Survey: Spend to save trees Marylanders urge better protection of the environment.

May 09, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff bvB

Most Marylanders believe the state's environment needs even stronger protection, and they favor tougher laws and regulations to curb pollution and preserve forests and wetlands, even if it costs them more, says a report released today.

But Maryland's environmental movement needs to broaden its political base and present a clearer vision of the need for individual and social change if it hopes to harness that public support, according to the report produced by the University of Maryland.

The 200-page report on the state of environmental activism in Maryland concludes that all but a few of the state's 175-odd environmental groups are handicapped by a lack of funds and staff to do their own research and to reach out to the public. Most groups are run by volunteers with budgets of less than $10,000.

"There's a critical need for a comprehensive approach to environmental policy," said Ellen L. Fraites, the report's author and director of the university's new coastal and environmental policy program.

The report is the product of a 14-month study, financed with $45,000 in grants from the Abell Foundation and the Beldon Fund, that included a public opinion survey and interviews with activists, government officials, scientists and business leaders on their views of the movement.

The environmental movement in Maryland, as in the rest of the nation, has mushroomed in the past 30 years and has provoked changes in government, business and the public, the study says. Environmentalists effectively have lobbied for state laws, and they scored electoral victories last fall in Allegany, Frederick, Montgomery and Worcester counties. But the movement is at a crossroads now many say.

The poll of 250 Marylanders last November found that 72 percent believed the environment needs stronger protection, and 68 percent thought government has not done enough. A similar margin favored more government regulation and tougher enforcement, even if it raises prices and taxes and slows the economy.

But while 86 percent of those polled believed citizens can do a great deal to improve the environment, more than a quarter of those polled indicated they were confused about what to do.

And the poll found that managing the state's burgeoning population growth and development was not as big a priority with the public as it is for environmental activists. The disparity suggests that environmentalists and state officials need to do more to convince the public of the environmental harm done by sprawling suburbia, the report says.

"The environmental movement has not effectively articulated a vision for sustainable development or for protecting the BTC environment," said J. Charles "Chuck" Fox, legislative director of Friends of the Earth in Washington, a member of the study's steering committee.

Environmental groups were criticized for not paying enough attention to the problems of the rural and urban poor, and the report says that environmental groups need to try harder to represent and involve minorities.

The report also criticizes the state's news media, including The Evening Sun and The Sun, for not doing enough to inform the public about environmental issues in a fair and timely fashion.

Environmental activists and government officials who have seen the report praised it as a pioneering study that they hoped would inspire greater communication among the many groups and with business, government and scientific leaders. A meeting of environmental leaders has been scheduled for next month, Fraites said.

"We always have far more ideas than we have either time, money or people to carry them out," said Joan Willey, state conservation chair for the Sierra Club. Though the Sierra Club is a national group, its Maryland chapter has only three part-time staffers. The rest of its work is handled by volunteers, Willey said.

"I don't think many of the groups have time to reflect about [the future] because they're mostly struggling for survival," said John Kabler of Clean Water Action. His group boasts 165,000 members, the largest membership of any group in the state, but most of its $1 million budget is devoted to canvassing the public.

Some suggested that the report should prompt environmentalists to move away from confrontation and criticism of government and business and develop a more cooperative relationship.

"We've got to get into more of a negotiation mode of making things happen, rather than this confrontational 'We're-right-and-we're-going-to-convince -you-guys,' " said Fran Flanigan, director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a tri-state citizen group that receives about two-thirds of its $700,000 budget from the federal government.

Not all environmental activists agreed, however.

"I don't think you have to go find the opposition and form a compromise," Kabler said, adding that environmentalists need to focus first on building political and public support in order to negotiate for change with politicians and businesses "from a position of strength."

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