The Spicer family has been minding its own business here on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay ever since the 1600s, and for the last generation or so that business has involved cutting timer from the sparsely settled swamp and woodland of Dorchester County.

Now the family business is threatened. The federal government wants to acquire or control large tracts of privately owned land here, including nearly 100 acres belonging to the Spicers, in order to protect a marshy region that has the largest nesting population of bald eagles (about 35) this side of Florida, and a thriving colony of some 450 Delmarva fox squirrels.

The animals reside in and around a federal reservation known as the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. Both are endangered species which federal officers say must be protected, even at the expense of private property rights rooted deep in the Dorchester County soil.

"It seems everybody from everywhere knows more about Dorchester County than people who've been living here for hundreds of years." grumbled Barton Spicer, who manages the family's 3,000 acres of timber land.

"People here in this county haven't been inclined to go out and destroy what nature provided us with," he said. "But if I don't pay taxes for 35 years to grow trees and you're gonna tell me I can't havest, you're taking money out of my pocket."

The conflict is a classic struggle between fiercely independent people whose roots go back generations and government regulators acting in what they see as the public interest.

As development pressures increase in and around Chesapeake Bay, it's a struggle that's likely to be constantly repeated. Underlying it is the basic question of who owns the Chesapeake -- those who earn their livelihood by the Bay or those for whom it is an occasional haven from the big cities and sprawling suburbs.

Basically one big peninsula jutting into Chesapeake Bay, Dorchester County is one-third marsh and swamp. The federal government manages 14,000 acres at Blackwater, the state some 10,000 acres more. A state proposal to set aside 22,000 more acres received an icy reception two years ago. So far, the federal plan to add 5,000 acres to Blackwater is faring no better.

"Why waste taxpayers' money to purchase these acres when they are much the same as they were when they were settled in 1640?" recently retired county planner Hobart D. Adams asked in a memo to the county commissioners. "Bureaucratic management does not necessarily mean more efficient management. . .

"More often than not," Adams said, "birds and animals fare far better on private property. . .Simply stated, the residents of this county (want) to keep the sometimes well-meaning, but invariably inconsistent federal or state bureaucrat in Washington D.C. or Annapolis, Md. and let the Delmarva fox squirrel, the egret, the bald eagle, and, last but not least, the people, live in harmony without undue environmental damage as they have done for over 300 years."

The federal bureaucrats, however, march to different drummers. Eagle nests, they said this spring, are "destroyed in the process of clearing lands for planting or home construction or are lost to timber cutting operations" and must be shielded from such castastrophies. The homes of the rare fox squirrels are similarly threatened, they said, "by future timeber cuts."

Through it all runs the murky, slow-moving Blackwater River. It begins in such unlikely soundling places as theGum, Kentuck and Moneystump swamps. Eventually, the river broadens, flowing through tidal marshes and past islands into Fishing Bay and finally the Chesapeake.

In the fall and winter, the Blackwater refuge is blanketed with migrating Canadian geese and ducks. They were the reason the refuge was created in 1932, long before the federal government turned its attention to "endangered species."

Excluding, of course, the large migratory waterfowl population, Dorchester is Maryland's least densely populated county after Garrett in the far western corner of the state. Dorchester's 27,000 humans share their land not only with the visiting birds and a few rare creatures but also with countless mosquitos, horse and dragon flies and an abundance of deer, muskrate and nutria, a related rodent.

Although the hot, dry weather this summer has largely dried up the swamps and driven away the mosquitos, nobody here expects a sudden surge of population and housing units in the 1980s to gobble up the undeveloped land. Preliminary census figures, in fact, show a 6.6 percent population decline since 1970.

The threat, wildlife managers say, comes indirectly from the growing demand for timber to build elsewhere. Their crystal-ball gazing has inspired the current government proposals.

"At the present time, under private ownership, the habitat is being preserved fairly well," said refuge manager John Schroer. "But we're looking down the road."

"The current owners won't live forever," said Stephen Drown, a biologist based at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Massachusetts. "Their children might not continue the tradition. There may be pressures eventually to do more cutting, and we won't be dealing with the same individuals 25 or 30 years from now."

The government's plan, first floated last year and taking firmer shape this summer, is to add the additional acreage by establishing a "final acquisition boundary," It is a phrase that has turned into a public relations nightmare for the federal officials, who say other methods -- such as paying owners not to cut timber -- may achieve the ends they seek.

