Md. induces U.S. to delay limits at 2 nature sites Plan to raise fees, cut hours is put off


WASHINGTON -- Bowing to pressure from the Maryland congressional delegation, the U.S. Department of the Interior backed away yesterday, at least temporarily, from closing the Patuxent Wildlife Center on weekdays and raising fees at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.

The Patuxent center, an 8,100-acre site in Anne Arundel County off Route 197, reopened yesterday, a week after it was closed on weekdays.

The fee increase at Blackwater was scheduled to take effect May 1.

The closing of Patuxent on weekdays and the fee increase at Blackwater have been delayed until Oct. 1 pending Interior Department review. The delay was ordered by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Friday -- the same day he talked with Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, who had objected to both decisions.

In announcing the weekday closure at Patuxent early this month, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it had received only one-fourth of the $400,000 it needs to operate.

A spokeswoman, Jamise Liddell, said the Fish and Wildlife Service now will have to find $300,000 by making cuts in other areas of its budget.

Most of the land that makes up the wildlife center was transferred from Fort Meade to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991. Since then, it has attracted about 50,000 visitors for activities including hiking, jogging, bicycling, hunting, bird-watching, fishing, horseback riding and wildlife observation, Senator Sarbanes said.

Along with Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Benjamin L. Cardin, Senator Sarbanes had sought two weeks ago to head off the closure, arguing that significant cost-savings were unlikely because the public-use program at Patuxent is run largely by volunteers.

"We will continue to work with the secretary to ensure that the area remains open as Congress intended when the land was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service," Mr. Sarbanes said yesterday.

At Blackwater, an 11,000-acre waterfowl refuge that serves as a home to bald eagles, the Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed a series of fee increases effective May 1. Admission charges for pedestrians and bicyclists would have gone from $1 to $2; for passenger vehicles, from $3 to $4; and for buses carrying more than 20 passengers, from $25 to $35.

Last year, more than 130,000 people visited the refuge, a prime tourist attraction for Dorchester.

Opponents of the fee increase note that attendance at the refuge dropped 20,000 in the first year after fees were imposed in 1988, and fear that the increase would depress attendance further.

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