Residents question $4.7 million for projects on 'some of the wildest lands in Maryland'

·6 min read

May 21—FRIENDSVILLE — Millions of state dollars have been dedicated for a project that appears to be in a legally protected wild river corridor, however specific plans haven't been discussed publicly.

Senate Bill 291, signed this week by Gov. Larry Hogan, includes 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."

The bill also allocates $4 million, which was modified from an earlier $1 million listing, for the Youghiogheny River Trail Section 3 from Sang Run to the Kendell trail in Garrett County.

On Friday, Garrett County Administrator Kevin Null said funds for the project were allocated to DNR.

"The county is not involved in the project," he said. "The commissioners did not request any funding."

DNR Media Relations Manager Gregg Bortz said the funding "was not a DNR budget request but added by the legislature."

'They are protected'

Steve Storck owns land in the Youghiogheny Wild River Corridor, and has worked in the outdoor recreation industry across the country for more than 30 years.

On Tuesday, he told Garrett County commissioners he is concerned the $4.7 million was approved for proposed trail projects that would threaten protected sections of the river.

"My first concern is the location ... in some of the wildest lands in Maryland, and they are protected under the Maryland Scenic and Wild Rivers Act," Storck said.

"These budget items were introduced ... late in the legislative process, and that did not allow any public comment on the proposals," he said. "There were no reviews by (NRP) or environmental committees in the General Assembly, and there were no funding requests from the commissioners for this project or from the Maryland Park Service for this project."

Of the funding proposal, $4 million would go to DNR for "critical maintenance of a trail that does yet exist," and $700,000 would go to Garrett commissioners as a special grant for a trail on property that the county doesn't own or manage, he said.

A 'wild' river

Maryland created the Scenic and Wild Rivers System by act of the General Assembly in 1968, according to DNR's website.

DNR defines a scenic river as a "free-flowing river whose shoreline and related land are predominantly forested, agricultural, grassland, marshland, or swampland" with a minimum of development for at least two miles of the river length.

A wild river is a "free-flowing river whose shoreline and related land are undeveloped, inaccessible except by trail, or predominantly primitive in a natural state" for a least four miles of the river length.

"Each unit of state and local government, in recognizing the intent of the Act and the Scenic and Wild Rivers Program, is required to take whatever action is necessary to protect and enhance the qualities of a designated river," the website states.

The Maryland General Assembly officially designated as "scenic" nine rivers across the state including the Youghiogheny.

"The section of the Youghiogheny between Millers Run and the southern corporate limits of Friendsville has been officially designated a 'wild' river," the website states.

"Each individually designated river also has its own Scenic and Wild River Advisory Board," it states.

"The local body has not met in nine years," Storck said Wednesday.

Outdoor recreation 'explosion'

Josh Spiker has been executive director of Garrett Trails for roughly two and a half years, and is the sole staff member of the organization.

On Friday, he talked via Facebook Live to Deep Creek Real Estate.

Federal and state representatives "see the surpluses that are coming from the explosion in outdoor recreation," he said. "They wanted to see that money go back into the infrastructure that would continue to support that outdoor rec."

Spiker talked of the $4.7 million in the DNR budget for the Youghiogheny trail.

"We have seen online definitely that people have had varied opinions about that concept," he said. "Garrett Trails actually supported that concept from ... Oakland to Friendsville as part of the Eastern Continental Divide Loop for many years. And we definitely support the legislature's decision to include a section in this year's DNR budget."

"Historically, that river was a connection between communities," Spiker said. "These connections need to be reestablished."

"At the end of the day, the DNR owns the property," he said and added that questions about the project should be directed to DNR.

Nonprofit or government?

Storck was director of Garrett Trails in 2013.

At Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, he talked of an overlap between county government and Garrett Trails, which 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," according to the group's website.

It lists its board members, which include Garrett County Commissioner Larry Tichnell, Garrett County Roads Superintendent Jay Moyer, and Garrett Lakes Arts Festival and Garrett College Performing Arts Executive Director Mary Mateer-Callis.

The website also lists Garrett Trails advisory committee members that include Garrett County Commissioner Jim Hinebaugh, Dave Ritchie of the Garrett County Roads department and Kim Folk, Garrett Heritage Area & Groups director for the county's Chamber of Commerce.

Board members have specific governance and oversight responsibilities that include duties of care, loyalty and obedience, and "must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization," it states.

Storck told Garrett commissioners that county employees serve on the Garrett Trails Board of Directors as part of their official job responsibilities.

"All of these things point to Garrett Trails as being a quasi-governmental organization rather than an independent nonprofit they claim to be," he said.

'Why the mystery?'

As a senator and primary sponsor of legislation affecting property rights and environmental protection of the Youghiogheny Wild and Scenic River in the 1980s, the proposed projects caught the attention of Friendsville resident John Bambacus.

Last week, he wrote to several officials and asked questions about funding for the proposed trails.

In response, he received an email from Garrett County Board of Commissioners President Paul Edwards that stated, "This request did not come from the commissioners. We had no role in this."

The funding "was set aside by the legislature," DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio stated.

"No one has shared any information with the Town of Friendsville," Mayor Spencer Schlosnagle wrote.

"Why the mystery behind all of this?" Bambacus said Friday.

"I expected there would be more forthrightness," he said. "Transparency and accountability are so important."

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