Maryland eyes expanding wildlands

November 02, 2013|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The call for the wild is being heard again across Maryland — though not everyone welcomes it.

More than a decade after the last addition to the state's network of wildlands, Department of Natural Resources officials have proposed a major expansion of the legally protected wilderness areas, including a section of northwestern Baltimore County. They want to preserve from development, cars and even bicycles those spots that still harbor rare plants and animals, ancient trees and other remnants of what Maryland looked like before European settlers arrived nearly 400 years ago.

"These are the last great places of Maryland," said John F. Wilson, who is coordinating the agency effort to name additional wildlands. "These are places where you can get as close to solitude as possible in a state like Maryland, on the highly developed East Coast."

If all get legislative approval, the state's nearly 44,000-acre wildlands system would be expanded by more than half. The last additions were made in 2002.

The move is welcomed by bird-watchers and conservationists, who say that as the state population grows and sprawls, this might represent the last chance to give the highest level of protection from human disturbance to Maryland's remaining natural gems.

"The people here need a place where they can see the Earth, wildlife and plant life as nature left it, or God created it," said Chris Yoder, conservation co-chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.

But some are skeptical because wildland status would bar commercial activities such as timbering and limit some recreational pursuits, including mountain biking. While hiking, primitive camping and often hunting and fishing would be permitted, building amenities such as picnic tables, shelters or paved trails would be prohibited.

"I have some questions — I know my constituents up here have a lot of questions," said state Sen. George Edwards, a Republican who represents Allegany and Garrett counties, where six of the 10 new wildlands would be created.

Others are outright opposed to the wildlands proposal, which covers nearly 27,000 acres in nine counties. On the Eastern Shore, Crisfield Mayor Percy J. Purnell Jr. objects to turning nearby Janes Island State Park into a wildland, saying that "the state's got enough wilderness." He'd like to build facilities on the marshy Chesapeake Bay island to draw tourists there, in hopes it might help revive his town, which was devastated last year by superstorm Sandy.

The only site proposed in the Baltimore area is an addition to Soldiers Delight, an ecologically rich swath of rocky soil and grassy savanna in Owings Mills that officials say is the largest of its type on the East Coast.

Known as a serpentine barren, Soldiers Delight is the last significant vestige of the largely treeless landscape that once stretched from northern Maryland into Pennsylvania, a byproduct of unusual geology and the Native Americans' practice of setting fires there to flush game. The thin, rocky soil — with greenish chromite, asbestos and other minerals in it — provides habitat for 40 rare plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else in the state.

"If you're into biodiversity conservation, this is the real deal," said R. Wayne Tindall, a DNR ecologist who coordinates efforts to restore natural habitat on state lands. He said it's hard to step off any of the unpaved trails through the 1,000-acre tract without stepping on a rare plant.

Soldiers Delight, one of the state's richest ecosystems, is also one of the most threatened. Virginia pine trees and thorny greenbrier bushes have overgrown much of the area, crowding out the scattered oaks and tall grasses that once covered the landscape. With volunteer help, state ecologists are slowly removing the pines and staging controlled fires to burn off the non-native vegetation and re-create the savanna-like conditions.

The state wants to expand Soldiers Delight by 341 acres, with some additions intended as buffers against suburban development and others as more remnants of the rare ecosystem. A hearing on that proposal is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Soldiers Delight visitors' center, 5100 Deer Park Road.

State lawmakers established Maryland's wildlands system in the early 1970s, modeling it on the federal wilderness law passed by Congress in the 1960s. Since then, 29 wildlands have been designated in 15 counties.

Wildlands have generated controversy before, and some are voicing questions and objections to one or more of the new sites under consideration.

The region's mountain-biking organizations, for instance, say they don't want to lose the right to ride on any more state-owned land. Under state law, motor vehicles and "mechanical transport," including bicycles and snowmobiles, are not permitted on wildlands.

Mountain bikers contend that they don't tear up vegetation or cause erosion any more than horseback riders, who are permitted.

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