Peaked interest: Protect Hoye Crest


June 08, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

Oakland -- A lot of lips are flapping about restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Checks are being written, partnerships are being forged and promises are being made.

That's as it should be. No feature defines Maryland more than that big expanse of water that runs from Susquehanna Flats down to Pocomoke Sound. Without a robust bay, the Free State ain't worth squat.

A tool in the restoration effort is the O'Malley administration's BayStat program, which helps decide which pieces of land and water need to be bought and protected. Program Open Space, a 40-year-old effort administered by the Department of Natural Resources, is expected to pick up a major part of the tab.

A preliminary ranking of crucial parcels is due out soon.

There's one chunk of land that should make the list and won't because it's off the radar screen in Garrett County ("the westernmost outpost," according to the state tourism office) and doesn't fit the BayStat model.

But its acquisition should be a point of pride, if nothing else.

That parcel is Hoye Crest, at 3,360 feet the highest point in Maryland.

The peak, if you want to call it that, is modest by national standards. Located south of Oakland and part of a 39-mile ridge called Backbone Mountain, Hoye Crest ranks 32nd in height and 22nd in climbing difficulty among highest state peaks. It is owned by a Texas energy company and bordered on one side by a subdivision. The trail to the top follows an old logging road set under a canopy of trees.

On the summit is the high-point marker, a picnic table and a mailbox that contains a registry for hikers to sign and a stack of certificates noting the hiker's accomplishment - free for the taking.

The rustic welcome center was put there and is cared for by Gene and Lillian Elliott, retirees who just moved to Frederick County after living on Hoye Crest Road for a number of years.

Hoye Crest is a fun family hike. The trail rises about 700 feet over one mile, not hard work. The reward, in addition to signing in and grabbing a certificate, is views of the valley that holds the North Branch of the Potomac River.

Former Sen. Paul Sarbanes has hiked it with his grandchildren.

From an environmental angle, the mountain provides a boundary between two watersheds: the North Branch, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and the headwaters of the Youghiogheny River, part of the Mississippi River watershed.

In every East Coast state - with the exception of Rhode Island (a backyard) - the highest point is in the public domain. Delaware's high point is in the middle of a public intersection.

Although just a piddling 812 feet and tucked in the corner of someone's backyard, Rhode Island's summit has public support. Two years ago, one of the state's U.S. senators secured $1 million in federal highway funds to guarantee access and parking at Jerimoth Hill.

It's not that Maryland officials have ignored Hoye Crest.

In 2001, the Highpointer Club held its 15th convention in Oakland and at the summit. Sarah Taylor-Rogers, then-secretary of DNR, told club members she would work to acquire the site. Parris Glendening, then the governor, canned her before she could get too far. (I don't think it was over her Hoye Crest comments.)

Acknowledgement of Hoye Crest's appeal extends to the Maryland Office of Tourism Web site, "Maryland is Fun," which urges Garrett County vacationers to snag one of the free certificates.

So why not buy the trail and summit?

Granted, the pool of money that fuels Program Open Space is limited. And lots of folks have thoughts about which waterfront parcels and wetlands need to be saved from the clutches of developers.

But the program has a strong record of acting for the public good. Last fiscal year, it spent $32.2 million to acquire slightly more than 4,000 acres. Through February in this fiscal year, $26.3 million has been earmarked to buy about 1,000 acres - 86 percent of which is classified land or water trails.

Hoye Crest, deep in coal-mining country, is owned by Western Pocahontas Properties, a subsidiary of Natural Resource Partners, a Houston-based company that owns and manages coal fields.

Several years ago, the company gave the Garrett County Historical Society a verbal promise to donate about five acres on the mountaintop once mining is done, says Bob Boal, a society member. It's a nice gesture that completes the circle since the summit is named for Capt. Charles Hoye, the founder of the historical society.

But members haven't heard a peep since and have nothing in writing. A state takeover to ensure the peak isn't whittled down by coal excavation is something they would like.

"We'd be thrilled with that," Boal says. "It would be in good hands and preserved."

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