ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Parts of Maryland's state parks have such rich and fragile ecosystems, state administrators say they'd never disturb them by paving roads or setting up picnic tables — let alone selling the rights for mining. But they want a state law to set that practice in stone.
Along with Gov. Martin O'Malley, they want to extend the strict protection of Maryland's Wildlands Preservation System to another 21,890 acres of state-owned land. Presently the state has 43,773 acres of wildlands.
The Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee heard testimony on the bill Tuesday.
"We get a lot of proposals from external parties," said John Wilson, associate director for stewardship at the Department of Natural Resources.
Besides coal-mining and gas extraction, these can include proposals for golf courses or prisons, for instance.
Maryland only allows "passive recreation" in its Wildland areas: hiking, hunting and trapping, fishing, bird watching, horseback riding. Even mountain-biking is off-limits. The state's environmentalists see them as sanctuaries for meditation and museums of biological history.
"They hold genetic information that we should no more destroy than the Gutenberg Bible," said Ajax Eastman, chair of the Maryland Wildlands Committee, during testimony Tuesday.
Some of these areas have rare species of animals and plants. The state lets their internal ecosystems evolve naturally, rather than by "active management," Eastman said. Even trimming their borders could endanger the breeding cycles of wildlife inside.
The state established its Wildland program in 1973 and last set aside new property in 2002. The DNR's current proposal would expand 14 existing Wildlands and designate nine new areas. The Wildland system presently spans 17 counties.
However, Tuesday's hearing drew one voice of opposition: Billy Bishoff, president of the Garrett County Farm Bureau. Bishoff said the state owns about 20 percent of his county's land, and because it doesn't pay property taxes, this basically drains the local economy.
The county receives 25 percent of the state's proceeds from timber sales on local land. But recently its timber income has dropped from about $1.5 million yearly to less than $100,000, as the state has scaled back the operation, Bishoff said.
Moreover, the state rejected a recent coal-mining proposal there, and a Wildland designation would almost ensure no one will harvest the land for natural gas either.
"We've talked a lot about the value of wildlands," Bishoff said. "But we're not talking about the resources that might be lost if we designated it wildlands."
Senators agreed the state should seek a way to offset Garrett County's losses.
The DNR sought public comment from each of the affected counties in preparation for this bill.