After 22 years of study, the county appears ready to acquire more than 900 rustic acres along the banks of the Middle Patuxent River for use as a nature park and environmental education center.

A report by a 12-member panel that will be presented Wednesday night to the Recreation and Parks Board meeting calls for the county to acquire the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area from the Rouse Co. later this year.

The report recommends that the county use state money to buy the land between routes 32 and 108 just west of Columbia and that the Rouse Co. put the purchase price in a perpetual trust that would be used to help "operate and maintain" the area.

The county first studied the area in 1969 and has been planning to acquire it since 1974. Although the most recent of eight reports since 1969 does not specify apurchase price, the County Council has authorized $2.6 million to acquire the land.

Additions -- a visitor's center, a maintenance center and a live-in environmental center -- would cost at least another$4.4 million, and are tentatively to be built by 1995. Annual operating costs are estimated at about $429,000 a year.

The newest report is the fruit of a six-month study by a committee of teachers, environmentalists, civic leaders, parks and recreation employees and a Rouse representative.

The committee dealt with two schools of thought concerning preservation. One, the report notes, was to "let nature take its course and allow no disturbance to existing habitats." The other was to "manage" the area by "identifying and preserving the existing diversity of habitat and reclaiming areas that are reverting to forests."

Taking the latter course would provide "a unique educational and recreational opportunity for the public," the committee said, and "could demonstrate to all ages that people can live in balance with nature."

Dave Pardoe of Columbia, director of planning and administration for the National Wildlife Federation and an active member of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, said it "sounds like the committee has done the right things."

"The area has to be managed," he said, "or key places like the woodcock mating area will be lost altogether. It is very critical for them that the grounds be mowed."

The committee studied aerial photographs of the past 20 years todetermine which areas were in need of preservation, which could be actively managed, and which could tolerate minimum development withoutcompromising the natural area.

The photos revealed that forests, meadows and fields that had been distinctive in the 1970s were almosterased "by nature's natural succession" in the 1980s, and had indeedbeen erased by the 1990s.

The committee recommended the acreage be divided into three types of land-use zones -- management, preservation and minimal development.

Management zones would preserve a natural mating area for woodcock, stabilize the Cricket Creek stream valley, and show past land uses to demonstrate how nature renews itself.

Preservation zones would preserve mature hardwood forests, non-tidal wetlands, steep slopes, stream valleys and migratory bird nestingareas.

Minimal development zones would house a visitor's center -- called a nature center in the report -- and a live-in environmentaleducation center.

Historic Pfeiffer Corner schoolhouse would be put near the nature center and would be renovated to provide space formeetings, exhibits and lectures.

The nature center itself would house the park's administrative offices, an environmental resources shop, a crafts area, a large meeting room, a library, a children's environmental discovery area and a reception-exhibit area.

It also would contain indoor and outdoor observation areas for bird-watching, night sky viewing, and wildlife observation.

The live-in environmental center would be used for "intensive" three-, four- and five-day programs to study pond, stream, woodlands and river habitats.

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