The wolves and mountain lions that once roamed the state's forests are gone. So are the elk and bison that once grazed its prairies.

More than 200 plant and animal species once native to Maryland have been erased by human development. Another 400 species are endangered.

To protect the state's "biological diversity," Delegate ElizabethS. Smith, R-Davidsonville, and the Maryland Nature Conservancy have proposed a statewide system of nature preserves.

Smith introduced a bill last week that would allow property owners to place state-approved parcels into preserves, forever protecting them from development.

The process would be similar to conservation easements, in which property owners voluntarily surrender their right to subdivide or build on their land in exchange for tax credits.

But the nature preserve system also would protect the land from public uses, such as road or utility construction, said Jack Neil, a Nature Conservancy lobbyist. The concept already is used successfully in the Midwest and Delaware, he said.

"It's hard to say it's aimed at roads, utilities or developments," said Wayne Klockner, Nature Conservancy executive director. "But it makes it a little tougher to condemn significant natural areas for public uses. It says, 'Before taking it for another public use, let's look at all the options.'

"We're talking about a very tiny part of Maryland, about 3 percent of the total landscape," said Klockner.

The bill establishes a nine-member panel that must agree a site has significant biological importance as a natural area before it can be placed in a preserve, said Janet S. McKegg, director ofthe state Department of Natural Resources Heritage Program.

McKegg, whose agency identifies the state's endangered species, said she supports Smith's bill. Her agency would help property owners draft management plans for their sites and would police the natural areas to ensure the plan had been carried out, she said.

Because the property would remain under private management, Smith said the bill should not cost the state.

"This really just makes it public policy in Maryland that we want to preserve this kind of land," Smith said. "We don't feel there will be a strong fiscal impact on the state budget, but if there is any, it will be worth it."

Scientists estimate the world loses about three species a day. Some fear plant and animal species that could prove valuable as medicines, drought-resistant crops and natural filters by extracting pollutants from the environment could be lost forever.

"We're finding many plant species today have unbelievable scientific benefits, particularly in many medicines," Neil said. "This bill has an important economic development aspect, too. Biotechnology industries are very dependent on plant species in Maryland."

A rush of legislative proposals came out of the General Assembly last week as deadlines passed for lawmakers to introduce new bills. Senators must now seek approval of the Senate Rules Committee before introducing any additional legislation in the upper chamber.

The Feb. 1 deadline was a "courtesy date" in the House; delegates must have their proposals in by Feb. 22.

Anne Arundel lawmakers proposed everything from requiring counties to compost trash to putting seat belts in school buses. Much of the legislation, like Smith's proposal, focuses on environmental concerns.

"Probably a lot of that has to do with the strength of the environmental movement in the last election," Smith said. "I know this is the first time I've been involved with a major piece of environmental legislation."

Delegate Marsha Perry, D-Crofton, said because the state lacks money this year to create new spending programs, many lawmakers have turned their attention to public policy issues like the environment.

"I know I'm putting even more environmental bills in this year than in previous years, more concept bills than ones that have a price tag," Perry said.

Among the bills introduced last week:

* Perry has proposed requiring the counties to investigate composting trash and to draft plans by July 1, 1992 to compost at least 30 percent of the their yard wastes by 1995.

"Composting is the thing of the 1990s," Perry said.

* Delegate John Astle, D-Annapolis, proposed amending the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act to expand the legal definition of the Severn River watershed to include portions of St. Margaret's and Lower Broadneck.

Environmentalists hope the change will place additional restrictionson state road construction in those sensitive waterfront areas. Similar bills failed the last two years.

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