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Correction to This Article
In some Dec. 8 editions, a Metro article about the Araby Bog was accompanied by a photo of a different Southern Maryland wetland that was incorrectly labeled as the bog.

Arson Brings Battle Over Bog to Surface

Md. Environmentalists Doubt Eco-Terrorism

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page B09

The long-running environmental fight over two new Southern Maryland subdivisions centered on an unusual feature: the Araby Bog, a wetland that supporters consider the best remaining example of its vanishing type.

But the fight itself was hardly unusual, veterans of Maryland's environmental politics said yesterday. It was another matchup between conservationists and developers, culminating in a lawsuit and nothing else -- no vandalism, no tree sitting, none of the hardball tactics that protesters deploy in other states.

Environmentalists say the Araby Bog is the best remaining example of a magnolia bog, a type of wetland that once flourished in the region. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Md. Arson: Ten homes were destroyed and 16 damaged, resulting in an estimated $10 million in destruction to the new subdivision.
Charles County Fire
_____More From The Post_____
Intensive Legwork Begins in Md. Arson (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Subdivision Blaze 'Was Truly an Awesome Sight' (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Hunt for Arson Clues Winds Down (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
11 More Houses Were Targeted In Md. Arsons (The Washington Post, Dec 9, 2004)
A Developing Discomfort (The Washington Post, Dec 9, 2004)
At Site of Mass Md. Arson, Families Wait and Worry (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
No Motive Found in Charles Arsons (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Developer Plans to Rebuild Houses (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Arson Turns A Dream Into Dread (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)

So yesterday, as investigators questioned whether "eco-terrorists" were behind a massive arson Monday at a Charles County subdivision next to the bog, local environmentalists said it was hard to fathom that such a radical approach could have arrived at this time and place.

"There have been so many other problems in the state where this hasn't occurred," said Ed Merrifield, an environmental activist with the title of Potomac river keeper. "Why all of a sudden take this one?"

For now, eco-terrorism is only one possible motive, investigators say. No one has taken responsibility for the blaze.

The debate over two planned subdivisions, Hunters Brooke and Falcon Ridge, dates to the late 1990s, when developers first proposed building them near the bog near the headwaters of Mattawoman Creek.

Local conservation groups objected, saying that the 6.5-acre Araby Bog was the last undisturbed example of a magnolia bog -- a kind of wetland that once flourished in the Washington region but now is extremely rare.

The bog is a wetland surrounded by forests, whose dead leaves and soil soak up rainwater and filter it as the water seeps downhill. When the water collects in the bog, it is very clear and acidic. Bog plants have evolved to fit this niche, including some pitcher plants that trap and eat insects to supplement the scarce nutrients they get from the water.

These native plants also include sweet bay magnolias, a distinctive white-flowered tree that gives this type of bog its name, plus other species such as cinnamon ferns, sphagnum moss and poison sumac -- a plant only botanists could love.

"It's like a tropical wonderland," said Patricia C. Stamper, co-chairwoman of the citizen group Save Araby, Mattawoman, and Mason Springs. "It's like stepping into a whole new world. The air is perfectly fresh, and beautifully clear water is bubbling everywhere."

The developments will not bulldoze the bog, but environmentalists said they will destroy it nonetheless, by clearing the forests that filter rainwater. Without the trees, environmentalists fear that the water will blast down off roofs and roads.

"It'll be too hard. It'll be too fast. It will be in the wrong place," said Rod Simmons of the Maryland Native Plant Society.

The bog could become muddy and lose the native species for which it is known. It would still be a wetland, but just an ordinary one, they said. "We expect it will turn the bog into a swamp, a low-level swamp," Simmons said.

Conservation groups fought the proposal with Charles County officials but lost. They filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not properly checked the project before approving permits. The corps has argued that it did nothing wrong, believing that the bog would not be affected by the construction.

Nancy Slepicka, an attorney for developers Hunters Brooke LLC, said that her clients followed every law and regulation during the permitting process and that Araby Bog would not suffer. "There is no evidence that any harm will come to any of the wetlands that are on-site," she said yesterday.

In July, opponents of the development won a small victory: U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled that the corps needed to provide more justification for its decision. But Messitte did not stop construction.

Now, the opponents say they are waiting for the court to take the next steps. That's in keeping with the genteel approach Maryland's conservationists have typically taken. The state has little activity from groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, which has been blamed for vandalism and arson at construction sites across the country.

"I've been working with the Maryland environmental community for many years, and I have never once heard any person mention any such action, even in a joking way," said J. Charles Fox, a former head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

For the Maryland Native Plant Society, one of the main opponents of the Charles County development, the idea of a connection between the Araby Bog controversy and the arson was hard to imagine.

"The average age of people that come to our monthly meetings is probably around 50 years old," said John Parrish, a vice president of the group. "We're not a radical youth group."

Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company