The proposed boundary change would, they acknowlege, leave open the possibility of acquisition and the threat of condemnation -- declaring a property legally appropriated for public use -- which landowners universally oppose. Such federal ownership could bar not only cutting but also hunting.

"I'm not gonna shoot eagles," said Spicer, who last year refused to let a government scientist on his land to study an eagle's nest. "The first thing, they study. Then they come back with some idiotic recommendation on how I should manage my property."

Wildlife officials say that several of the 25 or so property owners affected have offered to sell marshland to the government. It is the timber land, however, that the government says it needs to protect the eagle and fox squirrel. And it is the timber ownerns who most oppose their plans.

Beyond the classic confrontation between the property and government rights, there are competing philosophies of managing land, with adherents on both sides donning the conservationist mantle.

"It sort of burns us up," said Lowell Besley, whose father acquired Eastern Shore timber land after retiring in 1942 as Maryland's first state forester. "We were the first conservationists. We were taught to work with growth and reproductive forces of nature and against destructive forces of fire, insects and disease."

"You were a good guy before they were, said his sister Helen Overington, visiting from Baltimore.

"I'm not against a lot of things they are for, but there's moderation in everything," said Besley, 70, who retired here to look after the family lumber interests after a long career in forestry.

"When I grew up," his sister said, "we were taught conservation of forests.

Now, no one talks about that. They don't even study forestry. It's been taken over by these emotional people full of misinformation.

"We get blasted because we don't have sound forestry practices, which is true," said refuge manager Schroer. "We manage for wildlife."

Commerical timber-cutting maybe good for deer and rabbits which like low undergrowth, Schroer said, but the endangered species perfer a "mature forest, with closed canopy on top and very low light on the ground to keep the bushy vegetation out."

"A "mature forest" to a lumberman is nothing but dead wood.

Besley beamed the other day as he showed off the timber on his Moneystump tract, on the south side of the Blackwater River. Some 130 acres of the 999-acre tract are within the proposed "acquisition boundary."

To get there required a trip in a four-wheel drive jeep over a lumber road, a short hike through a swamp and, finally, a walk across a rickety wooden footbridge built by family members who comprise the Besley & Rodgers firm.

The river was filled with lily pads and dark in color, a condition resulting from tannin in the leaves and sedimentation on the shallow bottom. Human voices seemed alien in a sound-track dominated by frogs and crickets.

"Everything looks different in a swamp," said Besley, proudly pointing out stands of loblolly pine, red gum, maple, poplar and willow oak trees. We're real pleased with this. We're not anxious to give any of it up."

Moneystump and other timber tracts the government is eyeing are also home for hunters, many of them city dwellers from the western shore. The hunters, too, prefer the status quo.

"I'm opposed," said Donald E. Baumbach, an executive with the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., whose 1,000-Acre Hunt Club leases the Moneystump tract. The club's 28 members currently pay $1,000 a year for the privilege of hunting deer on the property.

"The Blackwater people should concern themselves with ducks and geese, he said. "The fox squirrels are doing very well. We have an eagle's nest on the property. We don't bother them. They don't bother us."

Ironically, the only affected property owner who actually lives on the desired land is a 35-year refuge employe. "I'd sell if the price is right," said G. Wallace Stewart, Blackwater's maintenance man and a Dorchester native whose 2.5 acre homesite juts gracefully into the present park boundary.

"The only thing taking this property does is straighten out a line," he said, somewhat bitterly. "I don't want to see anything condemned."

Repeatedly, the people worry about government exercising its right of eminent domain to condemn their land, a course officials say is not preferred but still possible.

"Condemnation hangs over everybody's head," said refuge manager Schroer, "Since we're the government, we can't come out and make a blanket statement we won't. Times change and you don't know what's going to happen."

Those opposing the plan is one form or another had their say at a public hearing held at the refuge in June. "Some people didn't even understand why we had the meeting." said schroer.

Federal wildlife officials are currently working on an environmental impact statement they say will consider alternatives. They hope it will defuse some opposition. In any case, they say, Congress would have to appropriate funds for any property acquisition.

None of this has mollified many of the owners and the local politicians, who are fond of noting that government land comes off the tax rolls. Blackwater Refuge contributes to the county a sum in lieu of taxes, but it all comes from the taxpayer, they say.

"The taxpayer is the endangered species," said William I. Wingate, a masonry contractor who is president of the county commissioners. "The government can't do everything and have everything. You can't turn all of Dorchester County into a wildlife habitat."