ANNAPOLIS -- The moment may go unnoticed by the property's tenants -- such as the nesting bald eagles, the herds of deer and the trilling songbirds -- but one of the largest undeveloped tracts in central Maryland officially changes hands today.
About 7,600 acres that formerly belonged to the U.S. Army's Fort George G. Meade will now fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.
The transfer, which was approved under a deal between the Maryland congressional delegation and the Bush administration last year, will cause much rejoicing among residents in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties as well as environmentalists who wanted to see the land preserved in its pristine state.
"If we don't accomplish anything else, this will be the greatest gift we can give to our children," said Marsha G. Perry of Crofton, a state delegate who was one of the leaders in the effort to preserve the land. "It will still be here long after we're gone."
The 7,600 acres are part of a 9,000-acre parcel that is being shed by the 74-year-old military installation in response to the Department of Defense's base closure and realignment plan. Fort Meade will continue to operate primarily as an administrative center with its remaining 4,670 acres.
The Army once envisioned selling at least part of the 9,000 acres for development, but that now seems unlikely.
On Sept. 16, the U.S. Senate approved the transfer of 500 acres west of Tipton Airfield to the Patuxent Center, and the House will likely go along with the move.
Of the remaining 900 acres, Tipton Airfield accounts for 400, and another 500 acres are not considered usable because they contain a number of environmental hazards, including a toxic landfill.
That leaves only the future of the airfield to be resolved sometime next year. Anne Arundel County and the state have expressed interest in managing it as a general aviation facility.
Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, whose district includes Fort Meade, credited the Fort Meade Coordinating Council for keeping the land in open space. The 23-member panel, which represents both government and civic groups, unanimously recommended the preservation of all 9,000 acres except for Tipton Airfield.
"When they said, 'Not in my backyard,' that meant something because they were a well-rounded and broad-based group," Mr. McMillen said. "This shows government can work. It's something I'm proud of."
Harold J. O'Connor, director of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, said the transfer will mean no immediate changes for the property. It will continue to be used by center staff for wildlife research and be available to the public as it has in the past, he said.
"Many of the same uses we've had in the past will continue -- firing ranges that are used by law enforcement groups, nature study,hunting and fishing, that sort of thing," Mr. O'Connor said.
The land transfer increases the wildlife research facility's size to 12,300 acres. When combined with several nearby government installations, including the National Agriculture Research Center at Beltsville and the Goddard Space Flight Center, it creates one of the largest undeveloped tracts in the Northeast coastal plain, totaling about 20,000 acres.
Anyone interested in visiting the land should contact Patuxent at (301) 498-0226. A new visitor welcoming station off Route 198 is scheduled to be completed in four to six weeks.