The Youghiogheny River draws thousands of visitors to the Laurel Highlands each year, and now the waterway that is so popular with outdoor enthusiasts is drawing something else: statewide attention as a Pennsylvania River of the Year nominee.
Lovingly referred to as the Yough – which rhymes with “hawk” for the uninitiated – the river flows north from West Virginia into Maryland and through Somerset, Fayette and Westmoreland counties before joining the Monongahela River near McKeesport.
Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), announced the Yough as one of three nominees for the award. The public is invited to vote online for the winner.
“I am excited for this year’s competition and look forward to seeing which river comes out on top,” Dunn said. “This annual competition is a great way to highlight Pennsylvania’s special waterways and the benefits they bring for conservation, recreation, economic development and so much more. We look forward to tallying up votes and announcing the 2024 River of the Year in the coming months.”
Selection of public voting choices is overseen by the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR) in cooperation with DCNR. The public can vote for a favorite state waterway through 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, at https://pawatersheds.org/vote-for-a-2024-river-of-the-year/.
POWR, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), administers the River of the Year program with funding from DCNR. Presented annually since 1983, last year’s 2023 River of the Year designation was awarded to the North Branch Susquehanna River.
Western Pennsylvania is home to two of this year’s nominees, with the Allegheny River joining the Yough. The Lackawaxen River, which flows through Wayne and Pike counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania, is the third nominee.
“We are delighted that the Yough has been nominated for River of the Year,” said Laura Argenbright, senior director of creative services for GO Laurel Highlands. “It provides many wonderful recreational opportunities for both visitors and residents and is a magnet for community activity and conservation efforts. Of course, we love that it is a consistent hub for tourism in Fayette County and the Laurel Highlands, drawing outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe! We encourage everyone who appreciates the wonder of the Yough and its importance to the region to vote for this magnificent river.”
Nominations were based on each waterway’s conservation needs, successes and programming plans if the nominee is voted 2024 River of the Year. The Mountain Watershed Association, which is based in Fayette County, nominated the Yough.
“It’s already a very popular river, but I think it could draw more people from out of state and other parts of the state,” said Colleen O’Neil, communications specialist with Mountain Watershed Association. “Especially for the on-river activities, being named River of the Year would be a really, really great selling point. It would help to get that recreation activity around the Yough and get more people out in the community, going to the stores and going to the pub afterward.”
The Yough has previously been named Pennsylvania’s River of the Year in 2008 and 1998. The Allegheny won the award in 2017 and 1994 while the Lackawaxen claimed the 2010 honor.
“With its rushing mountain waters, slow-flowing meanders, and a rich cultural history, the 134-mile Youghiogheny River is a haven for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike,” according to the POWR website. “From old-growth hemlock stands to unique scour ecosystems, this river corridor is a haven for rare and endangered plant and animal species. It’s a place where nature thrives, and we can witness the wonders of the natural world.
“With over 100 trails providing access to scenic vistas and unique habitats, we can explore the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Anglers can cast their lines into the cool, clear waters, hoping to catch a prized wild brook trout. For thrill-seekers, the Youghiogheny offers world-class whitewater rafting, where you can experience the birthplace of this exhilarating sport.
“While the Youghiogheny River has faced its fair share of challenges, including the impacts of industry and coal mining, dedicated organizations like the Mountain Watershed Association (MWA) work tirelessly to protect and restore this precious waterway. Through their efforts, they have successfully halted harmful developments and improved water quality, ensuring a brighter future for the river and its communities.
“Together, let’s make the Youghiogheny River the 2024 River of the Year! Celebration of this designation will be paired with the celebration of MWA’s 30th anniversary as an organization. Highlighting the achievements of MWA and their partners will inspire and empower other communities facing similar challenges. We can preserve the natural beauty, enhance water quality, and safeguard the biodiversity of the Youghiogheny River for generations to come.”
After a waterway is chosen for the annual honor, local groups implement a year-round slate of activities and events to celebrate the river, including a paddling trip, or sojourn. The organization nominating the POWR and DCNR also work with local organizations to create a free, commemorative poster celebrating the River of the Year.
“We are excited to once again kick off the public online voting process for Pennsylvania River of the Year,” said Janet Sweeney, executive director of POWR. “As we all continue to spend more time outdoors and deepen our appreciation for the beautiful natural resources of Pennsylvania, the annual River of the Year voting process is a fun way to rally behind and support your favorite waterway.”
The River of the Year sojourn is among many paddling trips supported each year by DCNR and POWR. An independent program, the Pennsylvania Sojourn Program is a unique series of a dozen such trips on the state’s rivers. The water-based journeys for canoeists, kayakers and others raise awareness of the environmental, recreational, tourism and heritage values of rivers. For more information about the sojourns, visit www.pawatersheds.org.
To learn more about DCNR’s Rivers Program, visit www.dcnr.pa.gov (go to “Conservation” and click on “Water”).