A Wildlife Preserve In A Back Pocket

COMMENT

August 08, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

When the state Department of Natural Resources announced that Annapolis Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad was turning "about a quarter of his nearly four-tenths of an acre" yard into a wildlife habitat, I was not impressed.

A quarter of four-tenths . . . let's see, that's one-tenth of an acre. That's 4,356 square feet.

How much of a "habitat" can you create in that little bit of space in a suburban development just a rabbit's jump from that killer superhighway, Forest Drive? I expected a few trees, some unmowed grass and a bird feeder.

As it turns out, that is a pretty accurate description of the rest of Senator Winegrad's yard -- the three-quarters of fourth-tenths of an acre that's not a wildlife refuge.

The rear of the property really is a miniature woodland. Thirty- to forty-foot pines, pin oaks and tulip poplars scrape the sky.

Shrubs, underbrush and brambles provide coverage for small animals such as rabbits, raccoons and possums. Wild cherries feed an assortment of birds.

"This wasn't a lot of work," Senator Winegrad says. "All I did was put up a white fence and let everything behind it go wild."

Last week, the DNR certified the senator's patch of land as part of its 3-year-old "Wild Acres" program, which shows backyard wildlife enthusiasts how to make their properties bona fide habitats that cost little and won't upset the neighbors. About 2,300 Marylanders have joined the program.

Unfortunately, the most famous Wild Acres participants before Senator Winegrad and his wife, Madeleine, were a Severna Park couple, Carroll Johnson and Kathleen Smith-Johnson. In 1991, their neighbors took them to court, arguing that their foot-high grass and lawn strewn with twigs and big tree branches constituted a nuisance. The Johnsons lost the case.

DNR officials say they never meant for people to go to such

extremes. The Wild Acres program, concedes DNR Assistant Secretary Jim Peck, "is just an excuse for some people not to mow."

In fact, they say, a suburban lawn can be neat and attractive and still be kind to the environment and provide habitat for wildlife. A small, inconspicuous piece of yard allowed to "go wild" will attract plenty of birds and animals; the Winegrads' wild tenth-of-an-acre provides a perfect example. Even a window box can qualify as "wild acres" habitat.

Mainly, though, people have to relax their obsession with perfectly manicured expanses of green.

Don't think this is easy. Arthur Hirsch of The Sun's Anne Arundel bureau explored the phenomenon of people who live for their lawns in a recent Sun Magazine article. Lawns, he discovered, are a religion in this country.

We spend $10 billion annually on lawn care supplies and professional services. We mow as though our lives depended on keeping our grass shorter than an inch. We treat a patch of bramble or a stray seedling as evil blemishes that must be destroyed.

DNR spokesman John Verrico said agency officials had a fit when they read Mr. Hirsch's story. They felt it perpetuated the myth that a lawn that looks like Astroturf is the only lawn worth having.

Senator Winegrad's lawn -- the non-wild section -- certainly does not fall into that category. The grass hasn't been mowed in a month, but the weather's been so dry that it isn't very tall. It's turning brown, too, because the senator doesn't believe in wasting water on lawn. And it's interspersed liberally with crabgrass, which birds love to eat.

DNR Director of Wildlife Joshua L. Sandt nods approvingly at the weeds at his feet. "When you look down and see that crabgrass, you know you've got a good lawn," he says.

A yard like the Winegrads will never make the cover of House and Garden, let's face it. But it looks neat enough. And laying off the fertilizer and letting nature take its course on part of the lot means the Winegrads can enjoy sparrows, purple finches, squirrels, robins -- nothing very exotic, but an impressive array considering this is essentially an urban environment.

Even a common grackle (a blackbird) excites Senator Winegrad, the state's leading environmental advocate (who announced earlier this year that he does not plan to seek re-election). He keeps his binoculars and his bird guide in his bedroom. "One of the first things I do in the morning is look out at the birds."

He once got so excited after spotting a bird he'd never seen

before that he couldn't concentrate once he got to the State House. "I was sitting next to Phil Jimeno," -- the senator from Brooklyn Park -- "and I said, 'Phil, all this is irrelevant.

" 'Today I saw a brown creeper.' "

Senator Jimeno didn't understand, he says.

PD But then, what do you expect from a guy who fertilizes his lawn?

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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