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Dec. 18—OAKLAND — Garrett County and Maryland officials are “totally ignoring” regulations crafted to protect the state’s only Wild-designated river, Donald Sebold said.

Sebold is chairman of the Youghiogheny Scenic and Wild River Advisory Board, which met Monday to discuss issues, including the Swallow Falls Road bridge project.

The board wants to be notified before any actions are taken that could impact the Scenic and Wild Yough corridor.

Recently, the board members and many other folks were surprised after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources approved installation of monitoring equipment in the corridor by the United States Geological Survey at the request of Deep Creek Watershed Foundation.

“DNR has failed to be open and transparent with this whole decision making process with the public and this board,” former state Scenic and Wild Rivers Coordinator John Wilson said.

He spent roughly a third of his career working on the Yough.

“The Yough is a special place and is irreplaceable,” Wilson said. “It’s the only Wild river designated in the state.”

DNR’s approval of an exception to the river’s protections that will allow for a new bridge and road to be constructed near the Swallow Falls Road bridge contradicted the board’s recommendation for the bridge project to use the smallest footprint possible, he said.

“DNR resources professionals clearly indicated that it will impact the river and the adjoining corridor particularly by clearing two acres of virgin hemlock forest,” he said of recommendations the department’s staff made about the bridge project.

“DNR resources staff recommended using the existing right-of-way was did this board but departmental leadership chose for some reason to grant the exception anyway,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he is perplexed at why DNR as stewards of the “spectacular natural resource” appear to be ignoring “all of the protection measures that we worked so hard to put in place.”

DNR leadership is not interested in following regulations and protecting the Yough, he said.

“It almost feels like the foxes are guarding the hen house,” Wilson said.

Sebold also addressed the proposed project to add a new bridge rather than use the existing Swallow Falls Bridge alignment.

“The best reforestation I know of is don’t do it,” he said of cutting trees for the project.

“I feel like the (river’s) management plan was put into effect to actually save the river from property owners who were in the process of developing,” Sebold said. “Now, it looks like we’ve got to be aware and concerned about the state and the county. They want to develop this area to bring in money.”

Paul Peditto, DNR’s assistant secretary for land resources, said he couldn’t provide details on why the department didn’t follow the advisory board’s recommendation.

“I would love to dig deep into this,” he said. “Regrettably we are in active litigation.”

That referred to a petition that in September asked Garrett County Circuit Court to review DNR’s decision on the bridge project exception.

“As we’ve been advised by the Office of Attorney General … we can’t adjudicate that here,” Peditto said.

“That’s what happens when you sue us, you kind of put us in a box to talk about it,” he said.

“We most certainly considered the input from the advisory board,” Peditto said and added there were many decades without input from the advisory board. “We struck a balance. We had very, very strong input from the county as to the necessity of creating the exception.”

He also told the board members to consider that while DNR issued the county an exception that would allow for an off-site span, the new bridge isn’t built yet.

“If the county were to come back and say ‘we’re OK with closing this bridge’ … then our exception letter is no longer necessary,” Peditto said.

“We’re waiting on a new design plan,” he said. “When we get to the 60% design phase, we will have a substantially better understanding of what will happen.”

Regarding the USGS equipment in the Yough corridor, Peditto said DNR has multiple gauging stations on waters across the state.

“We did not ignore or intentionally avoid giving you a heads up about a gauging station” in the Yough corridor, he said, and added the project came to DNR from Garrett County officials, the Deep Creek Lake Property Owners Association and Deep Creek Watershed Foundation.

Peditto also talked of an OAG memo that suggests the Yough advisory board was formed to develop regulations for the river.

“I think it’s a question for you all going forward as to whether the collective legal entities see the role as continuing,” he said.

Peditto said he will engage with the advisory board moving forward.

Steve Storck is a petitioner in the litigation Peditto mentioned.

Storck said DNR is supposed to consult the advisory board about potential activities in the Yough corridor.

“It’s in the management plan that you’re supposed to come to this board to discuss these types of things,” he said.

“It is your management plan,” he told Peditto.

Storck also said the Deep Creek POA, Watershed Foundation and USGS should not have been allowed to request the gauge project.

“They should not have been eligible … according to the Attorney General and secretary of DNR last year,” he said.

Storck talked of folks who own property in the Yough corridor.

“Landowners do not know what their responsibility is related to the corridor,” he said. “It would be great if you could educate landowners.”

The advisory board plans to meet again 9 a.m. Jan. 25 to discuss issues including administrative rules, mapping updates from DNR and orientation materials.

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



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