When a group of Harford County students said they wanted to raise $20,000 in 90 days to save Maryland's second-highest waterfall, the plan seemed noble but certainly ambitious.
After an art auction Friday featuring works by nationally recognized painter Eugene Leake and others, the students involved in the effort to help the state buy the Falls at Falling Branch said the goal has been exceeded.
The auction brought in more than $12,000, bringing the total donations to about $34,000.
Beth Post, 15, a student at North Harford High School who helped lead the effort, said she couldn't be happier now that everyone will be able to enjoy the 17-foot-high falls and hilly environs near Pylesville.
The only taller vertical drop of water in Maryland is the 60-foot-high Muddy Creek Falls in Garrett County, state geologists say.
Using the money raised by the students, the auction and $115,000 from the state's Program Open Space, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is to settle on the falls purchase tomorrow, the 90-day deadline.
The auction was organized by the Harford Land Trust and the Manor Conservancy, two local preservation groups.
The trust also helped organize the fund-raising campaign and negotiated the contract for the purchase of the falls tract.
"There's no doubt that with the combination of the uniqueness of the falls and the students, [the fund-raising campaign] was a natural," said David P. Miller, director of the trust.
Aside from meeting the fund-raising goal, Beth said, the students showed that today's youngsters can display the same sort of raw energy that flows over the Falls at Falling Branch, also known as Kilgore Falls.
"I definitely think the students proved themselves. There is hope for our generation," Beth said.
"One house could completely destroy that watershed," she said.
The 23-acre tract that includes the falls is to come under the management of nearby Rocks State Park.
The property is owned by brothers Walter E. and George F. Grimmel.
"It's tough to find the words to express the enthusiasm these kids have put into this," said Peggy Eppig, a ranger at the park, who lives near the falls. "The energy has not waned at all."
Ms. Eppig said the state hopes to clean trash from around the falls, build trails and research the historical and natural features before opening the tract to the public.
Falling Branch, the stream that forms the falls, is perhaps the cleanest waterway in Harford. Wetlands around the falls harbor warblers, hawks, beavers and other wildlife. There is an old carriage road nearby and the stone remains of an inn believed to have been built about 200 years ago. Mingo Indians are thought to have lived nearby.
"What this group has done is absolutely spectacular," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said. "The local community's noble efforts will enable us to preserve and protect this beautiful site for all Marylanders' enjoyment."
DNR, which manages the open-space fund, hopes to duplicate such public-private partnerships elsewhere in Maryland.
"I'm not surprised that we raised the money," Beth said. "I'm just surprised that the money came from so many sources."
As word spread that students were behind the effort, more than 300 donors from all over Maryland and beyond came forward.
The students, led by Beth and other members of North Harford Recreation Council's ecology club, collected small change at county high schools, held a "dance-athon" and a "read-athon," and solicited donations from businesses.
Some people sent in more than $100 each.
Several Harford businesses and organizations contributed $1,000 or 2,000 each.
"I just bought a house in Baltimore City and am very fond of the city and have never seen a waterfall, so I want the Harford one to be available," wrote one donor, who sent in $10.
One elderly woman living in western North Carolina, who used to live near the falls, wrote: "For all the years between 1956 and 1986 the beauty of Falling Branch, the falls and the winding country road that followed the course of the stream were precious to my husband . . . and me. . . . Please accept the enclosed check for $100."