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Assembly approves record expansion of Maryland's wildlands

A record expansion of Maryland's "wildlands" passed the General Assembly Tuesday, as the House of Delegates gave final approval to an O'Malley administration priority to designate nealry 22,000 acres of sensitive state-owned lands as legally protected wilderness areas.

The measure, previously passed by the Senate, creates nine new wildlands and expands 14 existing ones in nine counties across the state.  The largest tracts are in rural western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. But there's even one in the heavily developed Baltimore area - an addition to Soldiers Delight, an ecologically rich swath of rocky soil and grassy savanna in Owings Mills that naturalists say is the largest ecosystem of its type on the East Coast.

Gov. Martin O'Malley hailed the passage of the wildlands bill, calling the tracts to be protected "the last remaining untouched landscapes and waterways of their kind, supporting sensitive ecosystems and many rare and vanishing plants and animals."

The legislature last designated new wildlands 12 years ago, expanding the system then to 29 areas in 15 counties, covering nearly 44,000 acres. Since then, the state has acquired new lands that meet wildlands criteria. Though some previous wildlands designations were controversial, the latest round was relatively noncontroversial because the administration dropped proposed additions to which rural lawmakers or local officials objected.

Wildlands are state-owned lands that have retained or recovered wilderness character, or that contain rare or plants or animals. Modeled on the federal wilderness system, the legislature designated the first wildland in Garrett County in 1973.  Development is largely prohibited in wildlands, as are motor vehicles and even bicycles.  Hiking, hunting, fishing, bird watching, horseback riding and nature interpretation are allowed.

For more on Maryland's wildlands, go here.

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