State officials hunt for common ground on use of forestland

Need for compromise clear as interested parties speak out

May 01, 2000|By Joel McCord and Candus Thomson | Joel McCord and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

This land is my land, this land isn't your land.

The variation on Woody Guthrie's anthem is being sung by hunters, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts as they line up for their share of Chesapeake Forest, the 58,000 acres of Eastern Shore woods and wetlands the state bought last summer.

Like the settlers who took part in the great land rushes of the 1800s, many Marylanders have visions of the future built around their interests. State officials will spend the next several years listening to the competing requests and setting priorities.

It won't be easy.

In all its years of buying land for preservation and wildlife restoration, Maryland has never acquired so much land in one gulp. Altogether, the forestland bought by the state makes up an area slightly larger than the city of Baltimore.

"It's not just the sheer acreage," says Gene Piotrowski, director of resource planning for the state Department of Natural Resources. "There are more adjacent landowners than anything we've ever done."

The Chesapeake Forest purchase includes 450 parcels spread over five counties, with hundreds of abutting landowners whose feelings about the transaction range from mild to panicked. Information meetings about the land have attracted hundreds of people.

Maryland's challenge is similar to one South Carolina encountered two years ago when it purchased Jocasse Gorges, 42,500 acres of forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. That acquisition -- like the Chesapeake Forest purchase -- was financed with state and federal funds, the help of the Conservation Fund and a donation from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

"We heard from every imaginable user group," says Mike Willis, a spokesman for South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources. "Everything from horseback riders to mountain bikers to folks who think there shouldn't be any public access."

E. Joseph Lamp, a member of the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission, predicts the same type of lobbying and pressure as the state tries to develop its land-use plan: "When the bird people, when the horse people, hear about this -- there are a lot of constituencies that are going to be interested in how this land is used. If it's the state's money, it's the taxpayers' money."

Still, Maryland is a long way from handing out stakes.

Half of the Chesapeake forestland was purchased by the state, the other half by the Conservation Fund, which brokered the deal with Chesapeake Forest Products. The Conservation Fund is putting together a forestry plan for its 29,000 acres before transferring ownership to the state, a process that is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

The state has promised Conservation Fund officials that it will hold off on deciding how to use the land until after the transfer.

Hunting clubs

Complicating the planning are the decades-old leases the timber company signed with more than 300 private hunting clubs -- the bulk of them from the Baltimore area -- that allowed club members access in exchange for their care of the land.

"The only reason we were talking to the hunters was to make sure they understood the terms and that their leases would be good for another year," says Piotrowski.

But the interest from that group was immense. Three hearings -- in Easton, Salisbury and Annapolis -- drew almost 700 people last month.

Members of the hunting clubs say the leases should be automatically renewed for clubs in good standing. They've earned a right to stay, or at least have first right of refusal, they say.

Other groups "haven't paid their dues," says Ron Meyers, of the Sly Fox Hunting Club of Jessup, which leases land in Somerset County. "After our 30 years of stewardship, why should they be able to waltz in here and take it over? It's just not fair."

Hunters who don't belong to a club say that, at the very least, the larger tracts -- those larger than 400 acres -- should be opened to the public.

"If it was bought with state dollars and the lease comes up, everybody should have a right to hunt it or have an opportunity to lease it," says Dan Mastronardi, a hunter from Preston in Caroline County.

But the leaseholders and some owners of property adjacent to the hunting land worry that opening up Chesapeake Forest to the public could lead to a degradation of the environment. And, they say, the state lacks the resources and employees to oversee the land adequately.

"You think someone who hunts or hikes one day a year will clean up the trash, keep up the roads, cut the grass? If these leases are lost, you're going to have one big dumping ground on the Eastern Shore," warns Joe Smeljus of Kent Island.

Diverse groups unite

Despite the arguments among hunters over rights to the land, the purchase points up a new-found comity among hunters, anglers and environmental groups.

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