Outspoken ecologist transferred DNR worker, often at odds with agency, reassigned in shuffle.

September 30, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

An outspoken state ecologist who has criticized logging of state forests has been transferred against his will, prompting environmentalists to charge that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is using the state's budget crisis as an excuse to muzzle him.

D. Daniel Boone, coordinator of DNR's Natural Heritage program, said he was notified by letter on Friday that his position is being eliminated and that he is being reassigned to work in the agency's non-tidal wetland division.

His duties there have not been spelled out, he said.

"This is probably going to make the people who are clearcutting our forests for their personal financial gain very happy," said Boone, who has often been at odds with the timber industry and with DNR's own forestry officials over logging of Western Maryland's vast state forests.

"I think it's politically motivated," charged Glen Besa, a Sierra Club member, who praised Boone for opposing state timber sales near Herrington Manor State Park and Puzzley Run in Garrett County. Besa and other environmentalists contend logging those areas will ruin their recreational and ecological value.

Deputy DNR Secretary John Griffin denied that Boone's transfer was intended to silence him. Boone is just one of as many as 50 DNR employees who are being reassigned, Griffin said, because their jobs are being eliminated to cut costs.

"Unless they're transferred, they're all going to be terminated," Griffin said.

The shakeup at DNR is prompted by the Schaefer administration's scramble to close a worsening budget deficit that is approaching $450 million. Spending cuts and layoffs throughout state government are to be announced Wednesday.

But environmentalists say they are suspicious of DNR's decision to eliminate Boone's job at this time, as they bring increasing pressure on the state to curtail timber sales in state forests.

"Obviously, the best time to rid yourself of a whistleblower is when you've got something to cover you," Besa said.

Boone, 34, has spent the past 10 years with the Heritage program, which seeks to identify and protect the state's rare animals and plants. He estimates that he has found 30 or 40 species, mostly plants, which were thought to have vanished from Maryland, or which had never been seen here before.

Boone even ran the Heritage program for six years. But complaints from DNR's foresters and from timber interests mounted until he was effectively demoted two years ago, when DNR officials placed a director over him to administer the office.

Despite that, Boone has continued to lobby internally to set aside thousands of acres of state forests, especially in Western Maryland, which he believes should be preserved as potential "old-growth" forest and wildlands.

He also has spoken out at times against DNR, testifying as a private citizen at public hearings against DNR logging plans.

Other ecologists speak highly of Boone's keen eye and ear and of his encyclopedic knowledge of Maryland's natural history.

"For my money, he's an excellent field botanist and a good ecologist," said Brian McCarthy, a forest ecologist at Frostburg State University. "He was very well qualified to do what he was doing."

"Dan knows more about forests than anybody else I know," said Robert Whitcomb of Potomac, a noted forest and grassland ecologist.

Whitcomb teamed up with Boone in fighting to protect the Belt Woods near Bowie, one of the last stands of virgin hardwoods in the East, from development. A settlement of the dispute was announced last week.

"He's the most qualified person in Heritage," Whitcomb said. "If they cared about the Heritage program, they'd keep him and move somebody else."

The Heritage program is losing 25 percent of its eight-member professional staff as part of the DNR shuffle. Another ecologist, Wayne Tindall, who focused on the "critical area" bordering the Chesapeake Bay, also has been reassigned.

"I'm very concerned about it," said Lesley Sneddon, eastern regional ecologist for the Nature Conservancy, a private environmental group that seeks to protect rare plants and animals by acquiring their habitat. The Conservancy works closely with state Natural Heritage programs in identifying what areas need protection from development.

Griffin said he and DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown had managed until now to spare the Heritage program from previous spending cuts. He said the positions were chosen for elimination without regard to the individual people filling them.

"If we transferred everyone in the department who spoke to the press, we'd have to transfer everyone within DNR," Griffin said. He criticized environmentalists for focusing on Boone's transfer amid all the other budget cuts.

Boone is being shifted to the non-tidal wetlands division because that is a high priority for the state right now, Griffin said, and because he actually applied last year for another wetlands job, which he did not get.

"We're not putting him in Siberia, in a function that has no bearing on what his experience or interest is in," Griffin said.

Many of the areas designated for protection by the state for their rare plants and animals are in non-tidal wetlands.

And, Griffin assured, Boone still will have an opportunity through the non-tidal wetlands office to review state forest management plans.

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