Officials complete purchase that will save thousands of acres on the Eastern Shore; Deal for forest, wetlands largest in state history


Lawyers for Maryland, the Conservation Fund and the Hancock Timber group completed a purchase yesterday that will preserve 58,000 acres of Eastern Shore forest and wetland, the largest land acquisition in state history.

The purchase is part of a complex deal to save 76,000 acres in parcels scattered across the Delmarva peninsula. The land was formerly owned by Chesapeake Forest Products Co.

Under the agreement, negotiated by the Conservation Fund, Maryland took title yesterday to 29,000 acres for $16.5 million; the Richard King Mellon Foundation bought the remaining 29,000 acres in Maryland, while Sustainable Conservation Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Conservation Fund, purchased about 9,000 acres each in Delaware and Virginia.

The Mellon Foundation is to develop a plan that will allow sustainable forestry operations to continue on its 29,000 acres, then turn the land over to Maryland, probably within a year.

David Sutherland, a senior vice president with the Conservation Fund, said the organization will "evaluate our options" before deciding what to do with the Delaware and Virginia land. Earlier reports said those states would buy the land from the fund.

The parcels, covering nearly 120 square miles, contain 11,155 acres of unaltered wetlands that rank at or near the top of a list of ecologically valuable lands being compiled by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. The acreage includes all the land Chesapeake Forest owned on the Eastern Shore.

"Today we have provided a lasting gift to future generations of Marylanders," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said. "By protecting this land, we will preserve the area's diverse natural habitats, maintain the incredible variety of plants, birds and other life and save [them] from sprawl development."

Chesapeake Forest signed a letter of intent in April to sell 278,000 acres in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, including the Eastern Shore property, to a timber subsidiary of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. Conservation groups moved quickly to try to preserve the land.

The purchase of the land was to have been completed by Aug. 24, but was delayed twice because of the complexity of the deal.

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