Not seeing the forest for the trees Timber: Wicomico County would set a bad precedent if it levels a stand of hardwood and pine to help pay for a proposed public park.

On the Bay

November 21, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND'S Program Open Space recently earmarked almost $1 million to preserve parkland. But the money's most immediate effect might be cutting down a large, old Eastern Shore forest.

Protecting forests gets lots of lip service -- and some action -- as study after study shows the value of forests for protecting water quality and maintaining wildlife and plant species.

But consider the proposals for the latest and largest park in Wicomico County on the lower Shore, and you wonder if we understand the difference between the price of timber and the worth of forests.

Program Open Space, a widely admired model of its type, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since 1969 preserving nearly 200,000 acres, including some of Maryland's finest natural areas.

But POS officials and the state Board of Public Works acted with less distinction when they approved $950,000 for the purchase of a 342-acre waterfront farm on the Wicomico River.

Clearly stated in the county's plan for the park was the possibility of saving money by leveling all or most of the mixed hardwood and pine forest that covers 228 acres of the site.

Gary Mackes, director of parks and recreation for Wicomico County, argues that he noted the commercial value of the timber -- $250,000 -- to convince state appraisers that the prime parcel of riverfront land was worth the private owner's asking price.

Mackes, while emphasizing that he will not decide on cutting timber without public input, says the woods are often too wet to walk in.

He also says a commercial forestry consultant has told the county that the 60- to 80-year-old pines on the site will "just lose economic value," succumbing to disease and pests, if they are not harvested quickly.

From a financial standpoint, logging two-thirds of the proposed park would be a sweet deal for local taxpayers.

The state, through POS, is covering not only the full $950,000 purchase price of the park but also three-fourths of the estimated $650,000 in park development costs. If the county harvests the trees, its share of the cost of development would be virtually nothing.

But what a sad precedent that would be.

I recently spent a couple of hours in the woods and found large sections eminently walkable and not at all wet. Even if water is standing in some parts for some of the year, a number of the finest forest walks in this state include wetlands, where narrow boardwalks have been built to carry visitors through low-lying areas.

It is an exemplary woodland, with a mixture of large pine, big oaks, beech and other hardwoods. The forest is hardly old-growth, but by modern standards it is impressive in size and diversity.

Additionally, large forest blocks covering hundreds of acres are getting rarer, and numerous birds depend on such unbroken tracts for survival.

Though Wicomico County has extensive forest, it is overwhelmingly in private ownership, often leased to hunting clubs and inaccessible to most citizens.

The pines, the most valuable timber on the park site, are susceptible to destruction by pine-bark beetles, as the county's forestry consultant remarked.

But other foresters familiar with the site confirm that the pines are scattered among several species of hardwood and are far less likely to be infested than in forests consisting of pure stands of pine.

If cut, the forest would most likely be replanted as a pure stand of pine, and then it might become vulnerable to pine-bark beetles if not routinely logged.

The consultant's advice to cut might make sense if this were not a public parkland, if Wicomico County were not losing forests by the thousands of acres as it adds residents by the tens of thousands, allowing some of the worst sprawl development in the state.

I suspect Mackes faces a difficult choice. He has been struggling for years to acquire this site, one of the last undeveloped properties available on the Wicomico River.

The elected officials of the county he works for (and where I live) too easily equate the public good with the minimum expenditure of tax dollars. Two commissioners voted against even taking the state money for the park.

But one might expect more vision from state land appraisers and from the Department of Natural Resources, which runs Program Open Space.

Here, in the nation's fifth most densely populated state, it seems insane to even think about spending a million dollars for open space preservation that leads to destruction of another forest.

2 men who fished illegally escape harsh punishment

In the spring, I wrote about two Saxis, Va., fishermen who used an illegal trawl net near the mouth of the Pocomoke River to reap a small fortune in hardheads -- netting 30 to 50 tons of the fish, worth $85,000, in one day alone.

A Virginia marine police officer would testify in court that the two watermen bragged to him that any fine he could levy would be an acceptable cost of doing business, so large were their profits.

They were right.

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