A Closer Look at the Case of an 'Eco-Martyr'

December 26, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Meet Bill Ellen, veteran of Vietnam combat, father of children aged 4 and 2, partner with his wife in a rehabilitation center for injured wildlife. These days the personable wetlands consultant from Virginia tries to patch his life back together after six months in a federal prison.

And if you farm, cut timber, own a little retirement lot in the countryside or just worry about the growth of government in your life, then Bill Ellen is your worst nightmare come true -- at least as he is portrayed by a growing movement at odds with the extremism they see in environmental protection.

Mr. Ellen's crime? Here is how millions have seen it described across the country in opinion journals and editorial pages, including the Wall Street Journal's, and in filmed interviews with the Christian Broadcasting Network, the American Farm Bureau and on numerous radio talk shows.

A lifelong conservationist, Mr. Ellen was simply moving a little dirt to make ponds for a duck sanctuary on a client's estate in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He jumped through every regulatory hoop he was aware of to comply with wetlands and other environmental rules, obtaining more than 30 state, local and federal permits between 1987 and 1988.

In 1989, as work proceeded in conditions so dry that water had to be sprayed to keep the dust down, new federal rules tripled overnight the extent of the county's wetlands to nearly 70 per cent of its land area. Mr. Ellen soon after was flabbergasted to receive, with no warning, a stop-work order from the Army Corps of Engineers for filling wetlands.

Despite shutting down all operations within the next 48 hours, he was charged by federal prosecutors a few months later with criminal destruction of 86 acres of wetlands.

"A Kafka-esque ordeal," the Journal called it. "If it can happen to Bill Ellen, it can happen to any landowner," concluded a Farm Bureau bulletin.

The case has led to the adoption of Mr. Ellen as the latest "eco-martyr" by a burgeoning nationwide network of groups whose interests range from land development and off-road vehicles to agriculture, mining and individual property rights. Sometimes lumped loosely under the title of the Wise Use Movement, they advocate reducing or repealing government regulations on wetlands, mining, endangered species and public lands.

"At this point, they're better organized than the environmental movement, because they're angrier, they're hungrier," Keith Schneider, the New York Times' environmental reporter said in a speech last year.

And one of their more effective tactics in recent years is to champion, wherever possible, "moms and pops" crushed by federal regulatory zeal -- "real people" valued less than impersonal acres of "swamp." Mr. Ellen thus joins as a cause celebre of the land rights movement John Pozsgai, a Pennsylvanian sentenced to 33 months and fined $202,000 for filling a marsh on his property; and Ocie and Carey Mills, a Florida father and son who each served nearly two years for destruction of wetlands to build a home.

"They represent hundreds and thousands of others like them out there who have undergone a massive violation of their civil rights," says Paul D. Kamenar, whose Washington Legal Foundation is a mainstay of the Wise Use Movement.

If Mr. Ellen's martyrdom seems compelling, it also seems not very true, based on transcripts from his five-week trial and

dozens of interviews. The major source of information in the spate of Ellen-as-victim pieces has been the Fairness to Land Owners Committee (FLOC), a property-rights lobby operated out the waterfront manor home of a Dorchester County woman, Margaret Ann Reigle.

The media-savvy Ms. Reigle, a retired vice president for finance of the New York Daily News, has worked tirelessly to promote Mr. Ellen as a victim of "the eco-Gestapo," generating tens of thousands of requests to George Bush in the final stages of his presidency in an unsuccessful bid for a pardon.

Her newsletter, circulated to more than 250 media outlets and an equal number of grass-roots property rights groups, routinely bashes the Chesapeake Bay restoration program as little more than an attempt to usurp landowners' rights under the guise of controlling pollution.

What follows is the anatomy of an eco-martyr, and a glimpse into the movement that promotes them. As with John Pozsgai and Ocie and Carey Mills, close examination shows Bill Ellen was scarcely an innocent victim. On the other hand, his case also shows real flaws in the way we protect wetlands, and legitimate frustrations that draw supporters to groups like FLOC.


Talk to almost anyone who has known and worked with Bill Ellen on wetlands projects and certain words are quick off every tongue: "likable," "intelligent," "good talker." Nearly as universal is a less-flattering assessment: In his job of shepherding clients' projects through the regulatory process, Bill Ellen was always bending the rules.

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