Assembly moves to protect pristine Appalachian forest

Garrett woods to become botanical research site and off-limits to logging

April 11, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

The Maryland General Assembly has protected one of the oldest and most pristine oak forests left in the Appalachian region, and has encouraged scientists to prospect for botanical medicines in the steep, secluded woods, under a deal struck by conservationists and Garrett County legislators.

Two 2,000-acre stands of oaks, hemlocks, maple and beech in Savage River State Forest have been designated as "wildlands," forever off-limits to most kinds of human alteration, including logging and trail-building.

One of the tracts, containing trees that date to Colonial times, will also be used as a research site for the study of once-common mountain plants, such as ginseng and goldenseal, which were used as medicines centuries ago by Native Americans and European settlers.

Conservationists proposed setting aside the two Savage River old-growth stands last winter, expecting a fight from politicians in Garrett County, which has been a logging center since before the Civil War.

But Republican Del. George C. Edwards of Grantsville, who blocked a 1997 attempt to designate one Savage River tract as a state-protected wildland, this time agreed to co-sponsor the conservationists' proposal.

With support from Edwards and other Garrett County legislators, the bill passed the Senate unanimously, and earlier this month the House approved it, 137 to 1. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to sign the bill.

"I was thrilled to be able to get this through," said the chief sponsor, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. "I thought we were going to have a big battle."

Edwards said he changed his mind after Garrett County conservationists "convinced me there are some old-growth forests out there that need to be protected." He said he was reassured when conservationists told him they do not plan to seek more wildlands designations or oppose all timber-cutting in the area.

But Edwards and Department of Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox said no agreements were made to steer clear of future wildlands proposals or increase the amount of timber-cutting permitted in the state forest.

Before the bill passed, the rare old trees were temporarily off-limits to timbering, but DNR officials could have permitted logging there after next year.

One of the new wildlands - a tract called the Savages that lies above the chilly, fast-flowing Savage River - will be open to hiking and hunting, but not to most other uses.

The other site, on the slopes of Savage Mountain, will be the wild heart of a proposed new Appalachian Center for Ethnobotanical Studies, a venture of Frostburg State University, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and West Virginia University.

Veteran conservationist Ajax Eastman was one of the environmentalists who reluctantly agreed to leave the Savages off the wildlands list in 1997, in exchange for legislative approval of 25 other wildlands.

"It's wonderful to have that back," Eastman said. "As for the other part ... we'll have to be eternally vigilant" to make sure that research doesn't interfere with protecting the land.

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