Md. Senate passes plan to preserve more wildlands; lawmaker says state should consider local impact

The long-standing tension between rural Marylanders and their metropolitan cousins was on display Friday as the Senate passed legislation creating nine new state wildlands areas and expanding 14 others.

The bill passed unanimously, but not before Sen. George C. Edwards, a Republican who represents Garrett County, lightly chastised fellow lawmakers for setting aside more land as pristine wilderness without fully considering the economic impact on the people who live there.

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“There’s some people here that would like to buy the whole county and put a fence up and a gate, and run everybody out, and say, ‘Here’,” Edwards said in an interview. “But you have to understand people live there and make a living off the land.”

Supporters of the bill backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said the measure will help slow development and provide Marylanders with more room for hiking, fishing and other noninvasive forms of recreation in the outdoors.

Edwards, in his floor speech, said setting aside more land as untouchable wildland will cut back on production of timber, coal, and other minerals, hinder people from building new cabins on those lands that bring visitors to the region, and create other negative impacts for nearby property owners. He said the risk of forest fires will likely increase because traditional forest management, such as cutting underbrush, is limited in areas set aside as wildlands.

“All you have to do is look out west where they don’t clean out the underbrush, and they have had all these forest fires,” Edwards said. “We’re going to have more of them in Maryland because they’re not going to be managing the forest the way they used to.”

And yet local fire fighters will be asked to put out any forest fires that start, he said.

There are approximately 44,000 acres in 29 separate preserves, similar to federal wilderness areas, in Maryland’s wildlands system, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services. The areas are devoted to public use for recreation, scientific, educational and historical uses. The trappings of civilization – roads, motorized equipment and permanent structures – are generally banned.

Edwards, who said he is not a foe of conservation, argued that the state already owns 25 percent of the land in Allegheny and Garrett counties and should perhaps look elsewhere. Yet once again, he said, the state looked mostly to Garrett and Allegheny counties for 16,000 acres to conserve, a figure since reduced to 12,000 after the Youghiogheny River valley in Garrett County was removed from the initial proposal.

At the same time that the state is further encroaching on the western region’s economy, Edwards said, the government has also cut back on other forms of aid, such as shared park revenue funds. Garrett County’s share of such funds fell from $1.5 million five years or so ago to $97,000 when the state took back that money, Edwards said.

“Most people from my part of the state feel that people in the metropolitan area try to run what happens in our part of the state when it deals with natural resources and or state land and what they do on state land, not fully understanding what the consequences and impact are,” Edwards said in an interview.

 
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