- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Md. — There’s no golf course or hotel coming to the quiet marshes around this refuge, a spot bird-watchers prize for its bustling waterfowl and bald eagle populations.

However, state land purchase earlier this month to prevent a large development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t mean changes aren’t coming to the Eastern Shore nature sanctuary.

Blackwater officials say an eco-tourism boom is coming at the same time that the refuge gets a face-lift. A $1.5 million observatory is now open in a remodeled visitor’s center, an airy room where visitors can peer out at the marsh or watch live cameras that record life in osprey and eagle nests. The refuge is also due for new bike paths and an outdoor classroom for school groups.

The biggest new development is nearby, where the state has acquired almost 20 acres and an old farmhouse for a potential museum on the life of underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. She was born near what is now the refuge, but is more associated with Auburn, N.Y., where she spent most of her life after fleeing slavery in 1849.

Showing off the visitor’s center, Maggie Briggs, the refuge’s visitor services manager, said new exhibits and the observation room have drawn more visitors.

“It’s drawn a lot of people here and gotten them out into the field,” Miss Briggs said, pointing to two bicyclists outside the window.

Times are good for the refuge. A developer’s proposal to build thousands of homes, a golf course and hotel near Blackwater sparked an outcry that Miss Briggs said was actually a boon to the refuge.

“It brought a great deal of attention, and it brought a lot of people out here. A lot of people might not have known how important this refuge was,” she said.

The furor over the proposed Blackwater Resort Communities reached such a pitch that last year officials announced the state would buy most of the land to preserve it. The state formally approved the purchase this month, bringing more than 700 acres nearest the Little Blackwater River into protection.

Bird-watchers may soon share space with history buffs if state plans to build a Tubman museum go forward. Though she was born in Dorchester County, her home is no longer standing. The same day Maryland purchased the land from the developer, it traded a parcel to acquire a 1913 farmhouse near the refuge.

Though the home has no ties to Tubman — it wasn’t built until after her death — historians hope it becomes the biggest Tubman marker in Maryland.

“What’s valuable in Dorchester and Caroline counties are the landscapes. They’re very similar to what was there when she was there,” said Barbara Mackey, who helped research Tubman for the National Park Service, where she works in the Boston office.

“It would be a chance to drive around and see what it was like for Tubman,” Miss Mackey said.

A man who runs a small Tubman museum in Cambridge, Donald W. Pinder, said he’d welcome a bigger site. Tubman kept a low profile while alive and did not leave any writings because she was illiterate.

“I think that it will be quite an extraordinary place for people to attend,” Mr. Pinder said of the museum proposal. “A lot of people just think that she did this to see that slaves were emancipated, but actually her greatest asset was she was a fighter against injustice. There were a lot of things wrong other than slavery, and she knew that.”

Back at the refuge, Miss Briggs said that interest in the county where Tubman was raised is growing alongside interest in outdoor pursuits, which the rural area has in abundance. Miss Briggs has worked at the refuge almost 20 years and said that only recently could visitors rent bikes or canoes or kayaks in the area. Now, eco-tourism is booming.

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