Posting seems like sign of DNR favoritism

December 03, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Can't anyone at the top of the Department of Natural Resources take responsibility for closing off public land in Savage River State Forest?

With all the skulking and mysteriously appearing pronouncements on the agency Web site, what at first seemed to be a minor matter has blossomed into a full-scale exhibit of state government at its worst.

Hunters all over the state are in an uproar and want answers. State lawmakers such as Garrett County's Senator-elect George Edwards want an explanation. Even non-hunters should worry what will happen to their access to public lands when sweetheart deals are made in backrooms.

"This sets a dangerous precedent. It could have a snowball effect," says Wendy Donahoo, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association. "What's to stop any other private enterprise or private citizen that borders a state forest from demanding the same thing?"

Donahoo has contacted waterfowl hunters and others to warn them that they could be next.

At DNR, the stonewalling continues. People trying to hold on to their jobs are working overtime to stay one step ahead of angry citizens.

Attention assistant secretary Mike Slattery: This is not an isolated situation and it's not going to go away, no matter how many times you say it's so to lobbyists, hunting buddies and your bosses. Savage River may be on the far side of the state, but it's not on another planet.

In January, Slattery, who made no secret of his desire to become DNR secretary in a second Ehrlich administration, tried to do a favor for a friend of a friend of the governor.

Mike Dreisbach, owner of the upscale Savage River Lodge, complained that hunters in the state forest were coming too close to his 42-acre landlocked property.

Slattery instructed one of his employees, state forester Steve Koehn, to make Dreisbach happy.

In August, Koehn posted "No Hunting" signs beyond what the law stipulates to create a buffer for the lodge.

No public hearing, no comment period, no notification of other abutting property owners. All of a sudden, 60 or 193 or 640 acres of state land - take your pick, DNR keeps changing the number -were declared off limits to some of the people who pay for it.

Surprised hunters came across the signs while scouting this fall. They cried foul. Edwards demanded answers. At this point, DNR could have fixed things in time for hunting season, but officials stuck their fingers in their ears.

Secretary Ron Franks promised to look into it and then vanished into the final days of his lackluster tenure. Edwards says he thought he had set up a meeting between the hunters and Slattery, but Slattery didn't show.

Then late Thursday afternoon, DNR put a stealth pronouncement on the agency Web site, five mouse clicks from the home page.

The release explains that the state reacted to "a single complaint" and botched the process "in its quest to act urgently."

It goes on: "Complicating matters further, the signs that were posted incorrectly stated that all weapons are prohibited from the safety zone, when in fact only loaded weapons are prohibited."

So, we're being asked to believe that DNR had seven months to answer one man, ignored the public, and then urgently nailed up the wrong signs?

Further, the Web posting explains that DNR granted the expanded safety zone "to minimize the likelihood that a citizen could be accidentally hurt."

Now, remember, the state has thousands of acres of mixed-use lands from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, where hikers, bikers, birders and hunters cross paths. Are we to believe that Savage River is the only public land where non-hunters are in danger, or can we expect to see more secret signs in the woods?

Let me back up here for a minute.

I have nothing against the 150-yard safety buffer zone required around occupied homes. Dreisbach is entitled to a cushion around his lodge and cabins just like any other homeowner.

But what Dreisbach is not entitled to is an additional buffer zone around the access road to the lodge and hiking trails that extend into state forest land.

I don't have that. You don't have that. No one else has that.

Slattery, state forest supervisor Larry Maxim and Dreisbach have all claimed a 12-citizen forest advisory board - to which Dreisbach belongs - voted to approve the no-hunting zone.

But Edwards received a letter from the chairman of that board that says members "neither approved or disapproved DNR's signage and the no-firearms zone around the Savage River Lodge."

So now DNR is saying that the Montgomery County-based Izaak Walton League is in favor of the expanded buffer zone.

"I guess they think they know what's best for Garrett County," says Mike Griffith, the head of the 2,000-member Allegany-Garrett Sportsmen's Association. "They really ought to poll their members up here before getting behind something like this."

Sid Turner, a Garrett County businessman and hunter who has used the forest for 30 years, isn't buying DNR's online story.

"I think they're trying to cover their tracks and got caught," Turner says. "Everyone has been caught with their pants down, and they're backpedaling and hoping and praying that they get to keep their jobs when this is all over and done with."

In its statement, the agency says the buffer zone is only "provisional," and the matter will be reviewed early next year.

While things might get better, they could get worse. Dreisbach, according to The Washington Post, "will push the new O'Malley administration to approve a bigger safety zone around his cabins, access road and trails, in hopes a change in personnel in Annapolis will help his case."

Meanwhile, out in Garrett County, the "posted incorrectly" signs prohibiting hunting are still nailed to trees.

"Where does this stop?" Griffith asks. "I'd like it to stop right here."

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