"If you find an endangered worm there, are you going to buy my farm as habitat, or am I going to find myself a serf on a worm farm?"
The worm lady, among 350 people who packed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest's recent forum in Annapolis on the Endangered Species Act, never got a good answer to her question.
From her tone, I'm not sure she cared. I suspect she's made up her mind to support Republican-led attacks in Congress that aim to cast the 22-year-old act as the bogeyman of landowners everywhere -- and to weaken it drastically.
The outcome in Washington also will matter in the 1996 Maryland General Assembly, as the Glendening administration introduces a bill to improve the state's endangered species law, modeled on the federal statute.
I've been thinking about the worm lady, and the view she represents, because at the heart of it is a larger issue, central to any long-term environmental success in the Chesapeake Bay region and nationwide.
The issue has to do with the rights and responsibilities of those who own and use land.
The current, misguided antipathy to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) stems from how courts and federal officials have interpreted its strong provisions against "taking" wildlife, right down to the level of worms.
Few people have a problem with not being allowed to "harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot or wound" a critter over the brink of extinction -- all within the definition of a taking. Controversy comes from the extension of "taking" to include adversely altering a creature's habitat
There is no getting around it: This can affect what private landowners do with their property.
There is also no getting around the fact that if you disrupt the ecosystem in which an endangered animal lives, it can cause extinction, as surely as shooting.
For environmental reasons, government intervenes more than ever in what landowners can do with wetlands on their property, and increasingly tries to limit the development that occurs on forest land, waterfronts and other open space. The object of intervention is not just wildlife, but maintaining the natural vegetation that filters pollution washing from the land and falling from the air, degrading waterways.
It is all part of a classic tension -- waters and wildlife, public goods both, affected significantly by private land use; what is yours, firmly connected to what is ours.
Gilchrest, more than most in his (Republican) party, has sought a true balance among people's rights and responsibilities -- as opposed to the kind of "balance" that keeps getting recalculated, always in one direction, as human numbers grow.
For the 1st District congressman, the task so far has been all uphill. A congressional task force on endangered species denied his request for testimony from scientists and other experts on natural diversity. In protest, he canceled an official hearing and held the June 26 "town meeting" in Annapolis. It included comments from developers, businessmen and farmers, as well as scientists and environmentalists, and showed overwhelming support for even stronger endangered species protection.
The meeting contrasted sharply with the official hearings around the country which have focused heavily on anecdotal horror stories.
These subsequently reverberate uncritically from Rush Limbaugh to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, to Chambers of Commerce and farm groups throughout the country.
In Texas, for example, it is alleged the ESA's draconian anti-development bias has caused widespread devaluation of property.
Except an analysis by Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that most of the decline was from the savings and loan crisis, and occurred years before the golden cheeked warbler, the species most implicated as the cause, was listed as endangered.
In Riverside County, California, it is claimed, new homeowners pay nearly $2000 each to buy habitat for an endangered rat -- and homes in the path of the 1993 fires that devastated Southern California were consumed because fire breaks couldn't be plowed through rat habitat.
Except: The impact fees charged new development to protect habitat are really $1,950 per acre, or about $215 per new home; and a General Accounting Office study of the fires showed that fire breaks, unless they were a mile or more wide, would not have helped.
Almost lost in the hype and counterpoint are two critical points:
First, there are seeds of truth to some of the outcry. The worm lady's bad attitude is not justified, but not groundless either.
Gilchrest said as much at the town meeting, calling the present law too reliant on being "purely punitive."
"We want an act that will give landowners incentives to become part of the solution," he said. "A farmer who is losing sheep to a grizzly bear and can't shoot them, should get help . . . not just the threat of penalties."