Those seeking to boost outdoor recreation and tourism in Western Maryland are also questioning the proposal to designate the Youghiogheny River corridor a wildland. The "Yough," as it's known, has already been designated as Maryland's first and only wild river, which affords it some legal protection from development and disturbance. It draws whitewater rafters and fly fishermen, but there are no roads or paved trails along its banks.
But a group seeking to boost outdoor recreation, including cycling, in Garrett County wants to include the river on a planned 150-mile trail that would loop down from Pennsylvania.
"We're not pushing to make it into an interstate highway or anything," said Mike Dreisbach, co-owner of the Savage River Lodge and president of Garrett Trails. But he said planners hope to extend a trail along the river or at least improve a short trail near Friendsville that follows an old rail bed.
"The more people that get to see it," he said of the river, "the more people will want to protect it."
Western Marylanders have chafed at wildlands in the past, noting that the state already owns a large chunk of land in Allegany and Garrett counties. Edwards, who represents the area, said wilderness areas generate little or no economic benefit for the region because access is limited to hikers for the most part and the lands are not available for commercial timbering or other revenue-generating activities.
"You would think the state would want to be a little more helpful in utilizing land they own in poor parts of the state instead of leaving them [alone]," Edwards said.
Purnell wants the state to help storm-battered Crisfield by allowing some amenities to be built on Janes Island. He'd like to start a ferry service to the island so more people would take advantage of its sandy beach on the Chesapeake Bay. He said a shelter, restrooms and a concession stand would help.
Wilson, the Department of Natural Resources' associate director for stewardship, defended the restrictions on wildlands activities and development, but said the state would try to work with those raising questions.
Addressing complaints from mountain bikers, he said there are plenty of other places in the 475,000 acres of state parks, forests and other public lands where they can ride. Janes Island is surrounded by salt marsh, he noted, and the beach has a rare beetle — the Northeastern Beach tiger beetle — which argues against more intensive use there.
Wilson said the Youghiogheny is so special that the state intends to keep access there limited, whether it is designated as a wildland or not.
"Not every square inch of public land is going to be available," he said. "There are resources we are charged with protecting — old-growth forest, habitat for rare and threatened plants and animals, wetlands, high-quality streams."
The Department of Natural Resources has been holding public meetings on the wildlands proposal, which are expected to wrap up Thursday. Written comments submitted by Dec. 9 will be considered by the agency. Officials will decide after that which lands will be proposed to the General Assembly for wildlands designation.
Conservationists back the wildlands additions, noting that the system now constitutes less than 10 percent of state-owned land. They say that besides protecting rare plants and animals, wildlands provide opportunities to learn about nature.
To Ajax Eastman, one of the leaders over the decades of efforts to establish wildlands, they are "spiritual recharge areas."
"You talk about religions,'' she said. "People like cathedrals — I love wildlands. ... They lift my spirits."
For more on the wildlands and public meetings to discuss them, go to news.maryland.gov/dnr/2013/09/27/.