Maryland natural resource officials, besieged by environmentalists upset by timber-cutting in state forests, have proposed limits on logging in Maryland's largest and ecologically richest forest.
A draft 10-year plan for managing Savage River State Forest in Garrett County would effectively prohibit commercial timber cutting on 45 percent of the 53,384-acre forest. Chain saws could not be allowed to touch wooded areas that border roads and streams, cling to steep slopes or harbor rare plants and animals.
Tree-cutting could be banned on another 4,000 acres if the General Assembly goes along with a state task force recommendation to designate them as "wildlands." These are also off-limits to road building, driving and other major human disruptions.
The plan, which shrinks by 20 percent the area currently open to logging, represents a search for middle ground in the bitter debate over timber sales in Maryland's 133,000-acre state forest system, Department of Natural Resources officials say.
"We hope we have a plan here that's an appropriate compromise . . . if not ideal, at least something that's acceptable," says Eric Schwaab, chief of resource management in DNR's forest and park service.
But neither side is satisfied, and Schwaab says that there is disagreement even within DNR over the plan. Environmentalists praise its curbs on logging, but say they want still more restrictions, particularly on clear-cutting.
Clear-cutting removes all the trees from an area, as opposed to selective logging, which only thins out the forest.
"I think it's come a long way, and it's good as far as it goes," says Glen Besa, a Cumberland lawyer and Sierra Club member. "But there's really a need to . . . broaden protections for our natural resources."
The timber industry also objects to the plan, saying it threatens to undermine Western Maryland's economy by locking up some of the most valuable trees in the forest.
"I know that everything in general is a big compromise, but I think we've been out-compromised," complains John Forman, of Wood Products Inc. in Oakland, incoming president of the Maryland Forests Association.
The debate over Savage River is significant because it is one of the largest wooded tracts in Maryland. Though the state has 2.7 million acres of forestland, 90 percent is in private hands and development is taking 10,000 acres a year.
Most of the Savage River forest consists of former farmland and xTC privately owned woods that were abandoned after they were heavily logged and burned early in this century. The state began acquiring and reforesting the land in 1929.
Today, the once-denuded land is almost covered with trees, and the forest contains one of the most diverse collection of plants and wildlife, according to the DNR document. The forest is home to beavers, bobcats, black bears, trout and many other fish, at least 60 species of butterflies and 187 species of birds.
Indeed, parts of Savage River have recovered so well from their earlier abuse that a DNR task force last year recommended classifying 9,140 acres as "wildlands," legally protected wilderness areas. All but 4,000 acres of that forestland lies in areas already off-limits to logging.
The forest also has been a historic source for sawmills and paper mills in the region and provides the state and county with about $500,000 a year from timber sales. Chain saws cut an average of 700 acres a year. In the last few years, DNR has tried to sell off more timber in response to gypsy moth infestations, saying that loggers should be allowed to salvage trees defoliated by the leaf-munching caterpillars before the trees die.
DNR foresters also contend that thinning the forest would help remaining trees withstand the moth's assault.
But environmentalists' objections have blocked and delayed many sales on Savage River. The DNR plan estimates that about 12 percent of the forest's trees have succumbed to gypsy moths. Those dead trees could have produced more than 100 million board-feet of timber, says Forman, enough to keep his 50-employee mill in Oakland busy for more than a decade.
Forman says the new DNR plan bars logging on 16,000 acres of forest by designating them as "water management zones" bordering the 350-acre Savage River reservoir, many mountain streams and wetlands and the steep slopes that drain into them. He contends that trees can be cut in such areas without harming the waterways.
"I'm not saying we have to go out and intensively harvest the entire forest," says Forman. "But it could be [logged] a helluva lot more than it is, and I think it would enhance rather than hurt the forest, and help the local economy."
The forest contains $61 million worth of timber and cordwood, the DNR plan estimates. It predicts that demand for wood products will increase and notes that the timber industry provides 2,500 jobs in Allegany and Garret counties.