Environmentalists, accusing Maryland officials of trying to stifle opposition to logging of state forests, have called a "citizens hearing" on the state's plans to sell more than 1,000 acres worth of timber this year.
Seven conservation groups will hold their own public meeting in Baltimore on Aug. 1 after Department of Natural Resources officials refused to hold one in the Baltimore-Washington area, where most of the groups' members live.
DNR, which only recently agreed to hold hearings on its annual timber sales, has scheduled four sessions starting next Friday. But all four meetings are near the state forests in Western Maryland or on the Eastern Shore.
Environmentalists, who object to the state's longstanding practice of permitting commercial logging of state forests, contend that DNR should have at least one hearing in heavily populated central Maryland, where public opposition is greatest.
They say they suspect that the state arranged the meetings to ensure a big turnout from loggers and to make it harder for nature lovers from the cities to attend.
"To expect them to drive three hours to testify at a hearing is a little ludicrous," said Glen Besa, a Sierra Club member in Allegany County. "I think it reflects [DNR's] fear that there is substantial citizen opposition to timber sales, particularly clear-cutting."
James Dunmyer, assistant DNR secretary for public lands, denied that state officials were trying to rig the hearings in favor of timber sales.
"There was just some place to draw the line," he said, on how many hearings to conduct.
Dunmyer promised to consider the comments of those who attend the conservation groups' meeting, and he said he would extend the public comment period from one week to a month after DNR's hearings end Aug. 2.
DNR plans to hold 31 timber sales authorizing commercial loggers to remove trees from 1,065 acres in Green Ridge, Pocomoke, Potomac-Garrett and Savage River state forests, which have a total of 122,000 acres. About 450 acres of the sales will be "salvage harvests" or clear-cuts, in which most of the trees will be downed.
DNR officials said they did not know how much income the proposed timber sales might generate for the state and counties in which the forests lie, but they said revenue was not the reason for the logging.
Most of the trees to be cut are oaks that are dead or dying after having been defoliated by the gypsy moth caterpillars that have heavily infested Western Maryland forests, said Bill Buck, a DNR environmental specialist. State policy calls for managing the forests for "multiple users," including the wood products industry, DNR officials say.
But conservation groups contend that logging, especially clear-cutting, conflicts with the growing number of recreational activities in state forests and disrupts habitat for increasingly rare woodland plants and animals. Banning commercial logging in state forests would not hurt local economies, they say, since 90 percent of the wood products processed in the state come from private lands.
The conservation groups' "citizens hearing" is to be at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 in Lecture Hall 3 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville.