Groups keep watch over protected land

Preservation: An environmental group is looking for volunteers to help keep tabs on undeveloped acres.

April 04, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Like an officer on the beat, Jon Chapman stalks Maryland's verdant fields, a notebook in one hand and a camera around his neck, looking for problems that he hopes he won't find.

He is checking on preserved land, property that owners have promised not to develop. It is a never-ending responsibility -- preservation is meaningless unless someone follows through, making sure people are not dumping, building or otherwise breaking the rules.

But the scope can be daunting, especially for large organizations like the Maryland Environmental Trust. The quasi-governmental agency is responsible for protecting about 700 properties with nearly 100,000 acres spread through every county in the state, and Chapman is its sole monitor.

He would like each site to be checked every four or five years, but that would mean visiting about 150 places annually. In his 12 months with the trust, he has seen 80.

Worried about the sites that are not being closely watched, the trust is trying something new: Volunteers wanted. No experience necessary.

"Help us to catch up," Chapman said, noting that some properties have not been visited for a decade. "Be our eyes on the land."

For a plea spread largely by word of mouth, the response has been overwhelming. More than 50 people have answered the call, far more than the trust can coordinate just yet. Twenty-two of them will receive a day of hands-on training tomorrow. They have been asked to commit for a year and check on at least four properties each.

Other Maryland conservation organizations -- faced with the same challenges, though on a smaller scale -- are protecting preserved land with aggressive oversight efforts.

"What's important is to do it. It's not important who's doing it," said Steve Carr, staff member to the Annapolis Conservancy Board, whose officials pack into a bus every year and visit every property the board protects. "If you don't monitor, ... basically you've got a piece of paper. I don't know if that translates into much protection."

That piece of paper -- or the agreement behind it -- is an easement, the method preservation organizations use to restrict activities such as development. Some landowners donate an easement and get a tax break; others are paid.

Julie Enger, a Trust for Public Land project manager in Maryland, thinks frequent monitoring is becoming increasingly important as more protected properties transfer to new owners, who might not understand or care about the rules.

"We're going to see some challenging situations, probably," Enger said. "A lot of it is untrod ground."

Violations are rare locally and nationally, but many land trusts have a story to tell.

The Howard County Conservancy recently discovered a shed on land where none should be. Trespassers roaring around in all-terrain vehicles have damaged a Baltimore County property protected by the Maryland Environmental Trust. Construction workers used a forest preserved by the Annapolis Conservancy Board as a lunch spot, strewing trash everywhere.

Because their duties include monitoring a number of parcels preserved through the development process, an often-misunderstood type of open space, Howard County Conservancy members are grappling with ways to enlighten the nearby homeowners.

"It's not always a `hey, you're doing something you shouldn't' -- it could also be a `hey, do you realize that you could ..." said Ann Jones, vice president of the conservancy. "They might want to put up a couple of picnic tables."

Chapman sees his role as educator as much as scrutinizer. A natural resources planner before joining the Maryland Environmental Trust, he keeps an eye out for landscape problems and tells landowners where they can go for help.

About two weeks ago, he spent the morning at Cromwell Valley Park, about 370 acres of public land managed by Baltimore County for agricultural and environmental education. The park was once three farms, and one of them -- 102 acres -- was preserved through the trust.

No one from the group had been there to monitor for nearly a decade, partly because no one expected the county to break the rules. But Chapman was thorough, walking to all corners of the sizable property, taking notes and photographs as he went.

A volunteer-in-training for the trust and a new preservation easement monitor for Baltimore County followed, taking it all in.

"I noticed as we came in that there's a fair amount of erosion by the stream," Chapman mentioned to the park manager, Leo Rebetsky.

"That's been a big problem," Rebetsky agreed, noting that the county has plans to restore the waterway. "When we get rains, that stream fills up and it rushes down."

The sky was clear and the weather balmy as the group strolled past weathered old farm buildings, a children's garden and a pair of horses grazing behind a long white fence. Chapman observed with a grin that the work has its benefits.

"Last Friday, I almost called the office and said, `Thank you for hiring me!'" he confided.

Greg Barranco, the volunteer, is looking forward to conducting his own checks. A health-care lobbyist from Annapolis, he would like to contribute to the environment and see more of Maryland at the same time.

Bit by bit, that help will make Chapman's task less mammoth.

"The job expands every year," he said, adding with a laugh, "and I'm certainly not saddened by that fact."

To volunteer, e-mail the Maryland Environmental Trust:

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