A 12-year-old order issued by then-president Richard Nixon may keep the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center from being commercially developed.

Currently, 260 acres at the center are for sale, and the General Services Administration is planning to survey the remaining 8,000 acres to determine if the Agriculture Department should be asked to move from the choice suburban property so that it could be sold.

But Tyler Bastian, Maryland's state archaeologist, has told the GSA that the survey team can't recommend a sale because the Agriculture Department has not formally surveyed the property to determine the extent of its archaeological resources.

Bastian said in an interview that amateur archaeologists have found a variety of prehistoric Indian artifacts, ranging from arrowheads and dart points to pottery and stone knives, at the Beltsville center.

In 1971, Nixon signed an executive order mandating that archaeological resources on any federal property should, "in a spirit of stewardship and trusteeship for future generations," be preserved.

"Agencies shall initiate measures necessary to direct their policies, plans and programs in such a way that federally owned sites, structures and objects of historical, architectural or archaeological significance are preserved, restored and maintained for the inspiration and benefit of the people," the order said.

"They have not done that," Bastian said.

In a letter to GSA's commissioner of Federal Property Resources, Carroll Jones, Bastian said: "Historically significant and scientifically valuable archaeological resources are known to be present at the Beltsville center based on informal and partial field surveys. Inasmuch as the center is not in compliance with Executive Order 11593 requiring a complete inventory of archaeological resources, it is important that GSA determine the extent of those resources. An environmental impact statement is necessary prior to the sale of the land."

Jones has not responded to the letter.

The Greenbelt City Council, meanwhile, has unanimously asked Sens. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) and Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to "resolve the issue in the best interest of your constituents."

A letter from the city, signed by Mayor Gil Weidenfeld, says "numerous research experiments conducted over extended periods of time would be wiped out by any relocation of the facilities."

Weidenfeld also shares Bastian's fears about the loss of archaeological resources.

City Manager James Geise said "we're questioning any sale of it from the economy point of view: . . . the cost of relocating the facility is greater than the value of the land."

"At the very least, the sales should be held up so the sites with archaeological significance could be protected through clauses in the land title or salvage excavation," Bastian said. "But right now, we don't know where all of those sites are."