerned that DNR is an inadequate steward of this public property and should have a more substantive, long-term plan for its management and sustainable usage,” said Del. Stephen Lafferty of Baltimore County, a member of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. “Our committee has often heard about DNR's lack of resources, lack of rangers and police and how difficult it is to police the large, forested areas under its jurisdiction. From the video, it is clear that these heavy vehicles can, and do, cause substantial damage.”

Sen. Paul Pinsky of Montgomery County, chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, opposes OHVs in parks. “Parks should be reserved for hikers, birders and people who seek to explore a natural environment,” he said. “Opening up — or rather, selling out — public lands to motorized vehicles for thrill seeking does a disservice to the public and to efforts to protect open space.”

But Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County agreed with the park service that Wolf Den Run can be managed for OHV riders with minimal environmental impact. “My take is that we should make room in the parks for a wide range of uses, so long as each use is conducted in a manner consistent with the goals of environmental sustainability,” Luedtke wrote in an email. “Of course, what remains to be seen is how well the park service manages the land.”

Ratino, of the OHV alliance, points out that, with a change in state titling tax law that his group supported, DNR will receive up to $750,000 a year for maintaining and constructing trails. The revenue comes from sales of OHVs.

Eight years ago, the state closed three OHV trails in state forests due to environmental issues. While OHVs are allowed in part of the Savage River State Forest, Wolf Den Run will be the only state park with OHV trails.

I asked Ratino if dirt bikes and four-wheelers would make Wolf Den Run less hospitable to other park users. “OHV trails do not create an inhospitable trail to other users,” he replied. “The impact is no different than mountain bikers, horseback, or other people on a trail.”

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That’s an incredible statement, to say four-wheelers have no greater impact than hikers or horses, or that shared-use trails won’t present conflicts.

“Our park staff is working very hard to make this a model park for multi-use, with a unique focus on managing ORV recreation, while conserving the important natural resources identified on the property,” says Nita Settina, Maryland parks superintendent.

But, if all three parcels of Wolf Den Run are open to off-road vehicles, the state will have created a $3.67 million OHV park, and nature-lovers looking for a quiet hike through the Maryland woods will have to take that desire elsewhere.

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