Environmentalist Melvin Bender gazes out over North Gray's Bog as if he's looking for something.
"At any moment you expect to see a dinosaur's head coming out; it looks primeval," says Bender, peering across the still water topped with a layer of floating water lilies.
This pristine setting exists a few miles from the bustle of Pasadena's Mountain Road corridor, where commuters, businesses and housing developments make suburbia hum. It's a quiet, green world with thousands of forested acres, fragile bogs and unspoiled waterfront.
Bender is president of Magothy River Land Trust, a nonprofit, volunteer group that is working to save nearly 1,000 acres of this undeveloped land -- and North Gray's Bog -- along the north shore of the Magothy River. Members were dealt a setback last week when they learned that their proposal to create a greenway failed to win a share of the $25 million in state funds handed out as part of the Rural Legacy program.
The highly competitive, 2-year-old initiative is an effort to preserve environmentally sensitive properties across the state. In their first try for a Rural Legacy grant, Magothy River Greenway supporters had applied for $7.6 million to purchase a swath of contiguous land in the river's watershed.
In its rejection of the greenway, the Rural Legacy board expressed concern that more than half of the peninsula is developed and that land values are extremely high. "It would take a large amount of Rural Legacy funds," the board wrote.
Although they lost out on Rural Legacy money, the volunteer preservationists are undeterred and have vowed to continue their efforts.
"Of course we're disappointed, but it's not the end of it," said Bender, who noted that North Gray's Bog is at particular risk because of development pressures. "Saving the bog, saving the Magothy River, means saving the Chesapeake Bay, which is important to all of us. It's all connective tissue."
The idea of a Magothy River Greenway began taking shape about a year ago when Bender's group teamed with the Mountain Road Peninsula Preservation Committee. Supporters hope to buy about 1,000 acres to create a buffer between the heavily developed western half of the Mountain Road corridor -- defined by crowded schools and congested roads -- and the largely unspoiled eastern half. Also targeted for preservation is Dobbins Island, a 5-acre island near the river's mouth.
"Fifty percent of the peninsula has been developed, but don't kill it, don't beat it to death," said James Bilenki, co-chairman of the Mountain Road Peninsula Preservation Committee. "Then you wind up with a Glen Burnie or a Curtis Bay."
Critical to the project is the acquisition of a 675-acre wooded parcel called the Looper property off Mountain Road at North Shore Road and 50 acres off Hickory Point Road that contains four bogs. The largest, North Gray's, is home to several rare plant species.
"That bog is a very unique habitat, and there's not that many of them left," said Rich Mason, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who helped greenway supporters with their grant application. He said many of the state's bogs have been drained or filled in.
Bogs are acidic wetlands that provide habitats where only a few plant species can survive, including coast sedge, cranberries, leatherleaf, white beak rush and giant cane, Maryland's only native bamboo species.
"These systems are the kidneys of the Chesapeake Bay," said Keith Underwood, a bog-loving naturalist from Epping Forest. "They provide the only opportunity to cleanse the water before it goes to the tidal waters of the bay."
Underwood, who also served as an adviser on the greenway application, sharply criticized the Rural Legacy board for not funding the project.
"Not only are they valuable from an aesthetic perspective, but they are virtually unstudied by science and host the highest potential of any ecosystem in the continental United States to provide new pharmaceuticals," Underwood said. The plant Hypericum is found in North Gray's Bog, he said. It's also known as St. Johnswort and is widely used as a natural treatment for depression.
"It is ludicrous that we're not purchasing those properties with whatever funds are available," Underwood said.
The Rural Legacy board awarded $1.2 million to the other Anne Arundel project in competition for funds. Its goal is to preserve 9,000 acres of farmland in the southern county's core agricultural area. The land is dotted with rural villages and historic sites.
Had the Rural Legacy money come through, greenway organizers said, a top priority would have been the purchase of a 23-acre tract northeast of North Gray's Bog slated for an 18-home development. Environmentalists say that the project would destroy the bog's sensitive ecosystem with unfiltered runoff.
The land acquisition has a greater urgency because the latest building moratorium on the Mountain Road corridor -- in effect since January -- was lifted last month.
Bilenki said that landowner and developer Cattail Associates had agreed to greenway organizers' offer of $500,000 for the property, but then raised the price twice. The group received $475,000 in state open space funds this year toward the land purchase.
W. Kent Stow, a principal with Cattail Associates, said greenway supporters are misinformed about the proposed development's effects on the bog.
"We have designed a storm water pond on our property that's completely outside of the wetland or wetland buffer," he said.
Stow, who needs to obtain building permits from the county, said he hopes to start construction within a year. He refused to comment on negotiations with greenway advocates on purchasing the property.
Despite the failure to obtain a Rural Legacy grant this year, the Magothy greenway project has the support of County Executive Janet S. Owens and several state legislators.
Democratic Del. Joan Cadden, who has worked closely with greenway supporters, said she hopes Owens will include county money toward the greenway project in next year's budget.
"I'd like to think she's looking at putting some county money toward the project so people can know the county is committed to the greenway also," Cadden said.
One key project supporter is Beverly Looper, owner of the 675 acres at the heart of the proposed greenway. Looper is considering putting her land into a conservation easement. Her late husband's family has owned the property since the 1930s.
"I think it ought to be protected. There's just too much building," Looper said. "I'd like to see the land remain in its natural state, but sometimes it's not always easy to do that."