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Support was overwhelming for a nearly 2,500-acre expansion of Charles County wildlands at a public meeting last week at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata campus.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has proposed a 1,400-acre expansion of an existing wildland at the headwaters of the Mattawoman Creek, as well as new 656- and 422-acre wildlands within Chapman State Park and where Zekiah Swamp narrows into Allens Fresh Run, respectively. More than 40 residents attended the meeting, with all but a couple people supporting the proposals.

The state has designated “wildlands” for preservation since 1971 in an effort to preserve “the best of the best public lands,” DNR Secretary Joseph P. Gill said. Wildland areas typically feature rare or vanishing species along with unique ecology, geology or scenic areas,

There currently are 29 state wildlands covering 43,779 acres where activities such as hiking, kayaking, hunting and fishing are permitted, but construction and resource extraction are prohibited.

The state is proposing 27 new areas comprising 26,659 total acres — 10 entirely new wildlands spanning 17,125 acres and 17 expansions covering 9,534 acres.

In Charles County, Indian Head Highway serves as the northern border of the Mattawoman expansion and the southern edge of the Chapman area.

The Mattawoman expansion area supports a large nesting colony of great blue herons and is the habitat for various rare plants, including the pale green orchid and deciduous holly, according to information presented at the meeting.

“This really is an ecological gem, and we’re very grateful to see this proposal,” Mattawoman Watershed Society President Jim Long said.

The proposed Chapman wildland houses more than 20 rare species including the glade fern, Hitchcock’s sedge and angular-fruited milkvine.

The Zekiah-Allens Fresh area contains brackish and fresh tidal marshes, mudflats and forested wetlands. It is recognized by the National Audubon Society as an important bird area and serves as habitat for several rare plants including Long’s bittercress and deciduous holly.

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said the draft comprehensive plan update currently before the commissioners “threatens some of these areas, especially the Mattawoman watershed due to irreparable damage from development.

“So I’m asking you, or ultimately will be asking the governor and our state representatives, to designate with haste these areas as wildlands, to essentially save us from ourselves,” he said.

Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) also attended the meeting in support of the proposals, calling the three areas under consideration “beautiful and priceless.”

“I hope you keep looking because I think you’ll find more,” she said. “These are treasures, and when they’re gone, there’s no turning back.”

Friends of Chapman State Park President Linda Dyson was one of few people at the meeting to raise concerns about the proposals. She said “extremely sensitive” areas of the park merit protection but questioned whether a “broad brush” wildland designation would impede public access to the park. Several environmentalists in the room assured her the inverse was true.

Croom resident Jo Lutmerding, a federal biologist, called the proposals “really great” and the wildlands program a model for other states to emulate.

“I just really admire the state for how much it’s done to preserve land,” she said.

Her husband, Mike, also a federal biologist, said he supported the wildlands as an educational tool for future generations and said how popular wildlands were when he lived in Western Maryland.

“Everybody loved it. They hunted in it and walked through it and really treasured it,” he said.

Once the department has finished gathering public comments, it will recommend a package of wildland designations to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who can then submit legislation to the Maryland General Assembly during its 2014 session.

Comments may be emailed to wildlands@dnr.state.md.us or mailed to Wildland Comments, Attn: Rich Norling, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 580 Taylor Ave. — C4, Annapolis, MD 21401. Comments must be submitted by Dec. 9.

jnewman@somdnews.com