Losing wildland a 'sad mistake' Protest: Lawmakers got an earful from commercial timber interests, whose opposition to "locking up" 10,000-acre tract was more reflex than real concern.

On the Bay

March 01, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT IS SOMETIMES charged that environmentalists, in preserving nature, wish to "lock up" land from productive use.

So said bus loads of commercial timber interests who descended on the legislature recently to fight wildlands protection for some 10,000 acres of Western Maryland forest.

The vehement protest seemed as much visceral as economic, a matter of principle more than profit.

The whole 10,000 acres is less than 0.5 percent of Maryland's forests, and only about 1,600 acres -- less than a fifth of the 10,000 acres -- is potentially harvestable.

The timbermen also have tens of thousands of other acres available in Garrett and Allegany counties, and more in adjacent West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where many have their headquarters.

Still, they dominated the public hearing, and there may be a tendency for legislators to listen to them.

That would be a sad mistake, and a failure to comprehend how a forest is never really "locked up." Consider the oak-dominated hardwoods mainly at issue in Western Maryland:

To the timberman, such trees may be in their prime at 60 to 100 years old. Beyond that they don't add wood so rapidly, and a delay in harvest risks disease or wind or lightning damage.

But the same oaks, to squirrels and deer and wild turkey, may be just hitting their stride at 150 years, when acorn production peaks at a level that may last another century or more.

And to many songbird species in decline across the continent, the forest, unfragmented by timbering or development and studded with oaks of two, three and even four centuries, is habitat at its most productive.

The forest itself might say the best oak is the old giant that after half a millennium has died and crashed to the forest floor.

A sizable pit created by the uprooting, along with the bulk of the fallen tree, will trap and filter rain runoff, and dam up piles of leaves to rot into rich piles of compost, regenerating soils.

The "dead" tree bristles with new communities -- mosses, fungi, lichens, beetles, ants, microbes -- a whole ecosystem that enriches and amplifies the life of the forest.

Elizabeth K. Hartline, the woman who launched the Maryland Wildlands Committee in 1971, once told me she thought the hardest thing for people to do with land was "to just let it alone."

She was right then and still is, judging by the slow progress of the program whose purpose is to preserve an array of places that represent the range of Maryland's natural diversity, from peat bogs and shale barrens in the west, to cypress swamps and terrapin nesting beaches on the Shore.

After 25 years, a measly 15,000 acres, less than 0.3 percent of Maryland, is in wildlands.

Last year, the Department of Natural Resources suggested another 41,000 acres, of which about 23,000 survived for this year's legislative endorsement (or rejection).

Of these 23,000, the proposed 10,000 acres in Western Maryland are the richest and most diverse. These Western Maryland lands, too, have already been whittled down by several thousand acres to mollify timber interests.

Critics often misinterpret or misconstrue the wildlands concept. They say there is no real, untouched wilderness left in Maryland, and that one cannot stop nature from changing anyhow.

On both counts they are largely correct, but the intent of having wildlands is not some futile attempt to create a time capsule, or museum.

It is more akin to preserving a few rare stages on which nature's act can resume playing with minimal interference.

Wildlands still allow hiking, fishing, hunting and bird-watching. In addition, they are rare nuggets for scientific research -- refuges for rare plants and animals, and invaluable bases of comparison for evaluating our management of other, similar landscapes.

And our environmental management needs all the refinement it can get. Beth Hartline probably understated the case when she said that "doing nothing" is the hardest thing for us to do.

We may well be a species hard-wired to always check what's around the next bend and over the next hill; creatures compelled to always seek a straighter path through the thicket, a bridge across the river, ways to turn nature to our benefit.

For example, all Maryland's wildlands come from lands already in public ownership -- state forests, parks and wildlife areas -- places that should be relatively easy to let alone.

But even here our compulsion to manage is astoundingly strong: blast a pond to enhance waterfowl production; cut some forest to favor such huntable forest-edge species as deer and turkey; boost fiber production; bulkhead a little wetland for better canoe-launching facilities.

Our list of things to do, ways to manipulate nature to narrow ends, never ceases, never will.

That is why creating wildlands is a needed and civilizing exercise, a way of declaring a few timeouts, of creating islands from which to reflect on our oceans of progress.

Maryland's timber industry is a valuable part of the state's economy, and its work, when done well, can be one of the best ways to meld economic and environmental goals.

But it's not the only forest industry anymore. Revenues returned to Garrett County in recent years from all uses of state-owned forestlands are now split just about evenly as to source, between timbering and recreation.

And the balance, in a state whose population is growing rapidly, will continue to swing toward the needs of the latter.

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