Is William Ellen an Eco-Martyr?

November 27, 1992

William Ellen is going to prison Monday unless President Bush decides to commute his sentence or pardon him. His crime is filling in wetlands on the Eastern Shore.

The Wall Street Journal and such organizations as the Fairness to Landowners Committee believe he is the eco-martyr they've been looking for. That is, a decent, hard-working environmentalist being severely punished for a minor disagreement with federal bureaucrats. His case, they think, will personify and thus dramatize cruel, complex environmental regulations.

If enough Americans accept this argument, then laws designed to stop the degradation and destruction of the nation's wetlands will surely be repealed or at least modified.

We have sympathy for Mr. Ellen, and we might be persuaded that some punishment other than prison is preferable for criminals like him. But we could not be persuaded that punishment is inappropriate.

The fact is, Mr. Ellen was deemed subject to prison for knowingly refusing to obey environmental laws. He was warned by federal officials more than once that he was proceeding illegally in filling in wetlands. He ignored cease and desist orders. Congress, acting for the American people, had signaled how important it deems these laws by attaching severe criminal penalties for breaking them: fines of up to $50,000 and prison terms of up to three years per day of violation.

In this state above all, where so many citizens make a living or a life out of the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, enviro-crime is as obnoxious as most other kinds.

A jury of ordinary Marylanders found Mr. Ellen guilty of this willful misconduct on five counts. And a unanimous panel of three appellate judges upheld his conviction and his relatively lenient sentence of six months in prison, four months in home detention, 60 hours of community service and no fine.

Maybe there is a better way to punish some violations of these laws, perhaps even in this case. But if such vital public assets as the Chesapeake Bay are to be preserved, then punish the government must, and severely when appropriate, and it must always have the prerogative of prison sentences.

As the court of appeals said, "That Ellen [and, we would add, the Wall Street Journal and others who side with him] believes that an offense of this magnitude is trivial or unimportant ironically exemplifies the need not to foreclose punishment by imprisonment in enforcing laws aimed at environmental protection."

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