Anne Arundel County's largest park has no ball fields, no swing sets, no snack shacks.
It also has no visitors most of the time.
But that's the way it's supposed to be at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, 477 acres of marsh, forest and meadow in the southwestern corner of the county. It's one of the few large, locally owned nature-study sanctuaries in the state.
At a place designed to be protected from people, yesterday's crowd was as rare as a four-toed salamander. Some 60 people turned out yesterday for the park's 10th anniversary celebration, a fraction of the 500 who came to a free, daylong spring event. Despite the chill and gray skies, volunteers led short nature walks. Many of the activities moved indoors, with children crowding around turtles in the nature center.
Think of it in these terms: The hard-to-find park is open three days a week -- except in the winter, when that drops to two days. There is nothing to do there, except commune with nature. Not counting 2,500 students who arrive for programs, Jug Bay gets no more than 3,000 visitors a year. The Baltimore-Annapolis Trail Park gets about 750,000.
Because Jug Bay is so remote, many of the local officials attending had never been there before. What brought them was an award given to Del. Virginia P. Clagett, whose political career was launched in a 1974 battle to protect Jug Bay.
"It's quite nice," said Jan Vymazal, a wetlands consultant visiting from the Czech Republic. He was ending two weeks of study at the nearby Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
"I'd be here all the time if it wasn't so far away," said Ruth Sharkey of Arlington, Va. "I grew up in New England around wetlands and marshes, so I think this is great."
The parking lots aren't paved. The paths aren't paved. You can get lost, and catch a case of poison ivy. The six-person staff and 150 volunteers pull only non-native invasive plants. Nobody touches the Matelea carolinensis, thought to be extinct in Maryland until discovered in Jug Bay four years ago.
Those kinds of finds wouldn't have happened if the park on the eastern slopes of the Patuxent River had been left in the hands of the land's old owners, Joseph Dodson, his wife, Frances, and her family. They wanted to put a 150-site recreational vehicle campground on their 329 acres.
Eight years of legal fights ended in 1980 when the county was awarded the property in a condemnation hearing, paying nearly $1 million for the land.
Environmental experts pointed to a 1973 Smithsonian Institution report naming the fragile area one of the most ecologically significant sites in the Chesapeake Bay region. They said the woods and the 250 acres of marshes were treasures in need of protection.
"We fought the zoning. We lost all the cases. Then we prevailed upon the County Council and the county executive, which at the time was Robert Pascal," said William H. Brown, 54, then a leader of the Bristol Civic Association. "It took a pretty good while."
In 1985, the county put up two cabins -- one for a nature center, one for a caretaker's house -- and opened Jug Bay. In 1992, the county expanded the park, paying nearly $1 million for 140 acres. The county is looking at a 120-acre parcel to expand the park further. That land would cost about $1 million. These areas have few wetlands, but a farm that became meadow and forests is crucial for water-loving wildlife that need upland, especially for nesting.
Jug Bay's significance is not limited to its 25 rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and animals. The marshes are freshwater tidal wetlands containing one of the region's largest stands of wild rice, a crucial food for waterfowl.
"Maryland has two of the few reserves in the country where this type of wetland is protected," said Dennis F. Whigham, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Edgewater. He acts as a science adviser to Jug Bay. The other large reserve is at Otter Point in Harford County.
Such wetlands are often downstream of coastal cities whose discharges can destroy them, he said. Yet these marshes can do a superb and inexpensive job of removing nutrients from the water, making the marshes beneficial.
"There are very few places I would call a nature reserve where they are set aside for protection and for study," Dr. Whigham said.
An enormous amount of study goes on at Jug Bay. This week, education coordinator Karyn Molines will teach Lothian Elementary School classes about the "straws" in marsh reeds -- the snorkels that transport oxygen to plant roots to keep them from drowning in the mud. Research on plant degradation at Jug Bay was featured in August at the International Conference of Organic Geochemists in San Sebastian, Spain. About 10 research projects have been undertaken at Jug Bay in the last year alone, said Christopher Swarth, park director.
What has turned heads, though, is that much of the field work is carried out by trained volunteers and college interns, and that a decade's worth of records about water quality, the number and species diversity of plants and wildlife, as well as bird migration data, is kept in the park's nature center.
That has piqued the interest of ecologists at Bard College, 100 miles north of New York City. Those researchers will use the information as a jumping-off point for their own studies of Tivoli Bays in the Hudson River. Freshwater marshes there are similar to those at Jug Bay.
Erik Kiviat, executive director of Hudsonia, a nonprofit conservation organization affiliated with Bard College, has begun comparative and collaborative studies on the common painted turtle. He plans to use radio transmitters to monitor them at both locations. Hudsonia and Jug Bay want to start a yearlong study next spring on the invasive phragmites reed, Dr. Kiviat said.
Half the volunteers at Jug Bay don't even live in the county. Douglas Kuzmiak, 42, and his wife, Humaira Khan, 32, have been driving 60 miles from Timonium since 1989, when Dr. Khan used Jug Bay for her doctoral studies in geology. For them, doing everything from reptile counts to testing the level of dissolved oxygen in water is a good time.
How Jug Bay got its name makes for great tales and speculation. Among stories afloat are these two: Workers on early American merchant ships returning to the Chesapeake Bay made sure they'd finish drinking and tossed their empties overboard there, and that empty jugs from a boat that sank around 1812 could be seen bobbing in the water.