Questions remain over use of $4.7 million in DNR budget

·5 min read

Jul. 2—FRIENDSVILLE, Md. — As Maryland enters a new fiscal year this month, questions remain over millions of dollars in the Department of Natural Resources budget allocated for a proposed trail in the wild section of the Youghiogheny River.

Senate Bill 291, signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May, allocated $4 million, which was modified from an earlier $1 million listing, for the Youghiogheny River Trail Section 3 from Sang Run to the Kendall trail in Garrett County.

The bill also included a $700,000 grant to the Garrett County Board of Commissioners "for the acquisition, planning, design, construction, repair, renovation, reconstruction, site improvement, and capital equipping of capital improvements at Sang Run State Park at Youghiogheny River Trail Section 2 from Swallow Falls to Sang Run, including maintenance and repair projects."

While DNR didn't request the money, which entered the state budget via legislature, and timing of the allocation contradicts a typical trail planning process, a local group supports development of the Yough's wild and protected area.

'Credibility'

Mike Dreisbach is president of Garrett Trails.

According to the group's website, "Garrett Trails is a nonprofit, volunteer organization dedicated to the development of a well used network of high-quality, sustainable trails that provide access to Garrett County's historic, municipal, and environmental treasures. Garrett Trails believes outstanding trails are important to the economic development of the County and will promote good health and well being for County residents."

The website also states that financing happens near the end of a trail-building process.

The group follows general guidelines to determine project feasibility that includes steps, which begin with trail concept and exploration, followed by securing access and easements, engineering and construction planning and environmental review, funding and construction, and mapping, promotion and maintenance.

"All we are is the advocate," Dreisbach said of the organization. "Garrett Trails is not the bad guy here."

When asked about the plan for the proposed trail, he talked of the Eastern Continental Divide Loop, which Garrett Trails describes as a 150-mile, hard-packed, multi-user trail that connects to existing paths and larger networks outside Garrett County.

The "loop" has been in the planning process for 15 years," Dreisbach said.

He talked of the section of proposed trail from Oakland to Friendsville.

"There is nothing that precludes that from being a possibility," Dreisbach said. "Development of a trail is not prohibited."

The Yough trail plan, if completed, could make the outdoor destination in the area "bigger than it's ever been," he said.

The Cumberland Times-News emailed Garrett Trails Executive Director Josh Spiker for information in May, but Spiker hasn't responded.

"There's been a lot of misinformation out there," Dreisbach said and talked of accusations of secret meetings.

"That's not true," he said.

Meanwhile, Garrett Trails will continue to advocate for completion of the "loop" hike and bike trail, Dreisbach said.

"We do have credibility," he said.

"It's up to DNR," Dreisbach said. "We totally trust that they will do the right thing."

'Transparent'

DNR Media Relations Manager Gregg Bortz said the department does not have an estimate for the cost or timing of plans related to the proposed trails.

"The cost will depend on the scope of the project, which has yet to be determined," he said via email.

Trail development will require diligent and thoughtful planning processes, Bortz said.

"Particularly in this case given the regulatory provisions of the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act," he said.

DNR will follow the law, "which of course also compels us to follow legislative intent to the greatest extent possible," he said

"We can't predict a time frame for a draft document at this time. However, once a draft document is completed by DNR, we will use it to solicit public engagement and input," Bortz said.

"DNR remains committed to ensuring that any projects we undertake are conducted in an open and transparent manner, and consistent with our mission of preserving, protecting, and enhancing our natural resources," he said.

"We should also note that any significant expenditures would also be publicly reviewed for approval by the Board of the Public Works, which includes the governor, state controller, and state treasurer," Bortz said.

Friendsville Mayor Spencer Schlosnagle did not respond to a Cumberland Times-News question that asked his opinion of the proposed trails and whether he supports them.

The Friendsville Town Council in May discussed the $4.7 million for the proposed trail, but took no action.

"There was no formal vote, as it was not made in the form of a motion," Beth Van Scheetz, administrative assistant and clerk treasurer of Friendsville, said via email. "They were unanimously in agreement of (the $4.7 million) to be used in Friendsville for additional work along the Kendall Trail or with assistance to help in building the suspension bridge over the Yough which is adjacent to our community park."

'Protected'

Steve Storck, who owns land in the Youghiogheny Wild River Corridor and has worked in the outdoor recreation industry across the country for more than 30 years, is clear on his position regarding the proposed trails.

"This is a legally protected area," he said of the "wild" designated sections of the Yough.

A 2014 attempt to develop the trails was not supported by then DNR Secretary Joseph Gill, who stated "the policy of the state is to preserve and protect the natural values of these rivers, enhance their water quality, and fulfill vital conservation purposes by wise use of resources within their surrounding environment."

Gill further stated DNR rejected development plans on grounds that included reconstruction of an old rail line, which would involve replacement of multiple bridges, environmental regulations that would preclude construction and flooding along the river.

Storck referred to DNR's previous objections, as well as the state's Scenic and Wild Rivers Act

"The intent is that it would be protected as wild," he said.

Teresa McMinn is the Digital Editor for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or tmcminn@times-news.com.