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The State Forests: They Are A-Changin’
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by Mark Diehl | 2005

Serving on the Savage River State Forest’s (SRSF) Citizens Advisory Board as the conservation representative since 1997 has been an interesting, educational and sometimes rewarding experience. The depth and breadth of potential issues involved are nothing short of exceptional. The disproportionate attention given to timber extraction makes one think that one of Maryland’s largest state forests is just a bunch of trees. There are so many competing interests for this special Maryland treasure that I am sometimes left wondering what its future will be.

One thing is definite, though: Under the current state administration, timber interests are once again kings. Add to this mix the fact that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently reorganized, and Parks and Forests are now under separate management structures. Also, DNR rangers were transferred to DNR Natural Resources Police. Gone are the familiar park rangers, with whom the public developed special relationships over the years.  DNR hasn’t seen a re-organization of this magnitude for many years. Non-extractive activities on our state forests are being relegated to a lower priority.

How this all translates on the ground remains to be seen. It has already been revealed that maintenance of the 17-mile Big Savage Mountain hiking trail will cease. It’s really up to volunteers now more than ever to care for this trail. Apparently, the new management priorities do not include existing SRSF manpower to be used to maintain this popular backpacking trail.

 Recent timber harvests are at all-time highs in SRSF, with DNR’s fiscal year 2007 target set at 2.5 million board feet. There is now a two-year backlog of approved timber sales on the books. All DNR has to do to ratchet up the timber harvest level is to simply issue the order. Garrett County gets 25 cents on every dollar earned from timber and park concession activities within the Savage River/New Germany complex (payment in lieu of taxes). This translates to approximately $400,000 per year (or about 1 percent of Garrett County’s annual operating budget), depending on the value of timber in a given year.  DNR keeps the rest.

There’s gold in them thar trees – easy money with relatively little overhead incurred.   DNR’s portion of publicly owned timber-sale profits goes into the Forest and Park Reserve Fund—a special fund that DNR maintains separately from appropriations made by the legislature. Translated: These monies are used discretionarily across DNR; they do not remain within the operating budget of the local forest unit itself.

Pity, because if SRSF were operated as a profit center, miracles could be worked.  A fantastic array of forest recreation opportunities could result, as well as increasing demand for habitat protection. The laundry list is long: boat-launching facilities; hiking trail maintenance; creation of appropriately sited off-road vehicle trails; expansion of cross-country skiing and mountain-biking trail systems; maintenance/improvement of camping facilities; wildlands’ boundary signage; interpretive educational signage; expansion of the wildlands’ system; invasive species removal, just to name a few. 

Such recreational and conservation goals are simply not a priority now in the management of our state forests, despite the fact that repeated studies show a markedly larger income for the local economies from non-extractive activities than income generated from timber sales. The timber industry is a well-established and well-funded voice. Recreational interests tend to be more individual-oriented, hence their voices are not cohesive and heard — they are simply the silent majority.

 Again, non-extractive activities are taking a lower priority, and how this all translates on the ground remains to be seen. The current DNR management philosophy, as influenced strongly by the current state government administration, has turned back the clock. DNR is pursuing the old strategy of “multiple-use management,” wherein its focus of expertise is to prioritize economic returns (a.k.a. – cut it and then see what else it can be used for).  In the case of our state forests, this means fundamentally managing trees for profit, not for ecosystem and recreational services.  DNR’s approach to land management ignores the very important role that state forests should play in providing balance to the regional landscape’s predominance of even-aged and highly fragmented, private forest lands.

If we don’t have our voices heard on the myriad issues facing our state forests, they may soon turn into glorified tree farms, replete with new, intrusive roads and the concomitant trash dumping, invasive exotic species, and motorized abuses that will inevitably follow. To know and love an area is to fight for its protection. 

Please join us on day hikes that will be planned for the coming year to explore the state forests of western Maryland. Be sure to watch for announcements that will be posted in future issues of Chesapeake.    n

Mark Diehl is conservation chair of the Western Maryland Group of the Sierra Club.

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