Torrey Brown stayed environmental course

ON THE BAY

March 11, 1995|By TOM HORTON

It was in 1970, a few months before the first Earth Day, when Torrey Brown, a Johns Hopkins physician, first took his place on the Maryland legislature's Environmental Matters Committee.

Eight years later he became its chairman, and four years after that he became the state's secretary of natural resources, a post he held until last month, when the new governor did not reappoint him.

His career has spanned so much of Maryland's environmental coming of age that some of the biggest battles are hardly remembered, he said in an interview a few weeks ago.

"The focus now is on the bay, but there was a war going on over strip mining in Western Maryland in the early 1970s. We had mines on fire, steep slopes being mined, virtually no cleanup, horrible acid drainage, abandoned mines.

"Now mining is done under some of the country's most effective regulation, cleanup is done beautifully -- literally -- and we're neutralizing old acid drainages with lime," he said. "Places that looked like moonscapes are beginning to come around. We've almost doubled the mileage of trout streams."

It is easy to criticize government, and dwell on all that remains undone, Dr. Brown said, "but government really can do a lot."

You can dismiss such a statement as political and self-serving; or this one, when asked to contrast serving under Govs. Harry (laid back) Hughes and William Donald (mercurial) Schaefer:

"Both were just incredibly supportive."

But that is classic Torrey Brown, eminently and comfortably political; but also, on balance, a public servant who held true to Maryland's natural resources through the changing winds of three different decades.

When the decision was his, he usually did the right thing, though occasionally his penchant for compromise over confrontation caused him to lack the strength of his convictions.

I recall when he attempted to defuse a squabble in his committee over a bill to run a huge sewage pipe across Assateague Island. He cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the sewer, more as a favor to some committee members than as something he believed in, then was appalled as the issue continued to heat up.

"The environmentalists are beating me up; the Baltimore Sun is beating me up; my wife says, 'How could you?' " he lamented.

And so, Dr. Brown pulled the bill back from the House of Delegates for emergency surgery, "loving it to death" with amendments that made passage impossible.

To his everlasting credit is the hugely successful comeback of the Chesapeake's rockfish. The 1984 moratorium that saved them was the most courageous decision of his tenure as natural resources secretary.

He recalled:

"The fish were obviously in a serious, serious decline, but we were already getting the crap kicked out of us [by watermen and many influential legislators] for recommending a 55 percent cutback in the catch.

"Others, including John Griffin [his deputy and now his successor] and my wife, were saying, 'What if 55 percent is not enough?' . . . Could we lose this fish?

"As a doctor, that conservative approach appealed to me; also we were getting better and better data from the scientists [indicating the decline was worse than thought].

"So we went to Hughes, and he just said, 'If you think it's right, it's all right with me,' and he stuck by us."

Though Dr. Brown knows that was his most dramatic moment, he is most proud of a larger picture of accomplishment.

"Our Program Open Space [its funding now under legislative attack] has preserved 62 square miles in the last six years -- and that is not even the best part. We have been able to coordinate that with preservation by private land trusts and environmental organizations to gain a much greater protection than most people realize."

As a result of Program Open Space and other land use measures, he said, "Maryland has hatched more bald eagles in the last 20 years [about 1,800] than existed 20 years ago in the whole lower 48 states."

It is Maryland's "unbelievable wastefulness of land . . . our growth policies" that he would tackle if he had been granted four more years in power and a free hand to do anything he wished, the ex-secretary said.

"Look at Kent Island. When I came in [the legislature] 24 years ago, you could drive down there and see the water nearly all the way on both sides. Now [that vista is] gone. Our growth is affecting everything the department does."

Another project he is fond of, "because everybody said we couldn't do it," is the agreements the state Department of Natural Resources engineered with local property owners to get a major beach replenishment program going at Ocean City.

"You and I both believe it would have been better, environmentally, if Ocean City hadn't been built," he said. "But it is; and that sand we've pumped has protected a huge property investment from terrible storm damage."

Dr. Brown said he "has no idea yet" what he will do next. As for a return to medical practice, "I've probably been away from it too long," he said.

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