Wild about nature Preservation goal: Two women lead campaign to protect 18 tracts -- "ecological nuggets" -- in Maryland from exploitation.

January 29, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The thin, high scream of a red-shouldered hawk pierced the serenade of rushing water along Panther Branch. Elizabeth K. Hartline and her friend, Ajax Eastman, paused to listen, then crunched on over the hard crust of snow clinging to the ground in Gunpowder Falls State Park.

"I have a favorite place on this trail," said Ms. Hartline, who negotiated treacherous stream crossings and slippery slopes with a nimbleness belying her 86 years. "There's a big rock. It has the nicest columbine community I've ever seen on it."

The bright red-and-yellow wildflower was still waiting for spring last week. Instead, the two women spotted green patches of club moss and Christmas fern. They noted deer and raccoon tracks crisscrossing the snow -- and precious few footprints.

Ms. Hartline and Ms. Eastman hope to safeguard the wild beauty of Panther Branch near Hereford and 17 other "ecological nuggets" around the state for many springs to come.

As co-chairwomen of the Maryland Wildlands Committee, they are leading a grass-roots campaign to protect 18 tracts encompassing nearly 23,000 acres of state parks and forests from logging, mining and disruptive forms of recreation.

Their effort gained a major boost last week, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced his administration would seek legislation designating the sites as "wildlands."

If approved by the General Assembly, the measure would more than double the state's network of legally protected wilderness areas.

It also could be the crowning achievement for Ms. Hartline, whose gentle persistence has nudged bureaucrats, lawmakers and other conservationists into setting aside more than 14,000 acres as wildlands.

"What is the good of having magnificent big cities if you don't have some magnificent wildlands to go with them?" she asked. Wildlands, she said, are many things: reservoirs for the state's native plants and animals, open-air laboratories for biologists and ecologists, and refuges for people in need of inspiration and a place to get away from the noise and worries of civilization.

"You always need a handful of leaders and stalwarts that continue to carry the torch," said John R. Griffin, state Department of Natural Resources secretary. "God knows, Beth has been like that, and I admire her for

that. Not that we agree on everything, but without people like her, you have no progress."

Ms. Eastman, 62, a former chairwoman of the Maryland Conservation Council, says that her friend has been her mentor. "I have learned so much of the really important things from Beth," she said.

Nearly 30 years ago, Ms. Hartline looked around Maryland and saw the state's natural treasures disappearing, bit by bit: A sparkling stream dammed, a dense forest logged, a patch of wildflowers bulldozed.

Alarmed, the former science teacher helped launch a campaign to save as much of what was left as she could.

She convinced a sympathetic state senator to introduce a bill establishing the state equivalent of the federal government's wilderness areas. It became law in 1971, and the first wildland was designated in Savage River State Forest in Garrett County in 1973.

Ms. Hartline, a native of Newton, Mass., who lives in northern Baltimore County, traces her passion for nature to her youth. She recalls spending summers on the family farm, and being frustrated when her parents refused to let her go with her three brothers on long camping trips in the New England mountains.

"I said, 'OK, I'm going to marry the first man that takes me camping,' " she said.

That man was Keffer Hartline, a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist, who took her on mountain-climbing vacations out West. Her husband, who died in 1983, encouraged her growing activism in conservation issues, but counseled her to be patient: "He said cultivate a sense of geological time," said Ms. Hartline.

That advice has seemed apt as she has pressed over the decades for additions to the state's wildlands system. Not everyone can stand to leave the land alone.

Wood-products companies, which dominate the economy of heavily forested Western Maryland, oppose "locking up" state forestland. They already have voiced opposition to the latest proposal, which would protect 6,000 acres in Allegany and Garrett counties.

"We already have wildlands," said Del. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican. "We've given our fair share."

He said that with the closure of the Bausch & Lomb sunglasses factory in Garrett, the state needs to boost the region's lagging economy, rather than put further restrictions on earning income from the extensive state-owned lands in the two counties.

But Ms. Hartline and Ms. Eastman are undeterred by such opposition.

"The long-term interest of every interest is to have the natural world stay in a vital functioning state," Ms. Hartline said. "People are waking up to this."

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