Belt Woods also needs a ministry A cutting fear: As the Episcopal Church ponders development of the old-growth Belt Woods, environmentalists work to save the irreplaceable forest, a sanctuary for breeding songbirds.

On the Bay

April 05, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

LYNNE CHERRY, author of "The Great Kapok Tree" and other environmentally educational children's tales, has just finished one about Flute, a wood thrush who nests amid the giant, centuries-old oaks and tulip poplars of Maryland.

Her books normally finish on a hopeful note; but so precarious is the fate of Belt Woods that with deadline nearing, Ms. Cherry still is juggling which way to leave Flute and his kin.

In one version -- the current, real-life situation -- the wood's owner, the Episcopal Church, is trying to develop the 515-acre tract in Prince George's County, threatening some of the finest habitat for breeding songbirds in the Eastern United states.

In the other version, the church comes to understand its responsibility toward an irreplaceable part of God's creation and sells the tract to the Trust For Public Land, a preservationist group currently negotiating to buy Belt Woods.

Ms. Cherry is allied with a wider movement of environmentalists and Episcopalians who contend the church's Washington diocese is violating the 1959 will of Seton Belt.

He left the diocese thousands of acres, from which it will derive millions of dollars; but he stipulated clearly that the old-growth forest on his home farm, the so-called Belt Woods, never be cut.

Ms. Cherry was not shy in telling a diocesan official recently the kinds of pointed questions that might be included in the children's textbooks that accompany her widely selling books:

"Why did Seton Belt want to preserve those trees? Why did the church want to overturn his will? Why did the church want to sell to a developer?"

The Rev. Patricia M. Thomas, with whom Ms. Cherry met, knows how to play hardball, too. As a special assistant to Ronald Haines, bishop of the diocese, she has fielded protests and publicity campaigns to save Belt Woods for the past few years, and says:

"We'd all like to see that land preserved, but we're not going to give it away."

She explains the church's fiduciary responsibilities to administer Belt's will in support of "two legitimate ministries" -- retired Washington-area clergy, and the local parish of St. Barnabas.

A court, she notes, in 1976 agreed the original will was impossible to administer because of county land use changes affecting Belt's home farm, and cleared the way for the church to log for veneer several hundred of the giant trees, and to develop housing lots.

She is "hopeful," Ms. Thomas says, that the Trust for Public Land is close to a deal with the church to preserve the land -- about $4 million has been raised from state and private sources -- still at least a couple million short of what the church appears to want.

My guess is the diocese, which still faces environmental and legal obstacles to development, and has already spent some $750,000 on engineers, lawyers and zoning fees, will eventually settle with the environmentalists.

And environmentalists will, with some justification, celebrate a victory.

But it also ought to be recorded as an object lesson -- a long, long way remains in reaching any lasting accommodation between humans and the rest of this planet.

This is a church with national policies that speak of "passionately caring for the earth as stewards of creation."

No one should expect the diocese to give land away; but neither does that excuse its pattern, from its logging to its development proposal and current bargaining, of maxing every dollar.

Because it has not only the two legitimate ministries Ms. Thomas talks about, but a third -- one of the most distinct and irreplaceable forests in the eastern United States.

The earth is sacred; but the land -- ah, well, that is merely property, to be rezoned, invested in, parceled up and sold.

It is like extolling the nobility of humankind while trafficking in slaves; and it is a thoughtlessness, even hypocrisy, that extends far beyond the Episcopalians

It is Girl Scouts who sell off open space in Howard County to a developer, and private schools like St. Timothy's in Baltimore County that develop their natural surroundings to fatten their endowment. If this furthers education, it is narrow lessons such groups are teaching.

It is also farmers who say, "Save the Bay," while squeezing in a few more rows of corn, right down to the edge of waterways that carry runoff to the estuary; and homeowners who say they support wildlife, but cut the trees that block the view from their porch.

What to do in all the above cases is seldom black and white; but here's where we must start: There must be a fundamental respect for land that makes its development or disruption from natural regimes a last, rather than a first, resort.

What if the church, for example, had made it a priority from the start to capitalize on, rather than degrade Belt Woods soil's capability to grow 400-year-old oaks?

What if it had offered parishioners the chance to "purchase" as a memorial for a departed loved one a Belt Woods tree or seedling that might endure for centuries and support millions of songbirds DTC in its lifetime?

Instead the best this church and the will's executor, the Mercantile Bank of Baltimore, could do was to think of veneer and zoning densities.

We are not likely to save the earth with such small, mean thoughts.

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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