Early last week, the Department of Natural Resources initiated a pilot project that would transfer day-to-day operation of 11 wildlife management areas and demonstration forests in the state from its Wildlife Division to the Forest and Park Service.
The transfer, which has been expected for months, has caused concern among hunters and fishermen in the state, who have wondered loudly whether their favorite wild hunting lands and water courses would be transformed into parkland to be used heavily by bird-watchers, hikers and picnickers.
The pilot project, DNR Secretary John R. Griffin said Friday, will have virtually no effect on the present use of the 21,000 acres to be transferred. But, he added, the move lays the groundwork for increased public use in the future.
"Some sportsmen want to build moats around wildlife hunting areas, fill them with alligators and put up signs that say, 'Keep out,' " Griffin said.
"Hunters and sportsmen's clubs feel they are under siege, that they are becoming the minority. They have said they are concerned that this [change] might diminish their opportunities on these lands, but in the long run it should promote more hunting."
Paul Wolber, president of the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen Clubs, said early last week that though his constituency is not opposed to multi-use of public lands, public hunting areas have been "purchased by hunters for hunters" with funds raised from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and federal excise taxes paid on purchases of hunting and fishing equipment.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maryland received $4.3 million from federal excise taxes in fiscal 1995. To continue receiving the funds, under terms of the Pittman-Robertson Act, states must be able to prove that they are used only to support fish and wildlife activities.
Earlier this year, members of DNR's Wildlife Advisory Commission expressed concerns that the pilot project could result in the loss of federal funds.
Griffin said potential funding problems "have been worked out with USFWS" and most tracts now being purchased by the state for public use are being acquired with funds from the state's Program Open Space, rather than with Pittman-Robertson funds.
"We think it is important to save every penny of wildlife money to better deal with the issues of wildlife," Griffin said.
Wildlife Advisory Commission chairman Allen Swann, an early opponent of the pilot project, said the committee supports DNR's "desire for greater efficiencies in operations and expanding the use of all public lands. Public involvement will be vital to ensure our success."
Mark L. Hoffman, former associate director of the Wildlife Division, will head the pilot project, Griffin said, and Wildlife Division personnel "will still be running these areas."
The project has been limited, Griffin said, to allow an effective transition and to ensure that should the pilot project prove wanting, DNR won't have "to move the Russian Army back to the Wildlife Division."
The areas affected are: McKee-Beshers, Strider, Dierssen, Islands of the Potomac, Hugg-Thomas, Gwynnbrook, Earleville, Sideling Hill, Bowen and Deal Island WMAs and Elk Neck Demonstration Forest.
In each case, these are wild lands, virtually devoid of expansive parking areas, concession stands, bathhouses and the other trappings of the larger state parks such as Assateague or Sandy Point. And it is that natural state that makes the areas attractive ,, to hunters, fishermen and, increasingly, to other people who want to get away from the cities and suburbs for a day or a few hours.
"Increasingly, people articulate to us that the role the state land system should play is to give them a chance to get away from the more active recreation of local governments and to let them enjoy nature and find serenity," Griffin said. "Places like Sandy Point [state park near Annapolis] are a thing of the past. We can't afford to build them, can't afford to operate them, can't afford to police them."
The outlet for the changing needs of the recreation-minded would become more passive activities on public lands, where fish and wildlife may be viewed, angled or hunted.
And in the process, Griffin said, it may come to pass that as more people come to understand the wildlife of the state and the people who watch, fish or hunt it, the outdoors ethic will be strengthened.
"My view is that the number of hunters is decreasing in part from lack of exposure," Griffin said. "One solution is to open up more public lands to public use and to encourage public use, which eventually will promote more hunting and fishing in addition to more use by non-hunters and non-fishermen."
More hunters and more fishermen, of course, eventually would translate to more Pittman-Robertson funding, which would mean better wildlife and fisheries management.
But Griffin and DNR's wildlife managers also are looking ahead, seeking to more than double the federal funding the state receives for wildlife and fisheries programs.
"We are not going to jeopardize the federal funds we get," said Griffin. "In fact, the emerging reality is that there is legislation on Capitol Hill that would extend the federal tax base [for wildlife programs] beyond the traditional Pittman-Robertson parameters . . . And if that goes through it probably means to Maryland $6 million to $8 million in additional federal funding.
"So hunters and sportsmen say they don't want bird-watchers and trail walkers destroying their hunting grounds, but if the federal funding changes, we will have to, also," Griffin said.
"Why not be ahead of the 8-ball when that happens, rather than behind it."