Logging stirs debate over Youghiogheny River Area property owners rely on lumber income, but river may be at risk

November 22, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

McHENRY -- Hiking along the Youghiogheny River can transport you to a time when George Washington scouted a rugged wilderness here. The rush of water over rocks is the only sound as the river courses through a seemingly pristine valley. A great blue heron swoops past.

Then you spy a picnic table and chair on the far shore. Above the river's burbling comes the whine of chain saws, the crack and whoosh of toppling trees.

Farther along, on the steep western slope, the trunks of big oaks lie atop each other like jackstraws. Freshly cut stumps go down to the water's edge.

The Youghiogheny (pronounced YOCK-uh-GAIN-ee) in Garrett County is Maryland's only wild and scenic river, supposedly protected by state law. But riverfront property owners, whose roots often go back generations, jealously guard their rights to earn a traditional living from the land -- and that includes logging.

With wood prices near record levels, timber harvests have increased this year along "the Yock," as it is commonly called. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, which regulates land use along a 21-mile stretch of the river, has issued permits to cut trees on privately owned land covering more than a mile of riverfront.

The logging has renewed the debate over the state's stewardship of the river, which lures thousands of fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts every year. Boating outfitters, fishing guides and some local residents complain that the tree-cutting is incompatible with the Yock's status.

"If they log down to the river it's really going to destroy the wild and scenic quality," said Roger Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting, an outfitter in Friendsville. "It's a real crying shame on the state of Maryland to let that happen," added Zbel, 42, who helped pioneer the region's whitewater industry two decades ago.

But some landowners counter that the selective logging permitted by the state, removing the largest trees, does no harm.

"I'm in the timber business," said Donald F. Frazee, 62, also of Friendsville. His family has owned and logged the 300-acre tract now being cut for five or six generations. "If you had a vegetable garden and someone came along and said you can't pick the beans you'd be kind of unhappy."

DNR Ranger Paul Durham, who oversees the Yock corridor, says the logging debate is typical of the balancing act the state must perform among the various groups wanting to use the river or the land along it.

"Juggling all those interests is a daunting task," he said.

Ever since the legislature enacted a scenic and wild river law 30 years ago, tension has existed in conservative Garrett County over the state's efforts to protect the Youghiogheny, a river steeped in history. Washington and others eyed it as a potential water route to the West, and its valley slopes were heavily logged and mined until the early 1900s.

"It's hard to describe how people feel about their land here," explained Donald Sebold, chairman of the locally appointed board that advises the state on management of the Youghiogheny.

"If you want to get people stirred up, try messing with their land," added Sebold, who was born a couple of miles from his 35-acre riverfront tract and works at the Westvaco paper mill in neighboring Allegany County.

The state's wild river regulations restrict building along the water and limit logging and mining. The rules bar clear-cutting and say that on logging operations, the DNR must "ensure that natural vegetation on or near the shoreline remains undisturbed so as to screen the logged area from the river and its contiguous shore."

Frazee and another riverfront property owner, Phil Frantz, received permits this year allowing them to harvest timber on their land, including some down to the water's edge.

The permits require a waterfront buffer of at least 50 feet, depending on the slope. But under the permits, the landowners are allowed to cut trees within the buffer, as long as they leave a prescribed number behind.

Frazee is cutting trees in a stretch of river north of Hoyes Run that the state is promoting as a prime trout-fishing haven. But he said he is removing only the largest, most mature trees, letting younger ones branch out and fill in the gaps.

"It shouldn't be noticeable this time next year," he said. He also noted that the felled trees would be lifted out by helicopter, to minimize erosion on the steep banks.

Frantz, who applied to log south of Friendsville near a portion of the river frequented by whitewater rafters and kayakers, did not return several telephone calls last week. According to his application, he plans to truck the timber away using an old logging railroad bed along the river.

While at least some tree-cutting is allowed along privately owned stream corridors, the DNR ignored the written recommendations of its own fisheries and endangered species biologists, who had argued for barring tree removal within 100 feet of the water's edge.

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