COMPARED WITH the bountiful wilderness that greeted Maryland's first European settlers, what we fight to conserve today amounts to table scraps from a huge feast.
Our original heritage, scientists say, resides in a few enclaves of near-pristine beauty, some hardy remnant species and those few opportunistic creatures that have learned to profit from surging populations of people.
"You're not going to find anywhere in Maryland that hasn't been affected one way or another by European development," said Wayne Klockner, director of the Nature Conservancy's Maryland field office.
Even so, he said, "there are still some areas that approximate what the natural landscape looked like . . . in the 1600s."
One of those places is the Belt Woods, a 109-acre, state-owned stand of old-growth forest near Bowie. "Standing in the middle of Belt Woods can give somebody an idea of what the forest used to be like," Klockner said.
That majestic forest, dominated by oak and hickory, once covered much of Maryland, merging into oak, hemlock and chestnut forest to the north, pines to the south and marshy flatlands along the water.
Exploring northward from Jamestown, Va., in 1608, Capt. John Smith found a region of "pleasant plaine hills and fertile valleys . . . all overgrowne with trees and weedes being a plain wilderness as God first made it."
The oak-hickory woods towered 75 feet high, a nearly unbroken canopy that took 400 years to mature, said Eugene Small, a University of Maryland zoologist who teaches a course on the natural history of the Bay area. The enormous 450-year-old Wye Oak on the Eastern Shore is among the few surviving examples '' of such trees.
The forest, and its annual rain of acorns and nuts, sheltered and fed a bewildering variety of birds and mammals, many the colonists had never seen before.
D. Daniel Boone, a forest ecologist with the Wilderness Society, said early accounts mention elk and bison herds migrating annually from New York to the Carolinas through Hagerstown's "Great Valley." The herds' grazing held back the forest and maintained a prairie-like environment in the valley.
Primeval Maryland also supported bear, cougar, bobcat, wolves, manatees, parakeets and passenger pigeons. Forest cleared by beaver and Indian fires encouraged deer unable to browse in deep woods.
University of Illinois ecologist V.E. Shelford has estimated that each 10 square miles of the Chesapeake area supported 750,000 trees, 3 million shrubs, 100 to 400 turkeys, several hundred thousand mice, 50,000 squirrels, 400 deer and elk, 20 to 50 hawks, eagles and owls, 36 foxes, 10 to 20 people, 2 to 3 wolves and seven cougars.
The forest ran on an "acorn economy," said Small. The squirrels, deer, bear and native Americans depended on the annual nutfall as a staple food. Others ate the acorn eaters. People hunted, fished, gathered berries and other wild foods in season, and raised small gardens of maize, squash and beans.
On the Bay, oysters insured both native Americans and early colonists against starvation in winter, Small said. Oyster bars grew above the waves from the Bay's mouth to the Susquehanna, and huge shell heaps, or middens testify to the native Americans' appetite for them.
Carvel Hall Blair and Willits Dyer Ansel wrote in their "Chesapeake Bay Notes and Sketches" that terrapins were still so abundant in 1797 that a Maryland law that year "forbade feeding terrapin to slaves more often than twice each week ... to protect the slaves from an unvarying diet of these abundant and easily taken turtles."
The bay water and creeks were clear "from top to bottom," Small said. The unbroken forests absorbed and held rainwater runoff, and the vast oyster populations filtered and cleansed the Bay's entire volume of water every four days, a process that takes 245 days today.
Sediments studied by Johns Hopkins geography professor Grace S. Brush suggests that carpets of submerged aquatic vegetation sheltered and fed the teeming bay life, from crabs and bottom-dwelling fish to eagles and huge flocks of waterfowl. Hunters could shoot 700 ducks a day.
But the bounty had limits.
Trappers, enlisting Indians, removed a million beaver in the 17th century fur trade. Hunters quickly killed or chased off the bison, elk, bear, wolves and cougars. The equilibrium of their world destroyed, native people, too, had nearly vanished by 1700.
Even the gray squirrel -- whose appetite for crops put a bounty on its scalp -- was hunted nearly to extinction in Maryland by the early 1900s, as were terrapin and deer.
Land cleared for tobacco quickly exhausted the soil, forcing planters to clear more, Small said.
The flow of sediment and fresh water from cleared land doubled and quadrupled, said Brush, clogging channels and blocking sunlight. Bottom fish and grasses smothered.
Disease and over-fishing have reduced Maryland's oyster harvest from 7 million bushels in 1904 to less than 400,000 bushels today.
Old oaks were cut and helped build the British navy. European blights and insects killed chestnuts, elms and more oaks. Pesticides nearly wiped out Maryland's ospreys and eagles. They are now recovering thanks to a DDT ban.
With hunting controlled, deer, too, are flourishing at the edges of the broken forest. Their numbers now pose a nuisance to people and a threat to saplings. Bear are returning. Gray squirrels, too, are back, and some species -- raccoons, opossum, Canada geese and fox -- have learned to exploit our gardens, garbage and spilled grains. But Half of Maryland's forest is gone and 200 plant and animal species that existed here in 1776 are extinct.