Mother Nature has struggled to reclaim the Owens gravel mine since it closed more than 20 years ago.
Now, the state wants to lend her a hand.
To offset environmental damage caused elsewhere by road construction, the State Highway Administration plans to transform 74 acres of sandy wasteland into fertile wetland and forest along the banks of the Patuxent River, near Bayard.
The derelict mine's sandy terrain, rutted with the tracks of off-road vehicles, will give way to marsh grasses, red and black oak, shellbark hickory, dogwood and spice bush by next spring, said SHA spokeswoman Diane Levero. Contractors will begin the $2.1 million transformation later this month, she said.
Federal law requires highway officials to replace wetlands destroyed by road construction. Tidal and non-tidal wetlands provide wildlife habitat and filter pollutants heading to toward the bay and its tributaries.
Levero said the new wetlands located on Sands Road between routes 214 and 4 will replace others lost recently during constructionon Route 50 and other highway projects. It is the largest wetlands replacement project attempted by the SHA, she said.
Environmentalists say they would rather the SHA preserved the original wetlands. Butman-made wetlands are better than none at all, said Joan Willey, regional representative for the national Sierra Club.
That the SHA isreclaiming an abandoned gravel mine makes this project that much more palatable, said Lina Vlavianos, an active conservationist and Millersville resident. "That's the way I would love to see all gravel pitsrestored. It sounds much better than turning them into rubble fills."
The Owens mine probably looks much the same as it did when the county Department of Recreation and Parks bought the 138-acre parcel from John Edward Owens III in 1973, said Tolly Peleuche, the parks department's chief of environmental programs. Closed before many of the state's environmental regulations were passed, the mine was stripped of its topsoil, guaranteeing little would grow there, she said.
Now, mounds of trash and abandoned refrigerators lie among a scatteringof scrub pines. "There's so much open sand and trash, it's sterile,"Peleuche said.
Before the SHA's contractor begins planting more than 56,000 trees and shrubs, it must restore the fertile topsoil, Levero said. Terraced wetlands also will be built to slow flow of rain water, slowing erosion, she said.
To avoid increasing truck trafficon Sands Road, Levero said debris will be dumped on an adjacent site.