Conservationists vow to fight the increased logging of state-owned forests in the wake of a report suggesting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources boosted state timber sales to make up for federal budget cuts.
"This is a shot across the bow," Glen Besa, spokesman for the Sierra Club's Potomac chapter, said of the report.
Besa, testifying yesterday before the Joint Budget and Audit Committee in Annapolis, accused DNR of a conflict of interest in benefiting from timber sales. He charged that the state has permitted excessive logging in its Western Maryland forests as a result.
"I think the public will be appalled at the level of harvesting that's going on," Besa said. He contended that 20 percent of the state's largest concentration of forestland in Garrett County has been slated for logging over the decade ending in 1992.
DNR officials deny that they have over-cut state forests. They say timber sales have increased in recent years to introduce new growth into the state's forests and to strengthen them against leaf-munching gypsy moths, which have defoliated thousands of acres of state woodlands.
But Besa and other conservationists question that explanation after a legislative budget analyst reported that state timber sales doubled in 1983-1984 to nearly $1 million, just two years after DNR's Forest, Park and Wildlife Service lost almost $2 million in federal support.
"I would suggest to you there's a conflict of interest in the way these funds are managed," Besa said. "If you've got to slash people's jobs, you're going to make it up somewhere."
He and other conservationists contend that extensive logging is disrupting recreational activities and endangering rare woodland plants and animals, which need large tracts of undisturbed forest.
And they complain that the public has little say in how state forests are managed, a gripe which fell on receptive ears in the committee.
Timber sales from 1,275 acres of state forests last year totaled $1.1 million, according to the analyst's report.
Up to one-fourth of the revenues from state timber sales go to the counties where the trees were cut. But the rest goes into a DNR reserve fund, which helps pay for state forestry programs and for maintaining state forests and parks.
DNR officials say money was not their motive for increasing logging in state forests. Donald MacLauchlan, director of DNR's Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, pointed out that timber sales still account for only about a fifth of the revenues in the Forest and Park Reserve Fund.
The state is required by law to manage its forests to encourage economic development, MacLauchlan noted, and timber sales support Western Maryland's wood products industry while providing nearly $900,000 in revenues to the counties where the trees were cut.
MacLauchlan said state law requires that state forests be managed for multiple uses, which means that he must balance the demands of loggers against those of conservationists and others.
"We must do it quite well," he said. "The loggers think we're in bed with the other side, and the other side thinks we're in bed with the loggers."
Conservationists, however, contended that state forestland supplies only 5 percent of the timber harvested in Maryland, yet DNR's policies are damaging the public forests.
Yesterday's hearing was scheduled following a flap earlier this year over a proposed timber sale near Herrington Manor State Park in Garrett County. That sale was put on hold last summer after conservationists and cross-country skiers protested, but DNR officials said yesterday they plan to seek Board of Public Works approval for it soon.
Nathan Erwin, an entomologist who used to work with the state's gypsy moth control program, contended that the leaf-munching pest isn't enough of a threat to the Herrington Manor forest plot to justify cutting it.
Besa said conservationists would seek legislation this winter to change DNR's forest management practices. He urged legislators to make DNR spend timber-sale revenues on acquiring new natural areas, rather than letting the agency benefit from logging.
"I don't think we've heard the last of this," said state Sen. Julian Lapides, D-City, committee chairman. He asked conservation groups for recommendations on how to give the public more say in DNR's management of forests, and he pledged to bring the issue up again before his panel.