Prince George's County Council member Gerrard T. McDonough announced a "joint venture" last week among the County Council, the executive and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to save historic Seton Belt Woods from the logger's saw.
The 350-year-old trees stand on a 625-acre farm once owned by semi-reclusive farmer and banker Seton Belt. In 1960, Belt left the farm to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to use as a retired-minister's home.
Belt's will specified that the trees should not be cut except to repair the farmhouse on the property and for firewood. But shortly after the house burned down in 1976, the Baltimore bank that administers the property successfully challenged the prohibition, according to county officials.
McDonough's announcement was spurred by a logging contract awarded last March to a New Jersey company empowering the firm to cut 563 of the 130-foot trees on the farm's northern tract, one of two separate 45-acre plots that contain the ancient trees. Many of the trees have already been cut for export to Taiwan, according to McDonough.
"The veneer company is sending our trees to Taiwan. Why should this national landmark be cut just to line the walls of bankers' boardrooms?" said McDonough.
The farm is located along Church Road between Oak Grove Road and Rte. 214. In 1974 the tract called the South Woods was designated a national natural landmark by the federal Department of Interior.
Since the bank disregarded Belt's prohibition against cutting the trees, the state natural resources department has sought unsuccessfully to purchase the land. One private group, the Nature Conservancy, has offered $2 million to buy the land on which the trees stand.
The natural resources department has applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Interior to purchase the entire farm. The grant would have to be matched dollar for dollar by state, local or private funds.
This week McDonough sponsored a County Council request to Executive Lawrence J. Hogan for an emergency appropriation for an unspecified portion of the funds. At the press conference this week McDonough announced that Hogan will look favorably upon the request.
McDonough says that private conservation groups may contribute to the project and Congresswoman Gladys Spellman is also committed to the fight. According to a County Council spokesperson, Spellman has written a letter to Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, urging quick action on the state's request for a grant.