By Jeannine anderson
WASHINGTON – An old-growth forest in Prince George’s County that provides critical habitat for migratory songbirds will be saved from development, under a deal signed Friday.
Instead of being cut down to make way for houses, old oaks, maples and poplars on the 515-acre Seton Belt Home Farm, southwest of Bowie, will be preserved by the state.
Environmentalists fought to save the parcel because it’s part of a 624-acre ecosystem that includes the last virgin hardwood forest on the Atlantic coastal plain.
The property “is an example of what the forest was like when the European settlers arrived,” said Chandler Robbins, a wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Bowie. “It’s irreplaceable.”
The Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group, and the Western Shore Conservancy, a local organization founded to save the Belt Woods, raised nearly $500,000 of the $4.65 million purchase price. Partly thanks to their efforts, Maryland took title to the parcel Friday.
Maryland gave the largest chunk of money for the purchase: $2.5 million from the state’s Program Open Space, plus another $500,000 in bonds. Prince George’s County and the city of Bowie each chipped in $500,000.
Large contributions also came in from The Nature Conservancy, the Abell Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Checks for small amounts of money came in from all over the country, said Debi Osborne, director of the Trust for Public Land’s Chesapeake field office.
“The response has been wonderful,” Osborne said, amounting to about $30,000 in small checks from individuals. Many of the checks were for $5.15, $51.50, or $515, representing the 515 acres, she said.
Third- and fourth-grade students from Dodge Edison School in Wichita, Kan., and second-graders from Je-Neir Elementary School in Momence, Ill., were among those who contributed.
“It was so amazing to hear from these little kids from Wichita,” said Ann Berthold, a spokeswoman for the trust.
The woods, located a few miles outside Washington’s Capital Beltway, were part of a family estate that William Seton Belt Jr. left to the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Washington when he died in 1959. In his will, he asked that the woods be preserved.
In the mid-1980s, the church sold 109 acres of the Belt Woods to the state. The church also approved plans to develop 649 housing units on the remaining 515-acre site, but was met by a public outcry.
Pamela Cooper, president of the Western Shore Conservancy, decided to try save the Belt Woods in 1992, after she and her husband went for a walk there. It was early spring and leaves were just unfolding on the trees. The woods were filled with exotic songbirds.
“All the birds were just coming in from the tropics,” Cooper said. “It was breathtaking.”
Cooper formed the Western Shore Conservancy in 1993, then asked the Trust for Public Land to help negotiate a sale of the Belt Woods to Maryland. Last fall, the church agreed to sell the parcel for $4.65 million. Gov. Parris Glendening said he will ask the state legislature to designate the property as a wildland. Wildlands can be used for hiking and bird watching, but not for mountain biking or any motorized activities. -30-