Peggy Eppig strides through a north Harford County forest, dodging under tree branches and trampling over thick underbrush.

Clamberingover rocks and fallen trees, she carries a walking stick in case a snake should cross her path.

Down the trail she ventures until she comes upon huge rock formations and a 17-foot waterfall -- the second-highest vertical fall in Maryland. Here, Eppig points to endangered pink lady slipper flowers and rare hemlock trees that inhabit the forest.

Called Falling Branch, the arboreal area is as rich in county history as it is in woods and wildlife. The history and pristine state of the area has state and local conservationists concerned that it is threatened by development -- and gearing up a campaign to preserve Falling Branch.

One ofthe people involved in the preservation efforts is Eppig, a 31-year-old state park ranger stationed at Rocks State Park. Falling Branch is "a gem of an area," she says. "You're not going to find anything like it in Harford County."

Few people, other than some longtime Harford residents, know about Falling Branch. It's located about four miles north of Rocks and winds along Falling Branch Road near Five Forks.

To Eppig, the fact that few people have ever heard of the area is good and bad.

It's good because the site has remained largely pristine, untouched by human deeds and footsteps, she says. It's bad because few county residents are voicing support for protecting the Falling Branch area simply because they don't know it exists.

The area, named for the stream that flows into Deer Creek, is beginning to be developed. Two lots near the waterfall have been sold for home sites. A house is under construction on one of the tracts.

A third property owner, who owns the land that includes the waterfall, attempted to subdivide the land for a housing site earlier this year. The request was denied by the county.

Large-scale development near the waterfall is unlikely because of laws protecting wetlands and requiringbuffer land near streams.

But as growth creeps toward Falling Branch, wildlife could be driven away and the area's scenic qualities diminished, local environmentalists say.

Eppig and her family live on a state-owned, 22-acre tract in Falling Branch that was bought lastyear with money from Program Open Space.

She is more worried by the development than the bobcats, coyotes, hawks and other wildlife that inhabit the area, even though some of those animals have been seenin her yard.

"(Falling Branch) has got to be protected," says themother of two children.

She is working with administrators of Open Space on a campaign to promote Falling Branch as an area needing state protection. She and others interested in the effort hope to persuade state legislators to allocate money for purchasing land in the area for preservation.

The state last year was about to acquire another 22-acre Falling Branch site, which included the waterfall, says Bernie Wentker, a spokesman for Open Space, but that plan died during the state budget deficit crisis.

The state was planning to pay $125,000 to buy the land for from Walter Grimmel of Jarrettsville.

But as the negotiations with Grimmel proceeded, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yanked $80 million out of the program's budget to ease the state's fiscal deficit, Wentker says.

Without the money, negotiations to buy the waterfall site and other areas across the state halted, hesays.

Eppig and Wentker are hoping to stir public support for a state plan to sell $12 million in bonds to pump money into Open Space.Program administrators would use the money to acquire Falling Branchand other sites.

The General Assembly will consider the bond proposal during its special session this fall. Wentker and Eppig are trying to get Harford residents to write letters to legislators in support of the plan.

Program Open Space, which started in 1969, gets itsmoney from a portion of the real estate transfer tax. The program has been used to acquire and develop 35,000 acres as parks across the state, including the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air and Mariner PointPark in Joppatowne.

Money from the program also has been used to acquire the 790-acre Rocks State Park and the nearby 120-acre Hidden Valley Girls Camp near Monkton.

The Harford County chapter of the Sierra Club has made the bond issue and preservation of Falling Branch a priority.

The group plans to organize petition drives and letter-writing campaigns in support of the preservation efforts, says Timothy Chumley, spokesman for the club.

"It is an area of obvious great scenic importance," he says. "We need to try to save the area before it's too late."

Although the area is secluded and overgrown, Falling Branch used to bustle with mills, farms and stills that date back to the 1700s, Eppig says.

Along the path to the waterfall, shepoints to former farms where forests have taken over one-time pastures. She also points out where log cabins used to stand but have sinceburned or collapsed.

In the 1700s, as many as 11 mills and tanneries lined Falling Branch, Eppig says.

The waterfall, called Kilgores Rocks, powered a grist mill. Rocks at the falls were cut away to make room for the mill wheel, Eppig says. The mill operated for about 30 years, but closed because farmers had a difficult time getting their goods to the site.

A short distance from the falls are the remains of the Kilgore estate and dairy farm. The family's gardens now are wild with trees, weeds and brush, but flowers continue to bloom at the site.

Old-timers have told Eppig they recall when police raided the former Kilgore home and other Falling Branch sites during Prohibition in search of illegal stills.

Falling Branch was abandoned by most homeowners in the early 1900s, Eppig says. When the Ma and Pa Railroad shut down, farmers no longer had a quick way to get their crops to markets in Baltimore. Others moved as logging and other industries left the area.

Eppig says she has started recording Falling Branch's history, worried that it could be erased by development.

"This is pretty much the way Harford County would have looked to the first settlers," she says. "The history back here is incredible."

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