About 1,000 acres of scrub Virginia pine will be removed over several years as part of a plan to restore Soldiers Delight near Randallstown, but state planners say the program is necessary to save rare plants being shaded by the pines.
"It seems bizarre to cut down trees when we're usually committed to saving them, but this is consistent with the state's intentions when it first started buying the property in 1969," said John Wilson of the Department of Natural Resources. He coordinated the work of several agencies in creating the plan.
The 2,000-acre natural environment area in northwestern Baltimore County was once part of a game-filled grassland that covered thousands of acres in northern Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Now it is covered with millions of Virginia pines. They are threatening 40 species of plants and prairie grasses -- including the lyrically named fringed gentian and sand plain gerardia -- that thrive on serpentine, a rock largely made up of magnesium silicate that creates soil as it weathers.
"It comes down to: Do we save the rare plants or remove some trees?" said Fraser Bishop, the forest ranger who has managed the state-owned park since 1984. "A lot of the normal things you do with forests don't apply because of the serpentine grasslands."
The plan, which will be discussed at a public meeting at the park tonight, also calls for low-intensity burning during winter months every three to five years to restore vitality to the grasslands and control pine growth.
dTC But the area will maintain the historic and natural character that draws nearly 100,000 visitors each year to its 20 miles of trails, Mr. Bishop said.
For thousands of years, the Susquehannock and other Indian tribes kept the grasslands almost free of woody growth by burning. That drove the abundant game into the hunters' range and also renewed the grassy growth by destroying dead vegetation.
The pines, which can tolerate the toxic and nutrient-poor serpentine that covers the area, slowly began to move in as the Indians departed. The trees' stunted forms now cover the hillsides and valleys of the park from Dolfield Road on the east to Liberty Reservoir on the west.
Now, they're threatening such herbs as the fringed gentian and the sand plain gerardia, which are found in only eight or nine places in the world, Mr. Bishop said. Little bluestem, a prairie grass once widespread on the property, still thrives on sunny, south-facing slopes.
A 10-acre tract already has been cleared of trees to see how the grasses and wildflowers respond to the absence of competition. An additional 20 acres will be cleared this summer and will be expanded as money for the project becomes available, Mr. Bishop said.
"We want everyone to understand that we're not going to suddenly go in and clear cut trees," Mr. Wilson said. "This is a long process that will be studied each step of the way."
The state agency is negotiating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Chesapeake Bay and Endangered Species Fund for money to move the project forward.
"The time frame for the clearing will depend on the money," said Janet McKegg, director of the state agency's Natural Heritage program. "A lot of work has been done by volunteers, but they'll need help on this."
Anneke Davis, vice president of the Maryland Conservation Council, an organization of private environmental groups, was cautious but positive in her assessment of the plan.
"There's still plenty of open space there for grassland and rare plants, but the plan seems to be a good one so long as they follow it carefully," she said, adding that she has studied Soldiers Delight for more than 20 years.
Terry Harris, chairman of the Baltimore-area conservation committee for the Sierra Club, said he needed to study the plan more, adding, "It appears to be reasonable on the surface."
The state agency will hold a public information meeting tonight at 7 o'clock at Soldiers Delight Visitors Center. Copies of the plan are available at the center on Deer Park Road.
The public will have 30 days from the date of the hearing to comment.