Cemetery plan angers group

Expansion of Crownsville veterans site would thwart tree restoration


A conservation group hoping to restore a degraded stream in Crownsville is decrying a state plan to transfer 67 acres of an environmental area to Maryland's veterans agency for grave sites.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs wants to expand Crownsville Veterans Cemetery by annexing land along Cypress Branch from the adjacent Severn Run Natural Environment Area. The agency said that it will need more acreage in 50 years to accommodate projected demands for veterans' burials at the 103-acre cemetery.

The Department of Natural Resources, which owns the tract, is trying to accommodate the veterans agency so that the state does not have to buy additional land for graves.

But environmentalists say the plan would be disastrous because it would impair water quality and thwart their grant-funded plan to restore a damaged, unusual - and nearly vanished - ecosystem feeding the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay.

And though the veterans agency could only use the upland area for grave sites - an estimated 30 acres - environmentalists say that land is critical because the woods and brush act as water filters and soil stabilizers for areas that plunge as much as 50 feet to Cypress Branch.

The Severn River Association, a coalition of more than 50 neighborhood, conservation and other groups, is planning an Atlantic white cedar tree restoration along the stream. The project would forest the low-lying areas with the wetland tree, once common along the Severn, that colonists prized for building ship masts, but one that succumbs to silt runoff.

"Cemeteries replace trees and brush with grass and paved roads, and from our perspective that is not good," said Robert J. vom Saal, president of the river association, which has sent protest letters to state, local and federal officials.

About $1 million in federal and state grants would be jeopardized because conditions include not disturbing those areas, he said.

Maryland operates five veterans cemeteries on state land - in Cheltenham, Crownsville, Hurlock, Owings Mills and Rocky Gap. Because the Department of Veterans Affairs projects that future burial requests will exceed capacity, officials this year began seeking more land, said James A. Adkins, the agency's deputy secretary.

It has sought smaller, adjacent, state-owned parcels to expand veterans cemeteries at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland and Cheltenham in Prince George's County. DNR transferred about 11 acres to Rocky Gap this year, said Bob Hooper, director of cemetery and memorial programs for the veterans department. The Cheltenham transfer, about the same size from the Department of Agriculture, is in the works.

The separate federal veterans cemeteries are not short on space; they have an estimated 3.6 million unused grave sites, according to the National Cemetery Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But there is a crunch at Maryland's national veterans cemeteries in Annapolis and the Baltimore area. Two of the three are full, with possible exceptions for people who could share a family member's existing grave site. The third has space for cremated remains.

The federal agency is overseeing the largest national cemetery growth since the Civil War, said spokesman Mike Nacincik. But none of the new national veterans cemeteries - three recently opened, nine to be opened by 2009 - is in Maryland. In expanding, the federal agency factored in demographic patterns and that Maryland has five open state veterans cemeteries.

The federal government pays up to the full cost of developing a state cemetery, especially where federal cemeteries cannot accommodate more grave sites - as in Maryland. But it does not pay for land acquisition.

As for the Severn River site, conservationists said they are not anti-veteran, just against the land transfer.

"It is the last remaining opportunity to restore an Atlantic white cedar forest on the Western Shore," said Keith Underwood, who has a restoration business and devised the plan that would include re-establishing a colony of the trees whose cultivar is 10,000 years old.

The few Atlantic white cedars on the Western Shore are remnant populations 50 miles from the nearest colonies on the Eastern Shore. The species is so diverse that in coastal freshwater wetlands from Maine to Florida, the trees have adapted to their specific area.

Underwood has proposed getting rid of sediment and installing a natural, water-purifying bog; removing invasive plants; and putting in up to 10,000 Atlantic white cedars, many of which are being raised by schoolchildren who will also plant them.

Project coordinator Anne Pearson called the land transfer plan an "idiotic" approach to meeting the veterans cemetery's needs: "I am sure there is a way to bury people that provides for them and honors them and does not destroy the ecosystem."

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