HOPEWELL, VA. -- A Northern Virginia group hoping to prevent the development of 3,500 acres of land inhabited by more than 100 bald eagles is trying to buy the land to preserve it for the endangered birds.

The Arlington County-based Nature Conservancy must pay the owner of the tract, a timber company, $1.85 million by the end of the 90-day option period, the group said last week.

The property, in Prince George County east of Hopewell, is considered one of the East Coast's most important bald eagle habitats.

"It's an outstanding eagle nesting area, and without some kind of protection it could end up as a housing development," said James A. Remington, executive director of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Nature Conservancy officials said they acted to protect the area after learning recently that Continental Forest Investments was ready to sell the land along the James River.

"I received phone calls asking for the conservancy's help from all over: people in state and federal government, scientists, academicians and interested citizens," George Fenwick, director of the group's Virginia office at Charlottesville, said in a statement.

But he said that without financial help, the group's Jan. 23 option-to-buy deal may collapse.

Last year the Nature Conservancy paid more than $1 million for an eagle nesting area in Fairfax County, said conservancy spokeswoman Rita Christian.

Continental currently harvests timber at the site. Bill Messerly, manager of technical services for the forestry company, said the property originally supplied trees for a pulp mill owned by the company. The mill was sold several years ago to Stone Container Corp.

Continental officials are interested in selling the tract because as a riverfront parcel, its value has exceeded that of the timber it produces, Messerly said.