After a year of increasing acrimony, state forestry officials an environmental activists are nearing agreement on the contentious issue of cutting down trees in state forests.
Under the expected agreement, citizen activists would be given more information and more say on where trees are cut down. The state and forest industry would resume logging with less controversy and more predictability.
After a brief halt last year, the state Department of Natural Resources has announced that it plans 22 separate sales of timber cut from state forests between now and July 1. That compares to nine in all of last year.
Last Wednesday, the state Board of Public Works approved the year's first five sales, which involve nearly 200 acres of pine and hardwood in the Savage River State Forest and Pocomoke River State Forest.
But conservationists who oppose timbering on state lands received verbal guarantees from the state that they will be given advance information at least once a year on when and where the next year's sales will take place. And they will be given the opportunity for a hearing to make their objections known.
They had complained that the state's 20-year forest management plans couldn't change fast enough to reflect scientists' expanding knowledge of forests, and that only the logging industry had easy access to the details of proposed timber sales.
DNR Deputy Secretary John R. Griffin said the state's long-term plan will be for 10 years, with reviews at the end of five. DNR has promised to put together a yearly logging plan for each state forest, and public hearings will be held so citizens can voice their feelings.
The agreements were reached last month in a series of meetings between Mr. Griffin, other DNR officials, six members of the General Assembly, forest industry representatives and environmentalists in Annapolis.
The environmentalists like the plan because there will be a permanent standing committee to represent to DNR various interests, including theirs, Mr. Griffin said. The forest industry likes it because the schedule for timber harvests on state lands will become more predictable.
That does not mean that the issue of cutting trees in the state's limited supply of public forests has been put to rest, though. The conflict is embedded in the very charter of the Natural Resources Department, which is charged both with conserving the state's natural resources and managing them for the economic benefit of the state and businesses.
Even environmentalists such as Glen Besa, a Sierra Club member from Western Maryland, acknowledge that DNR has a mandate to manage forests for wood.
"The question is how much," Mr. Besa said. "That's why, while we are pleased with the procedural reforms we've gotten, our agenda is still substantive reform of forest management. We think the state is cutting down too many trees on public land."
Although many citizens probably think of state forests as a recreational resource, the state set aside about 133,000 acres of forestland with economics in mind.
DNR officials say that all the forests once were privately owned. The Great Depression forced many of the landowners into bankruptcy, and the land was bought by the Resettlement Administration. The federal government then deeded the lands to the state with the proviso that this land -- once on local tax rolls -- would be managed for economic productivity.
Mr. Griffin said about 60 percent of the forests is managed for timber. However, environmentalists say the figure is 80 percent to 90 percent when areas where selective cutting is allowed are included.
The economic value of the land is clear: Local governments get 15 percent to 25 percent of all the money the state collects from the timber sales, and local mills and factories use the wood that comes from state forests.
"We depend on timber sales for some of our revenues," said Thomas D. Jones, Garrett County's economic development director. The county is budgeting $175,000 this year as its take from timber sales and park concessions, out of a total budget of $24 million, Mr. Jones said.
In Garrett and Allegany counties, timber generates more jobs than any other industry except tourism. More than 2,000 workers are employed at the Westvaco paper mill alone in the town of Luke in Garrett County. Timber from the 80,000 acres of state forests is by far the biggest single source of wood products in the county, Mr. Jones said.
The five sales approved last week are worth $219,000 -- the amount bid by various logging companies for the right to cut timber on state lands.
After giving the counties their share, the money from the timber concessions goes into a special forest and park reserve fund for DNR's exclusive use. Maryland has earned up to $1.4 million on )) annual timber sales, according to the state Department of Fiscal Services.
Environmentalists say the state should not making money off public land. But Garrett County's Mr. Griffin, noting that much of Maryland's economy depends on uses of state land, said, "That argument is not particularly helpful. What is the better issue is how to balance the competing interests."