Seeking to bridge a recent history of suspicion, environmentalists and smart-growth activists are reaching out to hunters and anglers in Western Maryland, trying to enlist them in public debates about the development of the mountainous, mostly rural region.
It's an unusual overture. Hunters, in particular, fear that "tree huggers," as they sometimes call environmental activists, want to ban firearms or hunting for sport.
But with a 4,300-home development proposed near a state forest in Allegany County and a new highway project skirting another state-owned hunting area, activists see the region's many anglers and hunters as potential allies if alerted to how development could hamper their favorite outdoor activities.
"I'm trying to impress upon them the need for sportsmen to get involved in land-use issues," says Tom Mathews, a retired state wildlife biologist who's now spokesman for Citizens for Smart Growth in Allegany County. Mathews' group formed in opposition to Terrapin Run, a 1,000-acre development proposed on Scenic Route 40 near Green Ridge State Forest.
Mathews and a representative of the Nature Conservancy spoke last week at a meeting of the Allegany-Garrett Sportsmen's Association, a coalition of about 25 hunting and fishing clubs with maybe 4,000 members in all. The two activists urged the association's members to take aim on Allegany's comprehensive plan, the county's long-range development blueprint, which is due for revision next year.
"There is the threat -- maybe small now, but probably growing in the future -- of diminishment or degradation of hunting lands," Donnelle Keech, director of the conservancy's Allegany forests project, said in an interview before the meeting.
"As citizens, they have a right and arguably the obligation to be involved in it," she said of hunters.
The conservancy owns and manages 31 preserves in Maryland, encompassing 64,000 acres of land. But Keech acknowledged that she was nervous about facing a large group of wary, potentially hostile hunters and anglers.
"It's always a pleasure to talk to large roomfuls of well-armed men," she said in an interview before the meeting.
The anxiety was mutual. Mike Griffith, president of the sportsmen's association, said before the meeting, "I always perceived the Nature Conservancy as being a bunch of anti-hunting tree-huggers."
Keech said she is not a hunter but pointed out that the conservancy does not oppose the sport and allows it on some of the lands it has preserved. To her, forging an alliance with hunters and anglers to preserve forests and streams seems natural, she said.
"In a lot of ways, they were the original conservationists," she said.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who set aside more land for natural parks and nature preserves than all his predecessors, was an ardent hunter. But in more recent years, political disputes over gun control and animal rights have frayed the historical ties between hunters and environmentalists, intellectual descendants of those early conservationists.
Mathews, an avid fisherman, acknowledges that some environmental groups, made up mostly of urban and suburban members, have alienated hunters and anglers by seeking to curtail traditional activities on public lands..
The activists' message received a positive response from the sportsmen's association president. Griffith, a Frostburg resident, said he's willing to work with these two groups, at least in looking out for the future of the Western Maryland landscape.
"I'm 56 years old, not getting any younger," he said. "I'm worried about what's going to be here for the people behind me. ... We're just stewards of the ground, passing through."
Once a thriving center of manufacturing, mining and logging, Western Maryland has struggled for decades as those industries have faded. With unemployment high and population flagging in the region, economic development is a priority for local officials -- who support new housing and highway projects as job and business generators.
"I'm all for growth," Griffith says. "I'm not one of those `not in my backyard' guys." But Griffith says he wants to ensure that economic development does not cost the region too much of its natural bounty and rural, outdoors-oriented quality of life.
Griffith said he was slow to take notice of the dispute around Terrapin Run, which has been dogged by legal challenges since it was approved in 2005 by the Allegany Board of Zoning Appeals. The state Court of Special Appeals recently upheld that approval, overturning a lower-court victory by opponents of the development.
The sportsmen's association has given a donation to the county Smart Growth group, Griffith said. If built as proposed, Terrapin Run would become Allegany's second-largest community.
"Smart growth is building something like that closer to where you have basic infrastructure already," Griffith said. "You don't go out in the middle of the boonies and say, `I'm going to put up a town.'"