H.R. "Bob" Parks Jr. proudly takes visitors on two tours of his Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line station in central Howard County these days, both of which couldn't be more different.
The first involves a walk around the giant, droning machinery that pumps compressed natural gas through a pipeline that spans the country from Texas to New York.
The second tour takes place outside, where several of the station's 31 employees are turning what was once mowed open space into a thriving nature preserve.
Transcontinental is one of 11 corporations in Maryland, and one of three in Howard County, that have accepted an offer by a nonprofit national group called the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council to convert their manicured land into wildlife sanctuaries.
The council, a 3-year-old organization that counts 60 corporations and environmental groups as its members, challenged the state's corporations to return 12,000 acres of undeveloped land to nature this year. About 6,000 acres have been transformed so far.
These efforts recently caught the attention of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has promoted the idea as a way to enrich the Chesapeake Bay's watershed.
Transcontinental signed up this spring. Working with Habitat Council members, the company drafted a two-year plan to convert about 32 acres on its 52-acre site.
For starters, the company is allowing much of the grass in its open fields to grow tall enough to provide nesting grounds and cover for small animals and hunting grounds for hawks and owls. Plans are in the works to plant wildflowers throughout the thigh-high grass.
Birdhouses have been erected around the fields to attract songbirds, kestrels and purple martins. A large block of salt sits at one corner of the property to lure deer. Brush piles have been created to make warrens for rabbits and weasels. And a nearby section of the Middle Patuxent River is being cleaned up to provide a home for minnows, crayfish and aquatic insects that, in turn, could spark the return of the herons that feed on them.
The program already is having results. Deer have been spotted and wrens, sparrows, tufted titmice, chickadees and an eastern bluebird have roosted in the birdhouses.
"We even spotted a pheasant," one employee said.
Parks said the preserve is not only ecologically sound but also will save the company the time and expense of having to mow its lawns regularly. The project also has been a morale booster. "We're basically pure amateurs at this, but we're learning," Parks said.
The company's involvement began after Habitat Council Executive Director Joyce M. Kelly approached officials. Kelly, who lives down the road from the station, saw an opportunity in her own back yard to practice what she preached nationwide.
"I'm hoping Transcontinental's example will get other landowners in the area interested in following suit," Kelly said.
Kelly said corporate preservation efforts are important because about one-quarter of all property in the United States is owned by private businesses. Many companies maintain large holdings to buffer their projects from neighbors and to provide security. But Kelly said no site is too small to improve the lot of wildlife.
"Our smallest site is a 3-by-10-foot ledge on the 33rd floor of the USFG Building in Baltimore, where they are raising peregrine falcons," Kelly said. "Just planting shrubs on your site or installing a birdbath can help."