The Maryland League of Conservation Voters stood alongside the steadfast course of the Gunpowder Falls yesterday and reversed its public stance of four years ago, officially endorsing Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Gathered in a sylvan glade, the league -- a 16-member political committee composed of the leaders of many of the state's environmental organizations -- acknowledged that it was "going out on a limb" to endorse a man whose credentials on environment issues were suspect in 1986.
But, said league board member Mary Rosso, "He didn't have a reason to help us, but he stuck to his guns on several environmental initiatives, especially the critical areas legislation" that prevents development on the Chesapeake Bay's shoreline.
That legislation, along with the state's new non-tidal wetlands law, has cost Mr. Schaefer support on the Eastern Shore, said John Kabler, regional director of Clean Water Action.
Mr. Kabler said there will be equally difficult environmental legislation coming before the state in the near future -- as Maryland attempts to meet the strictures of the newly passed federal Clean Air Act and cope with its burgeoning growth -- and the governor will need the support of the state's environmentalists. The various organizations represented in the league count more than 200,000 members in Maryland, he said.
Governor Schaefer attended the league's announcement in Hereford and said he was pleased by the group's endorsement. He said he has "grown" over his term to be more sensitive to issues affecting Maryland's air and water.
"Four years ago [the league] didn't endorse me. They now see that I am serious about the environment, with clean air legislation, work to clean streams, and the creation of the Department of Environment and the Chesapeake Bay coordinator," Mr. Schaefer said.
Mr. Kabler recalled that "in 1986, we looked at Mr. Schaefer as an environmental unknown."
"He was disappointed and hurt by our endorsement of his opponent [ex-Attorney General Steven H. Sachs] four years ago, and since then, he has delighted in proving us wrong," Mr. Kabler said.
During his first campaign for governor, the then-Baltimore mayor came under intense criticism after he flippantly answered a Gaithersburg High School student's question by saying that the critical-areas guidelines should be relaxed and that the moratorium on catching rockfish should be immediately lifted.
Confronted by environmentalists and Mr. Sachs, Mr. Schaefer hastily retracted those statements and said he was dedicated to cleaning up the bay and that critical areas and the rockfish ban should not be re-examined for decades.
Once elected, Mr. Schaefer oversaw the creation of the Department of the Environment, but then appointed Martin W. Walsh Jr., whose abrasive management style has resulted in the departure of many skilled and experienced employees.
"It's no secret that Martin Walsh is no friend of the state's environmentalists," admitted Joan Willey, the league's chairwoman.
To environmentalists' chagrin, the department fought last year against warning people to limit their consumption of fish caught in the Potomac River downstream from the Westvaco paper mill in Luke, after it was disclosed that the plant was discharging small amounts of the carcinogen dioxin. The department eventually issued an advisory last June after prodding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the General Assembly, environmental groups have suffered their share of political losses in the past four years: bills to protect trees and to require gasoline fume-recovery nozzles in service stations failed during the 1990 session.
But Mr. Schaefer was on the environmental community's side on those issues and lent needed support, Ms. Willey noted. And in other respects, she said, "he's been a lot better than we have anticipated." Maryland is known nationally for its Project Open .. Space to set aside parkland, its sediment control and non-tidal wetlands laws, all of which were supported by Mr. Schaefer.