A Look into the Swallow Falls Bridge Replacement Project

The current bridge and hemlock forest, seen from hiking trails downstream.

The Garrett County Engineering Department is working to construct a new bridge in Swallow Falls State Park, more specifically, in the Youghiogheny Scenic and Wild River Corridor. Swallow Falls Road, which travels through the State Park, crosses the Youghiogheny River just upstream of the Upper Swallow Falls in Garrett County, Maryland. The existing bridge is closed to traffic and a temporary bridge for single lane traffic is currently used for vehicular transportation across the river. 

The County aims to build a new 36-foot-wide bridge approximately 35 feet downstream of the current bridge. Potential and expected impacts of the bridge replacement project include: clearing 50 to 80 feet of vegetation from the edge of the road; destruction of 2.6 acres of old-growth forest; impacts to riparian habitat and non-tidal wetlands; disruption to sensitive habitats; and damage to two State Irreplaceable Natural Areas. Normally, road construction that takes place in a Scenic Corridor must adhere to strict limitations set out in the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act. However, the County submitted an application to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) seeking an exception to those requirements.

The Maryland DNR granted the exception to the County in August of 2023, so long as six outlined conditions were met. The approval letter and conditions can be found here. In granting the exception, the DNR found that the Project (1) would not  harm the scenic and wild character of the Youghiogheny River; (2) needed the exception because it could not strictly follow the necessary requirements due to the need to maintain traffic flow; and (3) could reduce the damage to the old growth hemlock forest through the attached conditions. 

Swallow Falls State Park has a 37-acre grove of old-growth hemlock and pine, one of the few areas in Maryland that has never been logged. Some of the trees are over 300 years old.

In September 2023, Yough Farms, LLC, the Old Growth Forest Network, and Steve Storck filed a petition with the Circuit Court for Garrett County, Maryland, challenging the decision by the Maryland DNR. The challengers feel that the exception should not have been granted by the DNR, because of the extreme potential harms to the Yough Scenic Corridor and the loss of nearby Irreplaceable Natural Areas, as well as the lack of support in DNR’s decision for the conclusion that was reached. The hearing on the issue will be held on April 2, 2024, at the Garrett County Courthouse in Oakland, in the Second Floor Courtroom at 9:00am. 

While the DNR’s decision is being reviewed by the Garrett County Circuit Court, the Project continues to move through the regulatory processes. The engineering department recently submitted an updated bridge replacement plan, which is currently 60% developed, to the Garrett County Department of Public Works. 

How to Get Involved:

  • Sign-on to this pre-drafted letter urging regulators to: (1) Conduct either an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement of the Project under the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as (2)  enforce the requirement that the least harmful design be used, which would be using the existing bridge alignment. 
  • Join the “Keep the Wild Yough Wild” Facebook Group to stay informed and up to date on any developments. 
  • Attend the court hearing on April 2nd to show support for the individuals and groups working to protect the Youghiogheny River and its surrounding ecosystem. 

For more information, please contact community advocate, Madison Hinkle, at madison@mtwatershed.com