Dangerous territory: posting state forest

November 26, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Throw the bums out. If not now, in January.

Bring in the Prince of Darkness, Joe Steffen, to clean house at the Department of Natural Resources. If he's busy, pick another hatchet man and give him a fistful of pink slips.

Any DNR official involved in creating the conflict between hunters and an upscale private resort at Savage River State Forest in Western Maryland should be on notice. Taxpaying citizens should never have to beg their government to ensure access to public land.

The story is this: The owner of the Savage River Lodge in eastern Garrett County pulled strings and got DNR to post bright yellow signs prohibiting hunting in the portion of Savage River State Forest that abuts his property and the access road leading to it.

Mike Dreisbach, who opened the lodge about six years ago, says some of his guests have become frightened when they encounter hunters while hiking or cross-country skiing.

It's hard to have sympathy for a man -- an avid hunter -- who buys 42 acres surrounded by 54,000 acres of public hunting land and is shocked when hunters show up. Further, it takes a lot of gall to ask for more special treatment, when the state has given you permission to build an access road and trails on public land.

As a result of Dreisbach's request, a 150-yard buffer was established around the lodge and cabins, a hiking trail and Mount Aetna Road. That buffer cut off hunting access to 640 acres of state forest during this year's bear season and early muzzleloader season for deer.

There were no public hearings, no notification of other abutting property owners, no drafting of emergency regulations. If you didn't know better, you might swear that the signs marched into the woods and nailed themselves to trees.

It wasn't until hunters went to scout for deer about two months ago that anyone was aware of DNR's sleight of hand.

Maybe whoever holds the insurance on the lodge insisted on the buffer and put Dreisbach in a bind. Or maybe the sound of gunfire clashed with the "New American Classics" served at his restaurant.

Who did what to whom has disintegrated into a lot of finger-pointing and denials on the part of legislators, top DNR officials and Dreisbach, all well-covered by Mike Sawyers, a fellow outdoors writer at the Cumberland Times-News.

Now, bureaucrats at the state agency are trying to explain their way out of this and would talk out of three sides of their mouths, if only their Creator had been kind enough to give them an extra one.

As far as I can tell, after poking around a bit myself, a state delegate who does not represent the area asked Gov. Bob Ehrlich last spring to help out his friend, Dreisbach. A phone rang at DNR headquarters, and with the November election just around the corner, "someone" decided to play it safe.

But by approving the signs, that "someone" bent state law and gave Dreisbach a deal afforded no other Marylander who has land abutting a state forest.

Delegate LeRoy Myers confirmed to Sawyers that he set the wheels in motion for a meeting with DNR officials only after Dreisbach claimed he couldn't find his own state lawmaker, George Edwards.

Anyone who knows Edwards knows he's plenty easy to reach, so that alibi doesn't cut it. Myers also said he would have made more of an effort to contact Edwards himself if he had known that the issue was going to turn ugly.

First of all, more of an effort would have been any effort at all, and how hard would it have been for one Western Maryland lawmaker to contact a colleague? Second, what was the rush? Third, why would Myers muck around outside his own district? Too much time on his hands?

To make matters worse, Edwards told Sawyers that DNR did not contact him or John Hafer, the area's state senator, before establishing the no-hunting zone.

Despite claims by DNR and Dreisbach that the citizens advisory board for Savage River State Forest (of which Dreisbach is a member) voted to endorse the no-hunt zone, Edwards said he could find no record of it.

"There's some things here that ought not to have been done," Edwards said.

Hunters have been fighting back.

"There's a lot of political pull in this, but we're doing what we can," said Sid Turner, a hunter and Garrett County business owner who has helped spearhead the fight.

After a series of meetings, hunters got a minor concession, just in time for the start of yesterday's modern firearms deer season. While they cannot hunt in the 640 acres, they will be allowed to carry unloaded guns, said Steven W. Koehn, the state forester.

Dreisbach is still getting a better deal than anyone else.

Edwards, who with the retirement of Hafer will become state senator in January, wants DNR to "follow the rule book."

He says the state law that bans hunting within 150 yards of occupied dwellings does not mention access roads or hiking trails.

There are plenty of hiking trails in Maryland that pass through prime hunting areas and haven't been included in Dreisbach's deal. Not a single hiker, bird watcher, paddler or horseback rider has ever been injured by a hunter, according to Natural Resources Police records.

It's time for the Maryland Sportsmen's Association, the Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus and other hunting groups to demand answers before darkness envelopes DNR.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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