Wildlife refuge on the horizon Columbia to transfer 1,000 acres to county for habitat for birds

April 24, 1996|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

A wait of nearly three decades may be nearing an end for naturalists and ornithologists seeking the establishment of a wildlife refuge in the Middle Patuxent valley.

By the middle of next week, Rouse Co. expects to transfer a 1,000-acre parcel known as the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area to Howard County's Dedpartment of Recreation and Parks -- the department's largest acquisition.

The transfer of the land between Columbia and the Village of River Hill will cost the county about $1.8 million. Some of that will be paid with a $205,500 grant from the state's Project Open Space.

"We're shooting for the end of the month," said Rouse Co. Senior Vice President Alton J. Scavo, who said the settlement has been delayed most recently by relatively minor complications involving boundaries, easements and wording of legal documents.

The area is noted by bird watchers as the mating place of the migratory, pheasant-like American woodcock, described as being about the size of a bobwhite with a long bill and living in brushy swamps.

Columbia founder James W. Rouse made the bird and its mating ritual famous in a 1967 Life magazine article about his plans for Columbia, in which he said there was enough room in the community to set aside land for the woodcock.

Mr. Scavo said there were questions about what to do with the land when he arrived in Columbia in 1969. Some suggested a park; others thought flooding the area for a lake was a good idea.

The question came down to "was this something significant or just 'another valley' -- in 1969 terms," Mr. Scavo said. "They found there was a fair amount of diversity" in the valley.

Rouse Co. will use the money it gets from the county to establish a trust for administering the refuge. The county will pay for annual operating expenses.

Naturalists say the parcel needs work to make it a suitable habitat for its most famous visitor and more than 200 other species of birds. Over the years, trees have taken over the former cornfields and made the area inhospitable to the woodcock.

"It's been identified as open space since 1976, so it hasn't been encroached," he said. "But it hasn't been managed. Some would say it's been preserved for 20 years."

Mr. Scavo said that setting the land aside for nature is significant because "it's 1,000 acres in one of the most urbanized areas in the United States -- the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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