Maryland history rich in conservationists


September 12, 1992|By TOM HORTON

"Always to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade an Burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that." -- From "So Big," a novel by Edna Ferber

In her 1920s tale of a middle-aged woman grubbing a living from an Illinois truck farm, Edna Ferber touched universally upon that different way of seeing the world that sets some people apart from the ordinary.

Writing of cabbages, she captured the passion that inspires others to devote their lives to nature. I recalled the Ferber passage on a recent morning ramble with Malcolm King, a pioneering conservationist who deserves more recognition by outdoors-loving Marylanders.

Mac, recuperating from multiple-bypass heart surgery at age 79, is not supposed to be sliding down the slopes of stream valleys these days; but he had projects to show me, and seemed determined to cover half of the green spaces in Central Maryland before lunch.

"I could show you places right here in this county [Montgomery] for another two days," he said on parting, apologizing not at all for skipping lunch.

You could say Mac's considerable influence on Maryland's natural landscape stems from the days when his mom, Emma, supported the family by running the old King Royal Hotel in what was then the deep rurality of Montgomery County.

Emma had a deep and instinctive love for nature. She was, I suspect, one of those who would always see jade and Burgundy where others saw cabbages; but it was her cooking, especially the fried chicken, that drew meetings of the old Montgomery Fish and Game Protective Association to the hotel.

She parlayed the acquaintances with these early conservationists and sportsmen into a job as Maryland's first woman deputy game warden. In 1927, when Mac was 12, she moved the family to a cottage on Game Preserve Road in what is now suburban Gaithersburg. She looked after a small refuge along Seneca Creek, and earned extra money by raising quail, ducks, pheasant and raccoon for release by the Game Commission.

From Emma, Mac learned the gospel of conservation, and from a few years in the Navy's Seabees during World War II, he honed skills in "scrounging" whatever it took to get a job done. After the war ended, Mac began working for the Game Commission, combining wildlife habitat projects with farm erosion-control programs developed by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS).

It is ironic that today's agriculture agencies usually are rapped for foot-dragging on environmental issues; because SCS long ago taught Mac the progressive concept of looking at streams as part of an entire watershed -- the idea behind Chesapeake Bay restoration programs that now extend across six states.

Years ago, Mac's projects were not universally popular or well-financed. To build farm ponds and wetlands that would support wildlife and keep soil from streams, he had to go behind the back of Montgomery county's farm agent, who looked askance on conservation programs.

Once, Mac supplied $6,000 from his own pocket to buy a bulldozer. Another time, while developing Maryland's first "roadside" fishing site, he talked state roads employees into making a parking lot for the pond, then invited Gov. Theodore McKeldin to the dedication.

After the ceremony, the governor was handed a fishing rod, and miraculously landed a largemouth bass -- that Mac earlier had firmly hooked to the line. With the governor's enthusiastic support, 23 ponds were built along highways throughout the state.

Mac scrounged for more than construction equipment; he was always on the lookout for donations of land. He secured tracts that became one of Maryland's major public hunting areas (McKee-Beshers). Other acquisitions formed the nucleus for what is now the 5,500-acre Seneca Creek State Park. On the lower Eastern Shore, he helped the Maryland Ornithological Society start its Irish Grove preserve.

The list of lands and conservation efforts goes on and on. Mac helped start the Maryland Environmental Trust, a state agency that has secured conservation easements on tens of thousands of acres. Amid the urban sprawl around Gaithersburg, there is a jewel of a natural area named the Malcolm E. King Conservation Park.

The green corridor he envisioned in the 1940s, linking the Potomac and Patuxent rivers across Montgomery County, is virtually complete. A hiker can start on the C&O Canal towpath in Cumberland, Md., and walk mostly through public natural areas to St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland.

But Mac never lost his fondness for streams. And he always believed that conservation programs needed to get people involved at levels as local as their own back yards.

Those ideas led to one of Mac's finest achievements: the Save Our Streams program, or SOS for short. In 1969, as chief of information and education at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, he adapted an old but little-used "save our streams" concept of the Izaak Walton League.

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