In a compromise designed to protect one of the last stands of virgin hardwoods left in the East, an Episcopal church near Bowie has agreed to preserve 220 acres of woodlands adjacent to the state-owned Belt Woods Natural Environment Area.
"This really sets a national model for how to protect forestland in an urbanizing area," said Dan Boone, a state ecologist and acting director of Maryland Advocates for Public Land.
Boone helped forge the agreement with St. Barnabas' Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which own the 500-acre tract. The church wants to sell its land for residential development, but the agreement reached this week would preserve nearly half of it.
The agreement also helps protect the rich bird populations and other flora and fauna of the adjacent 109-acre Belt Woods area, Boone said. He said the preservation of half the church-owned land will create extensive "greenways," or wooded corridors, to ensure the "ecological integrity" of the state-owned woods.
Boone and other naturalists feared that development and possibly wholesale tree-cutting on the church-owned land would isolate the Belt Woods area and lead to a decrease in wildlife populations there.
Robert Whitcomb, an ecologist who has studied the Belt Woods, said the agreement will make residential development on the church-owned land "an island in the middle of a forest, not the reverse."
The church-owned land, less than five miles from the Capital Beltway, is what remains of a larger tract willed to the church and the diocese by W. Seton Belt, a banker and farmer who died in 1959.
Belt specified in his will that the forestland should never be cut, but the church managed to overturn the will and sell tree-cutting rights on part of the estate.
The Rev. Larry Harris, rector of St. Barnabas' Church, said, "Our congregation has been very sensitive to the environmental issues."
If the remaining part of the church-owned land is sold for development as planned, Harris said, the church and diocese will use the proceeds to support educational programs and other outreach efforts.
"We certainly see this as a very positive outcome," Harris said of the agreement.
The state bought the Belt Woods area from the church in 1986 to protect the centuries-old oaks and poplars and diverse wildlife populations the forest supports. Chandler S. Robbins, an authority on forest-dwelling birds who works at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, has called it a "unique example of Maryland's primeval forest."
Birds nesting in state-owned woods have been studied regularly for more than 40 years. In the late 1940s, scientists concluded that the state-owned tract and surrounding forestland had the highest density of breeding warblers, thrushes and other migratory birds of any hardwood forest in North America.
Whitcomb, who did pioneering research on the birds of the Belt Woods area, said that Belt "would be proud at what the church has done. . . . They seem to have realized that they have some of the most important trees on the Atlantic Seaboard."
The church still is seeking to have the remaining half of its property rezoned for a higher density of residential development. The Prince George's County Council is holding hearings on the church property and other rezoning issues in the Bowie area.
Boone and Harris said discussions are under way to determine who will manage the protected forest.