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Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, is trying harder to protect rare animals and plants, with the largest expansion of the state's Wildlands system since the areas were first created in 1973.
Associate director John F. Wilson has been with DNR for the better part of three decades, so he knows just how big of a deal the agency's latest wildland expansion proposal really is.
"The last time that we took a look at potential sites for wildlands was really back in 2002," he says. "This round is really taking a look at what I call the last great places in Maryland."
The wildlands are Maryland's version of the federal government's wilderness preservation system. Approved by the state's general assembly, they can include unique ecological, geological, scenic, and contemplative recreational areas.
Proposal would add vast tracts to wildlands
Right now the system is comprised of nearly 44,000 acres in 15 counties. The new proposal would add 27,000 acres to that total, expanding 17 current wildlands and creating 10 brand new wildland areas.
"Once these areas are lost, we can't replace them," Wilson says. "In conserving these areas, what we have to do is look into the future and say, 50 years from now, I think folks are going to say, 'They really did a good thing preserving these areas, and we still have them for our own use and enjoyment.'"
The new areas include 4,000 acres along the Youghiogheny River in western Maryland's Garrett County. DNR calls this the state's only "wild" river.
Twenty-six different rare, threatened or endangered species call the river home — among them, the green salamander and the hellbender, the largest salamander in North America.
In Calvert County, a proposed area in Parkers Creek is home to four globally rare insect species, including the Puritan Tiger Beetle.
"All these sites contain either rare or vanishing plants or animals, or both," Wilson says.
Mountain bikers want to go wild
Not many people get more enjoyment from Maryland's share of wilderness than mountain bikers like Todd Bauer.
Bauer is the advocacy director of Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, or MORE, a mountain biking club. He says expanding the state's share of wildlands is a good thing.
"Any time you can expand and preserve tracts of land, that's what we're all about — we're all about conservation and preservation of the natural lands. And especially areas where people might recreate," Bauer says. "So anytime you can expand upon that, we completely support those initiatives."
But there is one problem, at least from Bauer's point of view. Since 1995, mountain bikers have been prohibited from riding in Maryland Wildlands.
DNR's John Wilson explains: "Basically, in a wildland, you can hunt, you can kayak, you can raft, you can canoe, you can fish, you can trap," he says. You can also hike, run, and even ride a horse on the trails. "It's just one of the things prohibited is mechanical conveyance, i.e. a motorized vehicle, or the other thing that falls under that is mountain bikes."
Todd Bauer says the state's contingent of mountain bikers would love to throw its full support behind DNR's wildland expansion plan if the state reverses the prohibition on mountain bikes, which he says don't do any more damage to trails than horses.
But Bauer and other mountain biking advocates have been making the same argument to DNR for years.
"Their resistance is that both hikers and equestrians have both been around since colonial times. Unfortunately, we're not in colonial times any longer — this is a modern society," Bauer says.
DNR still weighing proposal specifics
Wilson says he might be more sympathetic to mountain bikers' concerns about the wildlands if the state didn't already have more than 1,000 miles of trails available to mountain bikes.
"More importantly, like I've told them, is we are developing new mountain bike trails," Wilson says. "In fact, we're developing new mountain bike trails in Deep Creek Lake State Park; we're developing a stacked loop system that will connect Harrington Manor with Swallow Falls State Park, and we're going to continue to look for new mountain bike opportunities — just not in these areas."
Wilson also says that mountain biking wouldn't even really be possible in most of the proposed expansion areas, because they're either too steep or too wet.
DNR is accepting online comments about the proposed areas until December 9. After that, it'll be up to the legislature to make the final decisions.
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