MCHENRY — Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz plans to visit Allegany and Garrett counties on Monday.
Kurtz has been acting secretary of the organization since Jan. 18, and became secretary on Feb. 17.
DNR Media Relations Manager Gregg Bortz on Sunday said the visit to the region does not include public events, and Kurtz will conduct internal meetings with area employees.
“He’s making an effort to do that around the state since taking office,” Bortz said via email and added that Kurtz will make time for a media interview.
‘Fight like h***’
A big question for the secretary surrounds the future of $4 million allocated last year by the Maryland General Assembly in DNR’s critical maintenance program for trail development along the state protected Wild Youghiogheny River.
The proposal has been opposed by numerous area property owners and elected officials who want the money to be used for other projects in Garrett County.
“I’m gonna fight like h***,” Sen. Mike McKay said on Sunday of working to keep the funds in Garrett County and added that he believes he has support from the governor’s office. “Right is right.”
In a letter to Kurtz last month, the Board of Garrett County Commissioners asked the state to abandon the trail proposal, and give them control of the money for other trail projects.
Friendsville’s mayor and town council also formally opposed the trail development.
“My goal (for) the Yough is to support what the community wants,” McKay said.
The money trail
The way the money made it into the budget, signed by Gov. Larry Hogan last year, was convoluted at best.
In September 2021, Hogan announced the creation of the Office of Outdoor Recreation, within DNR, and the hiring of J. Daryl Anthony to serve as its first executive director.
Records show that before the $4 million was allocated, meetings that included Anthony, then Del. Wendell Beitzel, and Garrett Trails were held to discuss funding for the development in the Wild Yough corridor.
Beitzel would later say he pushed for the financial allocation “to provide some economic opportunity and to provide more opportunities for outdoor recreation” for the area.
In January 2022, Anthony, in an email to Beitzel’s chief of staff, said, “While I have not asked for specific funding dedicated to the Yough Canyon Trail, I am very hopeful that funding will be available to support outdoor recreation opportunities … the Yough Canyon trail is a high priority for investment.”
In June, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, who was DNR secretary at the time, said the appropriation was neither part of the department’s capital budget request nor the governor’s fiscal 2023 budget submission.
Now, legislators will again determine the fate of the funds.
“The General Assembly can move the money from one pot to another,” McKay said and added that he’s “been clear from day one” that he wants the cash to be used in Garrett County.
“I’m 100% sure there will be transparency going forward,” he said. “I can guarantee you that there won’t be any firm decisions that are made without (public) input.”
‘Preserve and protect’
John Bambacus, a former state senator and mayor of Frostburg, has been a leader of the community that opposes development of the Wild Yough.
On Sunday, he said Kurtz’s visit to the area is “extremely important” and talked of valuable resources, including state parks and forests in Garrett County.
Bambacus hopes Kurtz will follow a decision outlined in a 2014 letter written by then DNR Secretary Joseph Gill.
At that time, Gill responded to a letter from Beitzel and former Sen. George Edwards requesting to develop a segment of the Eastern Continental Divide Loop Trail through the Youghiogheny Scenic Corridor.
Gill rejected the idea because it would involve reconstruction of an old rail line and replacement of several bridges.
Environmental regulations would preclude such construction and flooding along the river, he wrote.
“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 wrote. “We are unable to approve development of this area for numerous reasons.”
Teresa McMinn is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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