John Shulka figures he could have built a car from the debris that he and fellow conservationists have cleared over the past several years from Otter Point Creek.
But when the 71-year-old Bel Air resident looks around the woodsy terrain straddling the creek today, he seesa haven for wood ducks, foxes and birds.
Since 1965, Shulka has been working to protect and enhance the environment through the Izaak Walton League, a national conservation group that has about 100 county members.
The league's motto: "Defenders of Soil, Woods, Waters and Wildlife."
The local chapter, formed in 1950, focuses its efforts on the league's Melvin G. Bosely Wildlife Conservancy, a 263-acre marshland along Otter Point Creek near Edgewood.
Between 1979 and 1983, the league acquired through donations the property sites that now make up the conservancy.
"To a developer, (the site) was worthless," said Shulka, a retired air conditioning and refrigeration mechanic at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "But for people to understand the value of wetlands, it is a gold mine."
The site could not be developed because of its vast wetlands. But it did became a dumping ground, so much so that it took the local chapter of the league three years just to clear the site of the debris, Shulka said.
The group found discarded refrigerators, washing machines,tires, bedpans, syringes and more, Shulka said.
Monthly, league members scour the conservancy for trash, picking up tires, fast-food wrappers, plastic bags and fishing line, said Fred Gillotte Jr., president of the league's county chapter.
The conservancy is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 400-acre site protected fromdevelopment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration'sdesignation as an estuarine reserve.
Scientists from around the nation can conduct bay-related research at the reserve, one of three in Maryland.
At the conservancy, the league has opened about 60 acres to the public for hiking, bird-watching, canoeing and fishing, or simply enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.
As the largest privately owned freshwater tidal marshland on the Chesapeake Bay, the reserve is home to foxes, ducks, beavers, muskrats, red-wing blackbirds, bluebirds and more.
The league uses the property to educate people, particularly students, about the importance of the environment and conservation.
A site manager provides hiking and canoeing tours. The league also offers fishing and hunting safety classes.
"Education is the answer to the entire thing," said Gillotte, a Havre de Grace resident who works at American Cyanamid Co. "People have got to become a little more aware of our environment. Use a little common sense."
The group operates its program on an annual budget of $10,000, which it raises from annual turkey shoots, an antique gun show andmembership dues.
The Otter Point reserve, located near the county's most populated area, has served as a study site for environmentalists to determine development's affects on wetlands, Gillotte said.
He noted that sediment has reduced the depth of Otter Point Creek over the years, covering some aquatic vegetation. The reserve, fed by creeks from as far away as Jarrettsville, is sometimes only a few inches deep during the summer.
"It's not so serious right now," Gillotte said. "But someday it will be."
The league is concerned that Otter Point Creek will eventually become like the lake at Harford Glen near Bel Air, which is being filled with sediment.
"That place used to be nothing but water," Shulka said. "Now it's all silted in."
Shulka remembers fishing trips along the Bush River, which is fed byOtter Point Creek, when the waterway was so clear you could nearly see the riverbed.
Those days are gone, the Baltimore native said, because of the pollution that has colored the river's water a murky gray.
"I've been coming out since I was 6 years old and I've seen Harford County go to hell," said Shulka. "It's going to catch up to you."
In addition to Otter Point, the league also addresses state andnational issues that concern environmentalists and sportsmen.
Wetland-protection programs and gun control are two issues at the top ofthe league's agenda, member Robert L. Huddleston said.
The leagueis opposed to a Bush administration plan that would reclassify some wetlands to make them available for development. The league is opposed because the proposal would open up some Chesapeake Bay areas for development, Huddleston said. The Otter Point Creek reserve would not be affected.
The league also is opposed to a federal bill that would ban semiautomatic weapons, including weapons used for hunting, Huddleston said. The league opposes the proposal because it would affect hunting, he said.
"If they pass a law, we won't like it but we'll obey it," said Huddleston, a retired Aberdeen Proving Ground engineerwho joined the league in 1960.
"We try to work within the system," he said. "We've been around a long time and we'll be around for a time to come."