County officials are seeking $3.3 million to buy nearly 1,000 acres in the Middle Patuxent River stream valley for an environmental education center.

School officials say it is increasingly difficult to reserve time for county students at out-of-county environmental centers and may be squeezed out. For the first time in 19 years, there maynot be space at those centers this year for all the middle schools that usually participate, said Alice W. Haskins, director of middle schools.

Joan M. Palmer, associate superintendent for curriculum and supervision, told the school board Thursday that Howard is being squeezed out of other county's centers because environmental education has become so popular. An environmental studies center within Howard County would alleviate the problem.

A joint committee of school and recreation and parks officials appointed last year by former county executive M. Elizabeth Bobo has been updating the 1981 master plan for the environmental center.

"We have a ways to go before it comes to fruition," said Gary J. Arthur, county recreation bureau chief.

A master plan for the environmental center, drawn up in 1981, envisions two beech groves, a woodcock mating area and riverfront trail.

Lee J. Summerville, science supervisor, recommended to the board that the center have a dining hall, administrative area, health center, resource center for teachers, four classrooms, a canopy for unloading busesin bad weather, solar house with conference room, planetarium, five dormitory units to accommodate 200 people, outdoor learning centers (platforms or gazebos near natural features) and outdoor play area.

The land is owned by Howard Research and Development, the development arm of the Rouse Co.

Arthur said negotiations with HRD officialsnever really broke down, but the company has some land in the area zoned for development, and it has been difficult to identify the boundaries of land the county will be able to purchase.

As a result, county government officials have been negotiating for nearly a decade to buy this land for an environmental center.

The county Recreation and Parks Department is asking for a $2 million allocation in the 1991-1992 capital budget to purchase the site, between Route 108 and Route 32. The school board would spend $1.3 million to develop the environmental education center there.

Meanwhile, this year, Haskins is trying to work out an arrangement that would allow sixth-graders from Patapsco, Hammond and Wilde Lake Middle Schools to experience a week of environmental education this year.

Reservations had been made for sixth-graders from the three schools and Glenwood Middle Schoolto attend Summit Lake Center in Frederick County, but Howard's reserved weeks were assigned to Montgomery County students through a mix-up by the center staff, she said.

She explained that Montgomery County has more clout because the larger school system can assure an environmental center that its facilities will be booked for longer periods of time than Howard requires.

Haskins was able to negotiate a week for Glenwood sixth-graders at Camp Letts in Anne Arundel County anda week in June at Summit Lake for Wilde Lake Middle. She is now trying to make arrangements to accommodate sixth-graders from Patapsco and Hammond.

Environmental education programs are not mandated in thecounty school curriculum, but nine of the 11 middle schools offer the program to sixth-graders. Clarksville and Dunloggin do not.

The remaining middle schools, which send students to Camp Letts, were not affected by the problem at Summit Lake.

In addition, many elementary school classes take day trips to environmental centers, reported Lee J. Summerville, science supervisor.

"If you ask any kid in the sixthor seventh grade, (the environmental program) is the highlight of his school career," Summerville said.

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