A county park in western Anne Arundel County is a great idea -- but not smack in the middle of 8,100 acres of wildlife refuge at Fort Meade. This is one of the last large, undisturbed old forests on the East Coast, the closest thing we have to a national park. Expose it to development, and you endanger a habitat that nurtures wildlife for an entire region.
County Executive Robert R. Neall has had his eye on the Fort Meade land ever since the federal government declared it surplus two years ago, transferring it from the Army to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. To meet recreational demands in the county's fastest-growing area, he wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of which the center is a part, to let him use 500 acres for a regional park. He promises a modest facility with trails, picnicking and ball fields. Ever conscious of a dollar, Mr. Neall sees a golden opportunity to avoid rising land costs and get a prime piece of land for next to nothing.
At first, the idea seemed sensible. But there's far more to be considered here than the bottom line. What price do you put on a place where, in the midst of one of the great metropolitan corridors, bald eagles still nest and black bear can be found playing with their cubs? What price for a place that is home to red fox, bobcat, deer, 106 species of birds and several endangered plants?
The Fort Meade forest is not just a museum piece, a last-of-its kind curiosity to be saved simply because it's interesting to look at. The land serves a practical purpose for thousands of living creatures who have nowhere else to go -- including humans who want to hunt, hike, fish, ride horseback or study in a true wilderness, all activities the research center allows right now.
The county's proposal would irrevocably alter the habitat that makes an occasional glimpse of a bald eagle possible. Parking lots would have to be built. Trees would have to be cleared, damaging the woodland in a way replanting could never correct. And it's not just the 500 acres that are at stake. The clamor of voices, the noise and exhaust from automobiles and the litter of human traffic all would have an impact beyond the park itself.
Congress turned this land over to the research center with the understanding that it would be used for wildlife research and habitat preservation. Is what the county wants to do consistent with that mission?
The county can find another place for a park. It already owns more than 500 acres scattered from Crofton to Linthicum that could be used for the ball fields that residents of western Arundel need. It could also explore the possibility of taking over several Army ball fields, located along Route 198, that are scheduled to be transferred from the fort soon. County officials ought to remember that if we intrude heavily upon an undisturbed forest, we can never get it back.