Where tanks once rumbled in mock battle, bird watchers will soon stroll.
Six months after transferring 8,100 acres at Fort Meade to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army formally dedicated the land yesterday as "a place where nature can resume its peaceful course."
Secretary of the Army Michael Stone passed the final documents marking the transfer to Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. as members of Maryland's congressional delegation, state officials and park volunteers huddled against the chill.
"Over the past 75 years, hundreds of thousands of soldiers trained here, many en route to armed conflict," said Mike Hayden, assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife. "This transfer is truly a 'peace dividend.' "
The transfer, authorized by Congress, occurred officially in October. The Fish and Wildlife Service added the acreage to the 4,700-acre Patuxent Wildlife Research Center located near Laurel.
Most of the property -- once used for tank maneuvers, war games and machine gun practice -- is forested. But it also includes meadows, magnolia bogs and a massive, 300-year-old sycamore tree, one of the largest and oldest in the state.
Combined with the adjacent Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and the Goddard Space Flight Center, it encompasses 20,000 acres, the largest single tract of undeveloped land between New Jersey and Richmond, Va.
"It's a great day to be a bird in Maryland," exulted Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, referring to yesterday's opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards for exhibition baseball as well as preservation of the open space.
Although the Army is still sweeping the property for unexploded ammunition, the Fish and Wildlife Service has opened some areas to hunting, fishing, hiking and horseback riding, said Nell Baldacchino, a wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
"There is great potential for bird watching and photography," Ms. Baldacchino said, noting that additional educational trails are planned.
More than 106 species of birds, including bald eagles, roost in the area at various times of year. Red fox, bobcat and deer routinely wander the forest and meadows. The Appalachian mound builder, a rare ant, has constructed 8-foot-high anthills along the edge of one of the narrow trails that pass for roads.
The tiger beetle and the tick-seed sunflower, both listed by the state as endangered species, thrive in the area.
Visitors are asked to report to the Visitor Contact Station on Eagle Boulevard (formerly Tank Road), so "we can make them aware of which trails are open and some hazards like the firing ranges," Ms. Baldacchino said. Several pistol and rifle ranges, historically used by the Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and local police, are still in use, she said.
The Fish and Wildlife service also has begun giving lectures on the second Tuesday of every month at the Contact Station, she said.
The acquisition of the 8,100 acres coincides with the Fish and Wildlife Service's efforts to open Patuxent, primarily a research facility, to visitors. An $18 million visitor center will open off Powder Mill Road in 1993.