Bel Air. -- Mayor ''Fish'' Powell and other Ocean City officials are up in arms over the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' plan to ban boat and foot traffic near two bird-nesting areas. The last chance to reverse the decision will come at a public hearing scheduled for September 30. The civic leaders of Ocean City will do their constituents a big favor if they take time to think about the long-term implications of this ban. The economic arguments are all on the side of the birds.
Not a single person is going to cancel a trip to Ocean City because they cannot beach a boat on the small sand bar that lies just north of the Route 50 bridge. A few, whose interest in the environment is entirely submerged by the desire to do anything that appeals to them, will be inconvenienced, but they are not going to abort their vacation plans. Ninety-nine percent of the visitors to Ocean City will not realize the ban is in effect.
This year alone, however, several thousand people will travel to Ocean City just to watch birds. They come because coastal Worcester County has birds they cannot see anywhere else in the state, including the terns and plovers that nest on the north end of Assateague and on the small sandbar near the Route 50 bridge.
These visitors stay in motels, eat at local restaurants, stop for early-morning coffee at 7-11 and fill their gas tanks at local stations. They may not make much of an impact on a hot August afternoon when there is not an empty motel room to be found east of Cambridge, but they come year-round, and they come for one purpose -- to look at Ocean City's birds.
Eliminate the birds and you will eliminate a small but steadily growing segment of the Ocean City tourist trade.
Mayor Powell should ask some of the businessmen in Ocean City how they feel about sacrificing the bird trade for the sake of a few people who want to walk around a sandbar. He should ask the owners of Phillip's Hotel, where 30 to 50 bird watchers check in for the week after Christmas; many of them have become customers at other seasons. He should ask the owners of the Long Acre Cottages, who fill to capacity six or seven weekends a year with people who come to Ocean City to take offshore whale- and bird- watching trips. He should ask the owners of the OC Princess, who fill the boat a half-dozen times a year with bird watchers, and who are investigating the possibility of shorter trips every weekend.
The real problem is the perceived conflict between environmentalism and economic growth and development. In many cases the conflict is more perceived than real, fostered by politicians searching for an issue or a bogeyman. As many towns along the Atlantic Coast have discovered, eco-tourism is good business, and it does not have to compete with other interests.
Half a century ago Stone Harbor, New Jersey, discovered a large colony of nesting herons in the middle of town. They might have cleared the land and had one more block of houses, but they created a bird sanctuary instead. The Stone Harbor heronry is famous now, written about in national journals every year, and thousands flock to the town to see the birds. Economic and environmental cooperation paid off for both sides.
Cape May, New Jersey, is well known as a summer seaside resort, but it is world-famous for its birds. Tens of thousands of people flock there every year, many when the sun worshipers are bundled up at home. There is no conflict between town officials and the naturalists at the Cape May Bird Observatory over the need to protect the small stretch of beach harboring the last of New Jersey's nesting piping plovers.
Chincoteague, Virginia, would be another small water town if it were not for the National Wildlife Refuge and the ponies that live there.
More and more coastal towns are recognizing the economic benefits of environmental protection. Not every person who heads ''downy ocean'' is contemplating self-basting, and not every dollar is spent on a bottle of suntan lotion or an M.R. Ducks tee-shirt. Ocean City officials need to look at the long-term prospects for their town. There is virtually no room left to build, and the opportunity to expand depends in large part of being able to attract visitors in other seasons and for other reasons.
Ocean City officials ought to think about the needs of all visitors, not just the two idiots on jet skis I watched one day in June as they --ed their vehicles up onto the tern-nesting area of the sandbar near the bridge. The jet skiers jumped off waving their arms, flushing the few birds that had resolutely not deserted their nests when the machines hit the beach. The skiers jetted away laughing, pleased to have disrupted, and perhaps ruined, the breeding attempt of some of Maryland's rarest birds.
There were half a dozen bird watchers standing at the fisherman's access between 3rd and 4th streets when this happened. There were also a dozen or so fisherman present, a combination of residents and weekend visitors.