Group wants urbanites to see the Baltimore Wilderness growing in their own backyards

Wooded areas along the Jones Falls are part of the landscape that the Baltimore Wilderness coalition would like to promote. (Dave Harp)

Baltimore is one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Streets are chock-a-block with row homes, some of which house three generations. Alleys are narrow, and open space hard to come by. Many of the region’s bicycling and hiking trails require long drives, and many are not accessible to public transportation.

But a new group has a vision for a different Baltimore: a ribbon of public lands, connected via trails and public transportation, that would be marked, accessible — and easy to use. They are calling it the Baltimore Wilderness.

Right now, there isn’t much to see: The Baltimore Wilderness is a partnership of organizations involved in the acquisition, conservation and stewardship of public land, as well as education. But the partnership is modeled after a similar one in Chicago, called the Chicago Wilderness.

On Sept. 22, The Baltimore Wilderness coalition heard Chicago Wilderness President Arnold Randall share how his city came together with the hope of making land more accessible. Chicago has the oldest and largest forest preserve network, but Randall said many residents didn’t know these wild lands were there. For lots of urban residents, he said, their only connection to the outdoor places in their city was a family picnic.

Randall said the Chicago Wilderness brought together local governments that didn’t always talk to each other and helped pool funding for renovations and advertising. The forest preserves also expanded their offerings to include camping and bicycle rentals so visitors don’t have to lug bicycles on public transportation. Though public money has shrunk in recent years because of to budget cuts, Randall said the group still can and does acquire land, including old railroad rights of ways to make rail trails.

Randall said he grew up in the city but had a lot of access to the outdoors; his parents were equestrians. But, he said, many children don’t have those experiences.

“They will be the decision makers. If they are not connecting to nature, they are not making the right decisions,” he said.

What did the Chicago Wilderness do? Randall said it created a framework for cities, towns, counties and conservation groups to talk to each other, leverage resources and move projects forward quickly.

“You have all this collaboration that has historically been difficult,” he said, “but through Chicago Wilderness we work together.”

The Baltimore Wilderness announced its presence in June. The September event, which also featured motivational speaker Mamie Parker, took place at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center in Laurel. Rachel Carson once worked there.

Parker spent a lot of time working on Chicago’s wild spaces as a director with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was the first African-American regional director of the 13 northeastern states, and is a board member at Chesapeake Conservancy. She frequently visits schools to encourage children to focus on the outdoors.

“Twenty years later, to see what has happened there, it gives me goosebumps,” she said.

Could Baltimore emulate Chicago? Parker cautioned it would take work. The Baltimore Wilderness has ambitions to connect wilderness between the city and several suburban counties, eventually stretching into Washington, DC. It’s not clear how they would accomplish the goal, and private landowners might object to having more wildlife in their backyards. Land prices here tend to be high, and everyone wants to avoid a feel-good partnership that doesn’t actually change the landscape.

“It’s not going to be easy to make this happen,” Parker said. “We’re going to have to stretch ourselves.”

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