Dan Boone scoops a handful of rich black earth near a fallen, rotting tree.
The state ecologist picks through the soil and finds a tiny, squirming millipede. Chances are, he says, the inch-long arthropod is a member of a species that has never been known to scientists.
"There are probably more species in this handful of soil than in an acre above ground," Boone declared.
The soil was from the spongy forest floor in the Belt Woods Natural Environment Area, a 109-acre, state-owned tract near Bowie that contains one of the last and best stands of virgin hardwoods left in the East.
Boone and other ecologists who have studied the forest, which was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, say it is packed with an inestimable diversity of flora and fauna from below ground to the towering canopies of centuries-old oaks and poplars.
But the Belt Woods area, which also has the highest density of nesting birds of any hardwood forest in North America, is the focus of a long-running controversy pitting conservationists against an Episcopal church that wants to sell its adjoining land for the construction of hundreds of homes.
The state bought the Belt Woods area from the church in 1986, but conservationists now worry that the project proposed for the adjoining land will upset the ecological balance of the protected forest by isolating it from surrounding forestland.
St. Barnabas' Church, through Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co. of Baltimore, which manages the 515-acre church-owned parcel, is seeking to have the land rezoned for as many as 650 houses.
Tree-cutting on the church-owned land, 70 percent of which is forested, would be detrimental to birds, plants and other wildlife inhabiting the state-owned woods, the ecologists argue.
Recognized as a "unique example of Maryland's primeval forest," the state-owned woods is cherished for its educational and research potential, Chandler S. Robbins, an international authority on forest-dwelling birds, wrote in a recent letter to Prince George's County planning officials. The area has been studied regularly for 44 years.
Robbins, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, also is a member of the Belt Woods Advisory Committee. The committee, appointed by Maryland's secretary of natural resources, is opposing development on the church-owned land.
The Prince George's County Council has set a public hearing on the rezoning issue for Tuesday as part of a planning process for Bowie and surrounding areas. The council is to vote this fall on the rezoning, which was recommended in June by the county Planning Board.
"It's an investment," Joseph Addison, a consultant working with Mercantile on the development proposal, said of the church-owned land.
The church and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which have tried unsuccessfully to develop the tract for 15 years, want to use the money to support a nearby Christian high school the church operates, as well as other social "outreach" efforts, said Addison, who is a member of St. Barnabas'.
"We're trying to listen to all sides," said Addison.
Addison said church representatives, meeting with state and county officials, have agreed to maintain buffers, limit road construction, move a planned recreation area and build a fence separating the church property from the state-owned woods.
Robert Whitcomb, an ecologist for the federal government who did pioneering research on the birds of the Belt Woods area, charged that the church is trying only to maximize its profit on the sale of the land.
Whitcomb called the issue a test of the Prince George's County tree-preservation policy, as well as a "moral question" for the church and the county.
County Council Chairman Richard Castaldi said the county is "very sensitive" to tree preservation. "I believe that is going to play a very important part in the consideration of that property," he said.
The naturalists' concern is based on a relatively recent principle offorest ecology.
Whitcomb's intensive study of the Belt Woods area and other forest tracts in Maryland in the 1970s concluded that the more woodlands become isolated by development, the less they are able to support birds such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers and others that nest in North America and spend their winters in Central and South America.
NB Populations of those "neo-tropical migrants," as the birds are
known, have declined greatly in recent decades because of development in the United States and deforestation in the tropics.
Certain birds nesting in the Belt Woods area, including the hooded warbler, Kentucky warbler and wood thrush, are among the most brightly colored birds and most distinctive songsters in North America's forests.
Development on the church-owned land would cause several problems, Boone and other ecologists said.
Blue jays, grackles and other birds would be more apt to prey on birds nesting in the Belt Woods area, they say, as would cats kept by homeowners.