THE STATE'S three-member Board of Public Works is scheduled to be presented this week with a rare opportunity - the chance to preserve indefinitely 25,000 acres of Maryland forest from development and ecological damage.
Beneficiaries of the deal include loggers who keep their jobs, wildlife that keeps its habitat, local communities that keep their way of life and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay that trees protect from polluting soil erosion.
All for only $19 million, most of which would come from bonds sold specifically for this purpose.
And yet, Gov. Parris Glendening is the only sure vote of the three. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp are reluctant to spend millions on land preservation at a time when the state budget is almost $2 billion short.
Such concerns are absurdly short-sighted given what's at stake.
The actual cash involved - about $8 million from the state's Open Space fund - is chicken feed. The state's financial problems are so massive that $8 million more or less won't make much difference.
But passing up the chance to save 25,000 acres of forest will make a huge difference to the state for generations to come. Once that land is gone, it's gone. Already the commercial buzzards are circling, hoping to snatch up the three parcels owned by a Pennsylvania pulp wood company at fire-sale prices if this deal falls through.
Ms. Kopp, who represents the General Assembly on the board, reflects the lawmakers' anxiety about the potentially drastic measures that will be necessary next year to bring the budget back into balance. But she and they know that none of those measures can be avoided or even significantly ameliorated by rejecting this land deal.
Mr. Schaefer comes to this vote with a powerful antipathy toward Mr. Glendening, and doesn't put the same priority on land conservation. Given that Mr. Glendening bankrolled a challenger to Mr. Schaefer in this year's Democratic primary, it's easy to understand how the comptroller would be disinclined to advance the governor's preservation legacy.
Even so, Mr. Schaefer can best enhance his own legacy by putting Maryland's future first.
State officials and the nonprofit Conservation Fund have spent two years putting together a deal to preserve the largest private landholding in Maryland. The state would buy 4,000 acres outright, as well as the development rights on the other 21,000 acres, which will be sold to a North Carolina company to manage the timberland.
This arrangement serves economic as well as environmental interests by preserving hundreds of forestry jobs.
Monuments are not just made of brick and marble. They can also be meadows, streams and forests. If Mr. Schaefer finds it in his heart to approve Mr. Glendening's deal, the natural beauty it preserves will stand as a monument to him as well.