Before the Army acquired the huge Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1917, the likes of New York financier J. P. Morgan and others considered the land some of the nation's best duck-hunting territory.
Today, the proving ground still is steward of one of the largest "greenbelts" along the Chesapeake Bay. As a result, it is home to Maryland's biggest population of bald eagles -- 100-plus birds in winter -- as well as ducks, herons and deer.
With fewer than 10 full-time professionals watching over the proving ground's diverse fauna and flora, the Army is looking to bolster its ranks of wildlife managers with volunteers.
"I want people who have interests in wildlife to be able to help, get some satisfaction and learn to appreciate what's here," said Jim Pottie, a civilian environmental protection specialist at the proving ground.
He is trying to enlist several hundred people -- bird watchers, hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts -- who could keep track of nesting activity in hundreds of bluebird boxes, build nature trails help count deer.
Mr. Pottie said he hopes to have the volunteers working on projects by summer. First, he said, volunteers and proving ground officials must write a charter for the group.
The proving ground is spending tens of millions of dollars each year to monitor and clean old chemical dumps created through four major wars in this century. But, Mr. Pottie acknowledged, money to look after wildlife will be harder to come by as the nation's defense budget shrinks.
He said the proving ground's budget for managing wildlife is less than $1 million.
"If money becomes tight, the priority is going to go to [environmental] compliance," Mr. Pottie said. That means making sure sewage treatment plants are working properly or dumps are cleaned up according to schedules set by regulators.
If the 72,000 acres on which the proving ground sits were privatelyowned, Mr. Pottie said, the land surely would have been developed long ago.
Instead, 80 percent of the acreage is classified as "unimproved" woodlands, wetlands and open fields.
The proving ground, which stretches almost the length of Chesapeake Bay shoreline in Harford County, has 24 miles of streams, more than 20,000 acres of forestland and more than 5,000 acres of marshland.
Last month, in the APG News, Mr. Pottie's natural resources branch sought volunteers to work in wildlife management. As of last week, about 30 people had responded.
"In the past, we've had a very informal volunteer group," Mr. Pottie said. "We're trying to codify and expand the scope of it.
"A lot of the work we need done involves getting hands-on information in the field," Mr. Pottie said.
That information can then be used to resolve conflicts between test-firing of weapons and the needs of wildlife.
For example, the proving ground has restricted its test-firing near eagle roosts around sunrise and sunset, when the birds are leaving or returning to their roosts.
Also, large barriers of camouflage material have been erected to shield roosting or nesting eagles from truck traffic or construction.
Enlisting volunteers to help protect the proving ground's wildlife "is the right thing to do," Mr. Pottie said.
"I think a lot of people will benefit from it," he said. "More importantly, the wildlife will benefit from it."
HOW TO VOLUNTEER
Anyone interested in volunteering to work in wildlife protection at the proving ground can write Jim Pottie in care of Commander-APG, Attention: STEAP-SH-ER, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. 21005-5001. Mr. Pottie also can be reached by calling 671-4429.