Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), with the help of a private charitable foundation, is negotiating a deal that would eventually protect from development nearly 60,000 forested acres on the Eastern Shore.

It would be the largest land purchase in state history, the governor's office said.

Glendening's spokesman, Michael Morrill, said yesterday that pending appraisals, studies and the approval of other state officials, Maryland would spend $16.5 million to acquire about 29,000 acres from Chesapeake Forest Products Co. In addition, the Richard King Mellon Foundation would purchase 29,000 acres for the same amount and eventually turn it over to the state.

The negotiations could be completed as early as Aug. 24, and a special meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works, which oversees state purchases, is scheduled for Friday to consider the deal.

Throughout his administration, Glendening has been using tax dollars to acquire open land in ecologically fragile areas to save it from development. The state has spent more in other deals to preserve land for open space, purchasing more than 2,000 acres at Chapman's Landing in Charles County last year for $25.3 million.

Should the Eastern Shore sale go through, Morrill said, "it triples in one fell swoop what we've been able to acquire in all our other purchases combined. It is by far the most important piece of land that the state has acquired in ecological value."

In a statement, Glendening called the land the "absolute centerpiece" of his land acquisition efforts and noted that the deal would preserve timber jobs on the Eastern Shore.

The acreage covers critical watersheds that feed the Chesapeake Bay and nearby waterways. It is a series of forests, some thousands of acres, others hundreds of acres in size stretching across Caroline, Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties. The land fronts five rivers on the Eastern Shore--the Marshyhope, Nanticoke, Black Water, Pocomoke and Wicomico.

The land is becoming available as Chesapeake Forest Products, owned by Chesapeake Corp. of Richmond, essentially goes out of the timber business. The company owns nearly 280,000 acres in the mid-Atlantic and is selling its holdings that spread across Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

Chesapeake had a good conservation reputation, environmental regulators said.

In April, the company announced that it was getting out of the timber business and planned to sell much of its land to John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., which has a timber subsidiary.

As it negotiated that deal early this summer, Hancock approached the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving open land.

"They said we want to do the right thing here," said a source familiar with the transaction who is not in state government. "It's a valuable timber resource. But it's also a valuable natural resource."

Should the deal be closed as scheduled on Aug. 24, Hancock will earn nothing from the deal, the source said. "They're getting an opportunity to do the right thing." Representatives from Hancock and Chesapeake Forest could not be reached last night.

The Conservation Fund, which is acting as a broker in the deal and could earn a fee of as much as $500,000 from the state, contacted the Pittsburgh-based Mellon foundation, which has acquired land for conservation programs in 25 states. The foundation has agreed to purchase 29,000 acres and develop a forestry plan that will continue to allow timber harvesting.

Within several years, the foundation will turn over title to that land to the state with the requirement that the timber harvesting continue.