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We're just wild about Wildlands, but they come at a cost

Maryland will preserve an additional 22,000 acres as wildlands if state legislators can reconcile two bills currently under consideration. One bill has passed the House and is now in the Senate; another has passed the Senate and is now in the House. An agreement may not be far off.

The Department of Natural Resources describes the Wildlands Preservation System as parcels of land or water that are owned by the state and that have "retained their wilderness character or contain rare or vanishing species of plant or animal life or similar features worthy of preservation." The General Assembly must approve the designation, although legislators have not set aside land for more than a decade. The program itself has been around for more than 40 years.

More than half of the properties in these bills are in two western counties, Garrett and Allegany, and the state senator for those counties expressed some concerns before he finally voted for the bill. The problem, he said, is that the state already owns a good deal of property, as much as 25 percent, in those western counties.

Designating property as wildlands takes it off the table for future development and, of course, future tax revenue. In many cases, it also takes mineral rights off the table. Even if Maryland's shale will not produce the highest quality of gas (see our Feb. 11 post), losing the mineral rights puts any hope of profit to bed for good.

Revenue is not the only problem, the senator told his colleagues. There are also expenses associated with the wildlands, expenses that fall to the counties to cover. Local governments pick up the tab for clearing underbrush, for example. If it is not taken care of, there is a greater risk of fire -- and local fire departments, supported by the local governments, would have to respond. The state does not underwrite these expenses in any way.

A wildlands designation also limits what visitors can do on the land. Activities are limited to "passive recreation," like hiking, hunting and fishing. The Senate approved an amendment that removed a couple thousand acres along the Youghiogheny River Corridor from the plan, where Garrett County expects to extend an existing bike trail.

The Yough Corridor agreement was enough to sway the senator to support the bill. The complications of the designation, however, remain.

Sources: 

The Washington Examiner, "Senate passes bill to add 22,000 Wildland acres," Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2014

News-Times, "House passes wildland expansion measure," Feb. 25, 2014

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