The Difficuulties of Environmental Comprise

PETER A. JAY

December 06, 1992|By PETER A JAY

HACK POINT — Hack's Point .--Early December is a good time to canoe Scotchman's Creek, a meandering stream that flows northward for several miles through southern Cecil County and empties into the Bohemia River.

The water is beginning to clear as the temperature falls, and with winter approaching but not quite here, the creek and its shores are full of wildlife. On a bleak gray afternoon recently, two paddlers encountered hawks, herons, kingfishers and vultures. A muskrat swimming in the smooth water made a silvery V-shaped ripple ahead of the canoe.

This is the freshwater Chesapeake, tidal but not salty, and it has a slightly different ambience than similar waterways a few miles farther south. In the tide-covered wetlands of creeks like Scotchman's are wild rice, cattails, pond lilies and pickerelweed, but not the ubiquitous cordgrass of the brackish and salt marshes that begin below the Sassafras.

On this cold, still day the duck blinds that dot the creek were empty, but there were ducks, mostly mallards, in considerable numbers. No deer hunters were to be seen in their day-glo orange uniforms, but deer were plentiful, bouncing away through the woods. Wedges of geese passed high overhead. At every bend there was a new scene of Chesapeake abundance that would have done credit to the cover of a sporting magazine.

Scotchman's Creek doesn't get a great deal of human traffic, even in the balmier months, because it's a shallow tributary of a shallow river, with privately-owned shores and no public toilets, souvenir shops or other amenities. There are other waterways like it in Maryland's part of the Chesapeake Bay, though not as many as there once were.

The creek has been in the news from time to time over the past year because one of the two marinas located at its mouth wants to expand and has sought permission to do the extensive dredging necessary to provide more boat slips. There has not been unanimous support for this project.

Several hundred local people, many from the Hack's Point area, petitioned against it. Two of the three Cecil County commissioners opposed it as well. But the Maryland Department of Natural Resources favored the project, and not long ago the state Board of Public Works approved the dredging on the condition that the area to be disturbed be significantly reduced in size.

As is the case with most disputes of this kind, the compromise isn't likely to please anyone. Each side has extremists who are satisfied with nothing short of total victory. They tend to dominate the discussion and invariably polarize it. Meanwhile, in the middle of the battle, bureaucrats and public officials are getting jerked back and forth until they're punchy. Their objective is usually just to survive.

In that respect, the Scotchman's Creek debate is a fairly typical skirmish in today's ongoing environmental war. Reasonable people with reasonable arguments can be found on each side. But there are also take-no-prisoners elements who seek unconditional victory and have no serious interest in resolving the issue at hand.

The recent much-publicized case of William Ellen versus the wetlands regulators was another -- and much nastier -- example of an environmental-law collision between two all-or-nothing sides.

Mr. Ellen, a consultant with legitimate environmental credentials, was hired to build duck ponds on a rich New Yorker's Dorchester County game preserve. In the process, he violated some of the federal government's complex new wetlands laws. His boss paid a $2 million fine. He himself was sentenced to six months in prison.

The case involved symbolic politics carried to a ludicrous extreme. The feds, smarting from campaign criticism leveled at the Bush administration, wanted to show that they were serious about wetlands preservation. Opponents of the wetlands laws saw the Ellen prosecution -- a genuine conservationist sent to jail as an eco-crook because he built ponds for ducks -- as so bizarre that it made a compelling case for repeal.

In a rational world, the interests of the regulators and the duck pond builders could easily have been reconciled. But as the Ellen case turned out, just about everybody lost. The prosecution was a Pyrrhic victory for the regulators, and though it may have legally affirmed the principle of wetlands preservation, it seriously damaged that principle in the eyes of the common-sense public.

There was a strong sense in the Ellen case that most of those involved cared less about doing the right thing for the wetlands and wildlife of Dorchester County than about winning political points and advancing political careers. The same is true of other disputes that get taken over by professional noisemakers.

In the case of Scotchman's Creek, a few more boat slips at the creek's mouth probably wouldn't hurt. A lot of slips, and greatly increased human activity, would probably hurt a lot. A compromise is what the state is after, and a compromise is not, at least in theory, a bad idea. But the contending noisemakers make it difficult.

Here on the creek the other day, there weren't any noisemakers to be found, other than the blabbermouth mallards and a red-tailed hawk that screamed imprecations at a couple of intruders. But ultimately, the future of this quiet creek, and other such out-of-the-way spots, will probably be decided by democracy by decibel.

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