Glendening to seek more 'wildlands' 17 proposed sites would double state's protected wilderness

'Pristine areas' included

Environmentalists praise plan

timber industry protests it

January 23, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

In one of his few environmental initiatives this year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced yesterday he will seek legislation that would more than double the amount of legally protected wilderness in Maryland.

The move, if approved by the General Assembly, would designate 17 sites totaling 22,790 acres in state parks and forests as "wildlands," where logging, mining and driving would be prohibited.

From prime trout streams in Western Maryland to cypress swamp on the Eastern Shore, the proposed sites are rich in rare plants and animals and represent some of the best remaining examples of Maryland's natural history.

"My administration is committed to protecting pristine areas in Maryland for future generations," the governor said in a statement. "With federal land conservation policies in a state of change, we need to take a leadership role in recognizing these unique areas of our state and ensuring they are not lost."

Maryland's wildlands system, set up in 1971 because the state has no federally protected wilderness, now shields less than 4 percent of all state-owned lands.

Eleven wildlands cover 14,638 acres, and all are available for hiking, fishing, horseback riding and some hunting.

The governor's announcement was welcomed by environmentalists, who gathered grimly in Annapolis yesterday to review a mostly pro-business legislative agenda that calls for relaxing regulations and streamlining permits. Activists complain the governor and lawmakers are in a "race to the bottom" with neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania to lower environmental standards.

Wildlands "is a huge environmental program that will be protecting resources that haven't been protected before, while it does not cost taxpayers any money," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action. "It's cheap, it's effective, and it's supported by a broad constituency."

But the wildlands measure drew immediate protests from Western Maryland, where the timber industry opposes putting any more state forestland off limits to logging. The bulk of the proposed wildlands -- eight sites totaling 11,489 acres -- are on state forestland in Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties.

"I really don't think they should be locked up," John M. Forman, vice president of Wood Products Inc. in Oakland, said of the proposed wildlands. Some of the sites have been logged before, he said, and they may be needed again to help sustain forest-product jobs in the economically depressed region of the state.

"Not that those areas are prime candidates for timbering," Mr. Forman said, "but there is some timber that can be taken out of those areas in a sensitive enough way not to hurt the resource."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, said he was not familiar with Mr. Glendening's plan for wildlands and declined to comment until he knew more about it.

Activists acknowledge that some of these sites have been logged or disturbed in the past.

"It's not true wilderness," said Elizabeth Hartline, co-chairwoman of the Maryland Wildlands Committee. But if left alone to nature's changes, she said, they gradually will acquire the character of natural habitats.

She called them "ecological nuggets," and noted that their value goes beyond the biological to serve as "a source of inspiration."

Some of these proposed wildlands are in or near rapidly developing urban areas. One example is the 1,526-acre Soldier's Delight Natural Environmental Area near Owings Mills in Baltimore County. It has the East Coast's oldest and largest area of serpentine barrens, a native grassland that is home to more than 20 threatened and endangered plants.

Other sites are recommended for their overall natural attributes. The Middle Fork section of Savage River State Forest in Garrett County is considered the premier brook trout stream in the state, and also is surrounded by dense, mature forest favored by hikers and bird-watchers.

The governor's wildlands recommendation is the culmination of a study begun six years ago by the Department of Natural Resources, as conservationists and timber interests fought over timber sales in state forests.

The department last spring proposed 19 sites totaling 26,000 acres, but whittled the list in a bid to win over opponents from Western Maryland and from various industries and recreational interests before taking the package to the legislature.

About 3,000 acres of proposed wildlands were dropped in Western Maryland, and part of a proposed wildland along Sweathouse Branch in Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County was taken out because mountain bikers lobbied to be allowed to ride through the area.

"Naturally, ecologically, we would like to see more," said Ajax Eastman, the wildlands committee co-chairwoman. However, she said she and other activists were pleased with the governor's effort and understood the need for some compromises.

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