Plan to sell parkland demands our scrutiny

Kai Hagen

November 25, 2004

Every newspaper in Maryland has had one or more articles recently about the prospect that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources could sell some state parkland.

If you haven't read it already, at the request of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Department of Natural Resources generated a list of 54 properties (roughly 3,000 acres) for possible sale. The information was released last week in response to a public records request, confirming earlier unofficial reports the administration was quietly working to sell public land to private buyers.

Administration officials have since described the properties as surplus land, pointing out that it represents only a fraction of state land and asserting that the varied parcels were isolated, had "minimal natural resource value," or were too difficult or expensive to manage.

Even if that were the whole story, it would be worthy of the attention it has received. It isn't every day that a small state experiencing rapid growth and widespread sprawl chooses to reduce its inventory of public forests and open space. It's especially newsworthy when it's the same state that had, until recently, been a national leader in forward-looking land preservation efforts.

Still, it is conceivable that Maryland holds some properties it would make sense to sell: A small parcel in dispute here, an odd detached fragment there, a few tracts that ought to be conveyed to a municipal or county government, and so on.

But this effort and this list is not the whole story. Rather, the controversy is just one chapter in a longer and more complicated story.

In the previous chapter, Ehrlich proposed selling an 836-acre forest in St. Mary's County to a politically connected developer named Willard Hackerman. Purchased from the Conservation Fund with Program Open Space money, the property would have been sold below market price and without protection. Hackerman would have received tax breaks on the deal, and he planned to rezone the property for development. After the potential deal received public attention, and some state legislators called for an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing, the parties backed away from it.

That by itself would be enough reason to take a closer look at the list of properties being considered for sale. Another reason would be the refusal of administration officials to provide details on how the various parcels were selected for the list.

Secretiveness makes people curious.

It's obvious some of the properties don't fit the administration's characterization of land not worth protection. For instance, the list includes land around a waterfall in Rocks State Park that was purchased with the help of money raised by students motivated to save it. Perhaps the nine tracts in South Mountain State Park (a park traversed by the Appalachian Trail) are detached from the rest of the park, but many people have worked for years to create the park out of many such parcels, and they'll argue the state needs to buy more property to complete and protect it. Before any selling starts, I'd like to know more about the 584-acre property along Deep Creek Lake in Garret County. And so on.

One might also be skeptical that the plan has to do with generating revenue during hard times. If the parcels on the list represent just a fraction of the state's holding, the one-time income represents an even smaller fraction of the state's budget. In any case, it's clear the real bottom line here is not the bottom line.

In my view, the administration has managed and portrayed this matter as it has because the governor has a philosophical view of public-land ownership that is fundamentally at odds with the view and values of most Maryland voters.

It would be a stretch to say that solely on the basis of the new list. But the drive to sell parcels of parkland and other natural areas owned by Maryland residents is part of a larger pattern. In less than two years, the Ehrlich administration has eviscerated most of Maryland's land preservation efforts and reallocated nearly $400 million dedicated to effective programs, such as Program Open Space, Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation, Rural Legacy, GreenPrint and the Heritage Conservation Fund.

The Rural Legacy program, for example, has been cut by more than half.

The GreenPrint program, which protects swaths of forest and wetlands as part of the state's "green infrastructure," also had its funding slashed, and is scheduled to be phased out.

The conflict about the land sale is like a firecracker exploding near your feet in Baker Park on the Fourth of July. You can't ignore it, but the real show is in the other direction.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at