Clinton's next task: Free Bill Ellen

P.J. Wingate

January 25, 1993|By P.J. Wingate

WHEN President Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger and others on Christmas Eve, it was too bad he did not include in his list the name of William Ellen.

Ellen is the young engineer who was sentenced to jail for six months because of some work he did on the wetland property of a wealthy stockbroker who owned marshland near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, and who wanted it made more attractive to geese and ducks and the men who shoot them.

Ellen clearly did not intend to destroy or seriously damage the wetlands owned by his wealthy employer; all he was trying to do was what the government had done some 50 years earlier, on a much larger scale, when it created the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and preserved it as one of the most scenic and enchantingly beautiful spots in Maryland -- a place where such diverse species as humans, muskrats and mosquitoes might all feel at home.

But in the course of his work Ellen ran afoul of several of the many laws, rules and regulations recently established to govern human activities in wetland areas, and when he failed to show proper respect for both the regulations and the regulators, they responded by having him sent to jail.

That was a great pity because Ellen clearly is no menace to society, and just as clearly he did no irreparable damage to the wetlands involved. The worst that should have happened to him and his employer was that they be required to restore the land to its previous condition.

But the environmental zealots who now regulate wetlands all over the nation wanted more than that. So a sad William Ellen spent the holidays in jail.

It is a pity that these zealots lack the background, judgment and sense of humor which characterized two dearly departed environmentalists who knew the salt marshes of the Eastern Shore well: Reginald Van Trump Truitt and Patrick Henry Tawes.

Truitt was the University of Maryland's pioneer ecologist who founded the Solomons Island Marine Biology Laboratory, the first of its kind in the nation, and who preached the value of the Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding marshes long before it was the politically correct thing to do.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Truitt told all who would listen that an acre of Chesapeake Bay, fed by the marshes near it, could produce more and far tastier pounds of proteins than any given acre of even the most fertile farmland in Frederick County. Consequently, he said, the bay, and the marshes and rivers which feed into it, deserve at least as much study as agriculture and commerce. But he saw nothing wrong with a proper use of the marshes, and served as technical adviser to a firm that tried muskrat farming during the 1920s, only a few miles from where William Ellen got into trouble.

The muskrat farm failed, and Truitt explained its failure by saying: "I told them before they started that they didn't know enough about muskrats and marshes but they went ahead anyway until it became clear the muskrats knew far more about what was going on than they did."

Truitt died at age 100 in 1991, and it's a pity he is not still around to advise some of the modern environmentalists who seem to understand no more about the marshes than the muskrat farmers of the 1920s did.

Patrick Henry Tawes died some years before Truitt, but he, too, was an expert on marshes and wetlands, having grown up in the marshes of Somerset County and having moved to the even larger marshes of Dorchester County after receiving his medical degree.

Tawes called mosquitoes "the protectors" of Maryland's wetlands and declared they were the real reason why the vast marshes west of the Nanticoke River were essentially unchanged from the way they looked when Capt. John Smith sailed up the Nanticoke more than 300 years ago.

He also said that the mosquito should replace the eagle as the nation's national bird, since it showed more courage than any other living thing, did not hesitate to attack a man weighing a hundred thousand times as much and would even bite him on the end of his nose. He said the great marshes of Dorchester County would be safe from the inroads of the human race as long as the mosquitoes "maintained their population and retained their incomparable courage."

I don't know for certain how Tawes would react to the environmentalists who now zealously guard the wetlands of his adopted county, but I suspect he would rank them well below the mosquitoes in effectiveness and perhaps even in intelligence. I do know how Truitt would react because he told me a few years before he died.

"I have to speak well of the environmentalists," he said, "because I'm one of them, but many of them today are too intense. They need to loosen up some and develop a sense of humor like my friend Pat Tawes had. They also need to get away from the city and live in the marshes for a while. . . . The trouble with bureaucrats is that they tend to multiply like mosquitoes in Dorchester County during August. We need a selective insecticide to keep the bureaucrats down to the level of the mosquitoes here on Kent Island, or one which will cause them to develop a sense of humor."

However, since development of a sense of humor in the environmental zealots seems likely to be a slow process, President Clinton should make one of his first chores the pardoning of poor Bill Ellen.

P.J. Wingate is author of "Before the Bridge," a book about the Chesapeake. He lives in Wilmington.

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