CUMBERLAND — Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin is expected to meet with local lawmakers to discuss the recent ban of alcohol in state forests.
The issue has sparked emotions from tourists, government officials and business owners alike. Chief concerns include the lack of public notice and the fact that only a handful of people are causing trouble. Why punish everyone by preventing hunters, fishermen and other recreational enthusiasts from enjoying a cold adult beverage in a responsible manner?
Delegate Kevin Kelly said Griffin is coordinating a time to meet with the District 1 legislative delegation to Annapolis. That meeting is not yet scheduled but, Kelly said, will be a public meeting. However, Kelly said the ban “makes some sense.”
He said top officials within the Natural Resources Police, the agency charged with enforcing DNR policies, have cited concerns for the safety of their 25 law enforcement officers who operate in Allegany and Garrett counties.
“Manpower is down because of budget cuts,” Kelly said. “That’s not a lot of police officers. There are very few officers for the amount of territory which they have to cover.”
A lone officer who comes upon a rowdy, alcohol-imbibed group of visitors is outnumbered and can be a safety issue, Kelly said.
About one-quarter of land in Allegany County is owned by state government. Garrett County has more than 84,100 acres of publicly owned land — more than any jurisdiction in the state. Combined, the two counties have about 83 percent of the state’s 138,288 acres of state forest.
Kelly said when DNR made a similar ban at state parks in 2009, there was not much feedback on the issue and seemed taken aback by the controversy sparked by the expansion of the alcohol ban. Kelly said NRP officials said the new policy is similar to adjoining states but did not immediately have specifics available.
The Allegany County Board of Commissioners took up the issue at the end of its Thursday public meeting. Commissioner Dale Lewis asked his two colleagues to draft a letter to Griffin, Gov. Martin O’Malley and local lawmakers to notify them of their discontent over the issue.
“If they’re gonna put off limits to people who want to have a social beer at night around a campfire or after a day of deer hunting … I think that’s wrong,” Lewis said. “I think we have to let them know that (and) ask them to consider rescinding or reconsider.”
As for officers’ safety, “I would like to know how many tickets they gave to somebody actually drinking in the (forests),” Lewis said.
Sgt. Art Windemuth of the Maryland Natural Resources Police has previously told the Times-News that in 2009, officers dealt with 12 incidents in Savage River State Forest and 59 incidents in Green Ridge State Forest that were classified as criminal and/or alcohol. A breakdown of solely alcohol-related incidents was not available.
Commissioner Jim Stakem agreed and said existing law and policy on unruly behavior should be sufficient.
“If somebody’s misbehaving, you remove them,” Stakem said.
Stakem said it’s been the No. 1 issue mentioned to him in recent weeks and that he empathizes with critics of the policy even though “I don’t fish … I don’t do that sort of thing, but a lot of people do. I fully support a letter.”
Commissioner Bob Hutcheson didn’t address the alcohol ban directly but said he was “concerned about timing and the lack of notice. I think it was the wrong approach.”
Stakem said the manner in which the policy was implemented was “under the table.”
“Talk about transparent government,” Stakem quipped. “That’s an abuse right there. I don’t care who hears it. I think we should be very strong on our request.”
Kelly agreed with Hutcheson about the approach DNR took to implement the policy.
“It should have been handled differently,” Kelly said, “no question about it.”