Fifteen years ago, several Howard County farmers and prominent local developer James Rouse became concerned about the effects of urban growth on wildlife. They formed the National Institute for Urban Wildlife to help preserve areas for wildlife in and near cities.

Today, the organization works through several education programs in school systems and with land planners and developers throughout the country. It also sponsors a program to set up wildlife sanctuaries in urban areas.

The institute differs from other wildlife organizations in that it is not an advocacy group, according to Gomer Jones, the institute's president. Instead, the group is a clearinghouse of information and advice for its members.

"Our main concern is that development proceed without an impact on wildlife," he said. "You could say we're concerned about people -- they need an interrelationship with nature."

The institute also conducts its own research, rather than depending on universities and research institutions.

The sanctuaries are among the most notable of the institute's programs, although there is nothing complicated about becoming an urban sanctuary member. Twenty-seven areas ranging in size from back yards that are havens for squirrels and birds to large industrial compounds with commercial fish hatcheries and bald eagle breeding grounds have been certified by institute inspectors.

The certification allows a landowner to post a sign showing that the area is a wildlife habitat, but it has no legal significance. The program's backers, however, say that advertising the area as a sanctuary helps build recognition of the program and the need for such areas.

Once a landowner has requested certification, an institute staff member visits the site and tells the prospective sanctuary owner "how to get it into shape," Jones said.

The institute requires a $25 application fee for the sanctuary certification from individuals to cover the cost of educational materials. Other urban sanctuary supporters include groups such as garden clubs, local conservation clubs and nature centers, which contribute around $50 a year each.

Corporations each pay an annual fee of $1,000 to be sanctuary members. "We go to them for money and they come to us for advice, how to handle wetlands in their area and that kind of thing," Jones said. He said his organization's efforts are not directed against urban planning and industry. "We recognize corporations who want to do something for wildlife," he said.

The institute provides information for sanctuary members, and a telephone hot line is available in case of problems. The institute also makes available to sanctuary members technical services, research and conservation education materials.

Jones said that representatives from the institute check back on the sanctuaries to make sure that they continue to support wildlife. "We're very careful because I don't want to lose our credibility," he said.

Headquartered in a renovated dairy barn in Columbia with a staff of five biologists, the institute relies on funding from various foundations in addition to fees assessed to its 1,500 urban sanctuary members across the country.