Seeking to preserve more of Maryland's wilderness, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed setting aside 5,700 acres of state park and forest as "wildlands" that would be off-limits to logging, driving or other mechanized disruptions.
The proposal would expand wildlands in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas and would extend protection to patches of forest and soil that have escaped saws and plows for the past 350 years.
"When you're looking to save what little remains in urbanized areas, you're hard put to find something like Yosemite," said Glen Besa, Maryland chairman of the Sierra Club. Even so, he noted that less pristine sites have the potential of reverting to wilderness if left alone.
The governor's proposal comes just six months after he won legislative approval to more than double the state's wildlands to 37,000 acres.
Ajax Eastman, co-chairman of the Maryland Wildlands Committee, said she was particularly pleased by a new designation in the Hereford area of Gunpowder Falls State Park because it would link two wildlands. Altogether, more than 2,200 acres of forested stream gorges, straddling Interstate 83 in Baltimore County, would be protected.
State officials have begun seeking public comment on the nine tracts nominated. Hearings, which run through next week, are being held near the tracts. Depending on the response, state officials plan to submit the sites to the General Assembly next year.
Though generally applauded by environmentalists, the governor's proposal is drawing criticism from mountain bikers, who complain that they would be evicted from a couple of their favorite spots for off-road pedaling.
"You're basically telling them they may not be able to do this," said Dave Magill, a spokesman for Midatlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, or MORE, a mountain-biking group claiming more than 200 members. Bikers object in particular to wildlands designation for two sites: 750 acres in the Sweet Air section of Gunpowder Falls State Park near the Harford-Baltimore County line, and 650 acres in Patuxent River State Park in Howard and Montgomery counties.
Magill said he and other bikers support the idea of protecting wild areas from disturbance, but they contend that the state's wildlands law, enacted in 1971, unfairly excludes bicycling while permitting other forms of recreation, such as hunting, fishing and horseback riding.
"At the time the law was written, nobody thought of bikes as
another means of transporting people through a natural setting," Magill said. He asserted that off-road biking is no more harmful to plants and animals than approved forms of recreation.
Gene Piotrowski, resource planning director for the state Department of Natural Resources, acknowledged that the increasingly popular sport of mountain biking didn't exist when lawmakers first decided to set aside wilderness areas. But he defended the exclusion, saying that "the premise of a wildland is its naturalness, that man-made conveyances aren't allowed."
Piotrowski acknowledged that some might say hunting or horseback riding also disrupt wild areas, but he said those activities are permitted because of their historic link to the European exploration and settlement of America.
Eastman endorsed the state's position, saying: "I just worry that maybe if we let this activity in or that activity in, they'll just get loved to death or nibbled to death and not be what a wildland should be."
State officials acknowledge that some of the proposed parcels are not as pristine as previous wildlands, but they say that was the trade-off demanded by Western Maryland legislators to win the General Assembly's approval last spring of the major, 22,700-acre wildlands expansion.
The General Assembly passed that measure on condition that tracts in Central and Eastern Maryland be found to replace a wildland in Western Maryland, where legislators say too much land had been set aside.
If approved by the General Assembly next spring, designation of the replacements will result in the loss of protection for what environmentalists call "the crown jewel" of the state's pristine areas -- a 3,150-acre tract in mountainous Garrett County's Savage River State Forest.
"Face it, the most ecologically important wildlands we could have are in Western Maryland, where there are big blocks of forest and more biological diversity," said Eastman. "These are never going to be as important as the ones in Western Maryland."
"They may not have the degree of uniqueness maybe of the initial wildlands," said Piotrowski. But they still represent "pockets of genetic diversity," he said. He cited the addition of newly acquired state land at Belt Woods, which is a patch of virgin forest in Prince George's County, and Chicone Creek Woods in Dorchester County, which experts believe has never been cultivated.
"If there was the opportunity of doing it 50 years ago, they would have been better," he noted, "but if we don't do it today, what will we have in 10 years?"