Barn dancing

Editorial notebook

December 31, 2005

Marylanders who spend most of their time in Baltimore, or points east and west of the city, likely have a distorted view of Prince George's County. They probably know only what they see on the way to Washington: a crisscross of highways, suburban sprawl, gritty industrial parks, some once-graceful neighborhoods now down at the heels.

Those who occasionally head farther south, though, are rewarded with a journey back to a simpler world. A place where, long ago, county fathers were foresighted enough to set aside something precious for the future. The resulting parks, preserves and protected public shoreline along the Patuxent River weave around and between the remaining private homesteads to create the illusion that time stopped a century or two ago.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and the County Council is struggling valiantly to hold back the tide of encroaching development. The council members' efforts echo similar struggles under way throughout the state, but are being conducted on perhaps the sharpest edge between the demand for housing and economic growth and the growing awareness that open, unspoiled spaces have value of their own beyond nostalgia.

The nine-member council voted overwhelmingly last month to require that tobacco barns, slave cabins and other relics of the county's rich history be spared from the bulldozers. Prince George's County's resolve complements efforts elsewhere in the five counties of Southern Maryland, where the tobacco barns, in particular, are viewed as treasured icons of a bygone era.

Yet the barns might survive only as museum pieces if the countryside around them can't be saved in some measure as well.

The region is now almost halfway through the decade allotted by the state for a transition from a tobacco-based economy to healthier agricultural alternatives. Some signs are encouraging, but the success of the transition remains in doubt.

Nearly 90 percent of Maryland's 1,000 farmers growing tobacco in 1998 accepted a state buyout that essentially paid them to forsake the profitable crop but required that they remain involved in some form of agricultural production. The bargain was intended to sustain the farmers, but not necessarily the farms.

Even so, former tobacco farmers are now experimenting with cut flowers, winter greens, wineries, bedding plants and ornamental shrubs as well as the more traditional livestock feed crops. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland is researching alternative uses for tobacco as a pharmaceutical or energy source.

As appreciation for the land itself has grown, money from the cigarette manufacturers' settlement with Maryland and other states to compensate for the health costs of smoking is being directed to boost the Southern Maryland economy through tourism programs featuring farms and former plantations. A grant program - using federal, state and private funds - is being launched next month to help owners stabilize former tobacco barns that have fallen into disuse and disrepair. And posters, featuring some of the most comely old structures, are being sold to highlight what's at risk if they disappear.

The pace at which Southern Maryland farmland is being gobbled by development may be slowing in spots, but overall losses continue. Soaring land values have dissuaded farmers from selling development rights to the state for agricultural easements.

So, while the combined efforts of local, state and federal officials to preserve the cultural character of the region are commendable, much more must be done.

Forests and farms not only help clean the water and the air, they also serve as a tonic to the urban and suburban soul - a place to find creatures such as beavers, and possums, and wild turkeys and humming birds, and to be reminded of the wonders of nature. This is a particularly valuable lesson for young people, who spend so much of their time in front of computers or at the mall.

So, pay a visit to Southern Maryland and take advantage of what the folks down there are fighting for. It's a wonderful gift.

- Karen Hosler

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