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Anne Arundel grabs first, thinks second

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's amazing what politicians will do in the name of the great outdoors.

While claiming reverence for the land and promising to be good stewards, the president and vice president are making plans to bore holes in the pristine Alaskan tundra to find more of a substance that ultimately fouls the atmosphere.

Maryland's governor fired two Department of Natural Resources employees who worked too hard to ensure fishing and hunting opportunities.

And Anne Arundel County officials have filed suit against a 70-year-old man to take away some of his nature preserve and turn it into ... a hiker-biker trail.

Ah yes, we must destroy your outdoors to promote our outdoors.

Here's the story. The Meyer family has been in western Anne Arundel since a train dropped them at the Woodwardville station in 1900. The family farmed its land along the Patuxent River and hunted and trapped to make ends meet.

Buz Meyer, the grandson of the homesteader, still lives on a portion of the land. On the adjacent 135-acre tract that his family owns, Meyer has cultivated wildlife habitat and built nature trails. For the past 30 years, MeyerStation as he calls it, has been open to 4-Hers, scouts, the Audubon Society, school and church groups.

And he did it all without one cent of government money.

But the Anne Arundel government can't leave well enough alone. Perhaps tired of bickering among themselves, changing the locks on their office doors and whining to reporters about each other, county officials decided to pick on a white-haired man who had been minding his own business for decades.

Very classy.

Anne Arundel has 24 miles of hiker-biker trails. That is admirable. It wants to add 14 miles, again an admirable goal, by tying into a former railbed-turned-trail that runs through Prince George's County.

That trail starts in Lanham at the intersection of Annapolis Road and Martin Luther King Highway and follows the old Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad main-line tracks.

It's a nice, paved trail - I rode it last week - that runs northeast and stops at the Patuxent River by the old Bowie Race Track.

On the other side of the river is the Meyer property. Anne Arundel officials say the county has the right to take over the nearly two-mile section of abandoned railbed that cuts through MeyerStation.

But Meyer has a deed that indicates that his relatives granted an "explicit" right-of-way to the railroad for tracks, but that the land would revert to the family if the tracks went unused.

M. Willson Offutt IV, a lawyer hired by Meyer, says the county is guilty of "sloppy homework" on its title search.

But did that stop Anne Arundel officials? No indeedy.

"Mr. Meyer invited them on his land as a fact-finding and conciliatory effort," Offutt says. "The Meyers were offering a tour and hoping to show county bureaucrats the environmentally sensitive portion of the property; show how the family has been maintaining the trails; show them the nesting herons."

When county officials arrived on May 16, they brought a present: a lawsuit, the first step in condemnation proceedings.

"Most people would construe a lawsuit as a less than conciliatory gesture," Offutt says in a deadpan.

Meyer has proposed an alternate route of an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad spur owned by Conrail that runs by the race track.

County officials insist they are open to suggestions, and in the case of a request to avoid a sand and gravel mining company, they have altered the route.

But Offutt said the lawsuit speaks volumes about the county's openmindedness.

Assistant county attorney Patricia Logan, who is handling the case, says although the county holds "a good deed" to the land, it will review Meyer's proposal.

"But we are prepared to condemn what we need to proceed with this project," she says.

Matt Diehl, a spokesman for county executive Janet Owens, says the matter "is in negotiations. Even when the county believes it has the deeded right, they still go back and negotiate with the landowner."

Why is the county being so bullheaded? Let me add this fact before you decide. Near the railbed, there's a shooting range that the Meyer family built in 1936. That's right, deep in the woods, far from any houses, there's a series of target stations where folks practice.

The range also is used when Meyer, a certified firearms instructor, teaches the DNR hunter safety course. It's free; all he asks for payment is that hunters act responsibly and with respect for the environment.

The course includes a field test with a simulated hunt, where the student and a volunteer instructor walk the property with unloaded guns. When the student sees an animal target in the woods, he or she must tell the instructor what makes the shooting situation safe or unsafe.

Without giving away too much, let me tell you that Meyer has included a surprise situation that is a sobering reminder of how accidents happen.

Meyer offers a free refresher course just before the start of the spring turkey hunting season, potentially the most dangerous for hunters.

Hundreds of people - men, women and youngsters - have "wised up" at the course at MeyerStation since 1989.

"Buz is a mentor to many of us, young and old," says Mike Slattery, the head of the state's hunting program until Gov. Parris N. Glendening fired him for being too friendly to hunters. "He is a good conservationist and a good steward of the land."

If the county takes the railbed, it will impose a no-guns buffer the equivalent of three football fields on either side. In addition to disrupting the nature center, it would spell an end to the shooting range and safety course. No hunter education, no clay shooting, no nothing.

State Sen. John Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat and decorated Marine veteran, says he is looking into the attempted land grab.

"I would hate to see another shooting facility taken out of existence," Astle says. "That's one less place for people who enjoy the sport to go."

A hiker-biker trail is a great idea. Having a free nature area is a great idea. Making sure hunters know the rules and how to act safely is a great idea.

Can't all these great ideas exist in the same county? Of course, they can. So here's another idea: call Anne Arundel County officials and tell them to have one more idea and figure out a way to let Buz Meyer do what he does best.

Want some phone numbers? County executive Janet Owens, 410-222-1821. Recreation and parks director Dennis Callahan, 410-222-7867. County Councilman William Burlison, 410-222-1401. County attorney Linda Schuett, 410-222-7888.

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