A majestic band of bald eagles, settled along a wild stretch of the Potomac River only 45 miles south of Washington, has provoked a ground fight between area wildlife groups and Virginia state park officials.
The wildlife lovers are delighted that about 50 of the endangered birds have found the shoreline in King George County hospitable enough to be home. State park officials, who planned to build a park on part of that land, are not so pleased.
"The needs of eagles and people are exactly opposite," complains Ronald D. Sutton, the assistant parks commissioner of Virginia, which has been prevented by the eagles' presence from spending a penny to develop a planned million dollar park. "And state parks are for people."
There is only one mated pair of eagles nesting on the 2,500 acre site, which was donated to the state in 1974 by county philanthropist Ann Smoot. But a five-member Bald Eagle Recovery Team, appointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to study the area, concluded that Virginia's proposal to develop a nature center, hiking trails and, eventually, a swimming pool, would scare off the eagles who soar above the length of the shore-line looking for fish to snare.
"They're one of the creatures that like it wild," says Jack Abbott a member of the recovery team that recently concluded that "any development would have an adverse impact on the bald eagle."
Both the park officials and the eagles covet the land for the same reasons. While most of Northern Virginia's woodlands have been cut for timber in the last few decades, the disputed territory contains virgin forests of oak, poplar and gum.
"This is really a very unique, spectacular thing," says Sutton. "There are very few virgin forests left. We want to let people walk through it and observe it."
But local wildlife groups maintain that the American bald eagle, which has been officially declared endangered in 43 states, including Virginia, is more unususal than virgin woodlands. They argue that even limited development of the Caledon State Park, as it is now called, would attract an army of picnickers and eagle watchers who would destroy the largest gathering place for bald eagles on the East Coast.
"There is really nothing else like it," says Andrew Moser, an endangered species specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is the largest concentration [in the Chespeake Bay region] that has ever been reported."
The fish and wildlife service got involved in the park battle when Virginia sought matching federal funds for the $900,000 in state money already allocated under a bond referendum three years ago. Ironically, the wildlife service, which is within the Interior department, is arguing with another branch of the Interior the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, which doles out the matching funds for state park projects.
Virginia officials are fighting a cautious battle for their park They are trying to argue with wildlife groups without appearing to be against bald eagles, America's national symbol since 1782.
"Nobody wants to strike a blow against an American monument," said one park proponent.
On the other side of the eagle issue is a coalition of wildlife groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation, and individuals like Dr. Mitchell Byrd of William & Mary College Dr. Byrd and his students conduct an annual air and ground survey of all the eagles in the Chespeake Bay area.
King George County a rural, agricultural region of 10,000, is sitting in the middle of the fight Park opponents argue that even a scaled down version of a park would scare the eagles out of the most important refuge on the Cheasapeake area.
County officials say they would like to see the park developed. But they concede that it is difficult to work for it publicly after they used the eagle refuge last year to block an Alexandria firm from building a sewage treatment plant in the county.
"We were very upset when people came down from Washington with plans to dump sewage near there," says Ken Scruggs, the county administrator. p"It would be contradictory for us to turn around right now and say we want that land developed. We're kind of in a Catch 22 situation."
The eagles have thus far stayed above the fray. The young have submitted to their annual leg banding, performed by wildlife volunteers so that the eagles' habits can be studied.
That indignity, say wildlife officials, is small compared to hardships the birds of prey have endured since Ben Franklin argued that wild turkeys would be a more appropriate national bird.
In the past 50 years, eagles have been poisoned by DDT and shot by both Alaska fishermen and western farmers who considered the birds a threat to their livelihoods.
But the disappearance of America's wilderness has been the biggest reason the number of bald eagles has been cut by estimates of more than 50 percent in the last half century.
Now wildlife officials are optimistic that the eagle population is making a comeback. And they are determined, they say, to keep the King George refuge open to them.
"There is some question what the development at Caledon will do to the eagles," says Abbott. "Obviously it's not going to help them stick around. And there aren't many places left for them to go."