Wilderness encroaches as park plans lie fallow

August 22, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

As the pounding of hammers and the buzzing of circular saws competed with the song of the white-eyed viero, Al Geis stopped pushing through the dense goldenrod that came up to his chin and wondered where the path had gone.

"We're in the middle of a well-traveled trail," said Mr. Geis, a retired 63-year-old wildlife research biologist. "It was so well-traveled that they brought bulldozers back here to build a ski slope."

But that was two decades ago, in Columbia's heady early days.

Now the Howard County site is protected as part of the nearly 1,100-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area. It's developing naturally alongside neighboring River Hill, Columbia's 10th and final village.

Howard County recreation officials say they're moving ahead with 20-year-old plans to acquire the site, but it may be 1995 or later before work begins to convert the property for educational and recreational uses.

"One of the amazing things about this area is that it's used less by people today than it was 100 years ago," said Mr. Geis, who headed a now-dormant citizens group that urged the environmental area's protection and management as a place where children could learn about nature.

Where once cornfields stood, oak trees stand out above thick shrubs and other vegetation. The paths of humans have become impassable, forcing visitors to duck down to find trails made by the large herds of deer that inhabit the area.

Since 1974, the county has sought to acquire and preserve the land. In exchange, the Rouse Co., which bought the property along with the rest of the unincorporated city in the mid-1960s, built more densely on other sites.

Mr. Geis, who has been in love with the area ever since he bought his 20 acres across Trotter Road in 1956, is concerned that the land has yet to be transferred.

The problem is not so much what man will do the area, but what nature is doing and has already done, he said.

"It'll get less diverse," he said. "There's a false belief that the very best environmental education opportunities are in a virgin forest."

By maintaining the former cornfields that once were at the center of the property, it could continue to have one of the densest populations of woodcock in the country, Mr. Geis said as he stood in a thicket of briers and autumn olive shrubs.

The woodcock courting area, as it is known, is now being reclaimed by forest, which has made it less attractive to the long-billed birds.

"I went in here with a bunch of Boy Scouts and we [found] 81 species of birds" about 15 years ago, Mr. Geis said. It's that kind of diversity that ought to be preserved, he said.

While there is no single major sticking point holding up the landtransfer, progress has been slowed by a lack of staff in Howard's Department of Recreation and Parks, said department Director Jeffrey Bourne.

"It's a matter of time and staff resources to wade through the work of finalizing all of the surveys, the land transfer documents, the contract agreements and all that," Mr. Bourne said. "Things just move a little bit slower when there is limited staff availability."

Mr. Bourne said he would not say when the land would officially be handed over to the county.

"We're working on it as quickly as resources permit," Mr. Bourne said. "I would be hopeful that in the near future, we'd be taking steps closer and closer, but I'm not going to give you a date."

Some of the transfer's loose ends include a long-running debate with the Columbia Association, the nonprofit agency that runs the city's public programs and open space sites, over who will maintain parts of the area that adjoin the neighborhood of Clary's Forest.

Issues such as how often areas next to sidewalks will be mowed and who will police property infringements on the environmental area have not been resolved.

The county, which has neither the staff nor the budget to deal with such issues, is willing to license a buffer area to the Columbia Association, but so far the association has insisted that the county take care of its own land.

Even if the land transfer doesn't happen as quickly as hoped, Mr. Bourne said, the Rouse Co. could work out a licensing agreement by which the county could begin developing the area for educational purposes.

Plans for the area, developed in 1991 by a program committee of which Mr. Geis was a member, include a nature center where visitors could obtain maps of the area and learn about its ecosystem, a small amphitheater nearby, an environmental education center to be used by the county school system, and a maintenance facility.

The committee also recommended that a sewer right of way that runs along the river be used as the framework for a system of nature trails.

Studies of the area done in the 1960s were used as reference work by the committee. A 1969 proposal calling for the Rouse Co. to build a a 305-foot dam to create a lake on the Middle Patuxent was scrapped long ago.

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