MORE THAN 60 percent of Garrett County is forested, and that's amazing. When lumbermen followed the railroad into Garrett County a hundred years ago, hardly an acre escaped the axe, according to state forest ranger Warren Groves.

But today you'd never know it -- thanks to time, nature and scientific forestry.

Most of today's Garrett County forests are in private hands. There's not a square foot of national forest, but there are nearly 73,000 acres of state forest.

The state's timber management program started in 1906, when John and Robert Garrett gave 2,000 acres of cutover land near Swallow Falls on condition that a forestry program be set up.

The state forests are now managed for timber (which brings cash to state and county) and recreation, not necessarily an easy combination. By choosing the type of cutting used, Groves says, both needs can be satisfied while wildlife habitat is restored and protected.

To demonstrate that, the rangers at Savage River State Forest have developed a self-guided automobile tour that takes you to various management areas and explains what is being done. It's a beautiful drive and a real eye-opener. You can get a copy at forest headquarters on New Germany Road.

At 53,000 acres, the forest encompasses parts of three mountains -- Big Savage, Meadow and Negro (all about 3,000 feet high) -- the eastern continental divide, the headwaters of two rivers and a 2,000-acre wildland.

Two state parks, New Germany and Big Run, lie within this, the largest state forest in Maryland. Other developed areas include the Savage River Reservoir and a 17-mile backpacking trail along the crest of Big Savage Mountain from the Savage River Dam to Interstate 48.

There are two other state forests in Garrett County. The Potomac State Forest includes 12,400 rugged acres in scattered plots in the southeastern part of the county near the headwaters of the Potomac River.

Garrett State Forest is where the state forestry program began. It is west of Oakland; both Herrington Manor and Swallow Falls state parks are within its 7,400 acres.

SAVAGE RIVER STATE FOREST -- Route 2, Box A63, Grantsville MD 21536.

POTOMAC & GARRETT STATE FORESTS -- Route 3, Box 256, Deer Park MD 21550. 301/334-2038.