BIKING NEAR HOME the other afternoon, I passed a forest. Loggers were at work, taking it down. I waved a greeting. They are doing a pretty decent job, I thought.
In an ideal world, I like my trees all standing, my forests undisturbed. The sound of a chain saw can spoil my day.
I said as much to Tom Tyler shortly after I met him a few years ago. "Where the hell you think that paper you're scribbling on comes from?" he shot back.
The sparring was good-natured, but with a dead-serious undercurrent. Tom was working overtime to determine how dangerous we environmentalists were. We were trying to figure out whether he was for real.
"We" were an assortment of academics, river rats and local, state and national environmental groups who had coalesced around preserving the rural character and ecological diversity of the Nanticoke River and its watershed.
Tom was an umpteenth-generation Dorchester countian who'd fished and hunted the Nanticoke region for most of his 55 years.
He was also regional forester for Chesapeake Forest Products, whose timber holdings up and down the Nanticoke made it the region's largest private landowner, a key to the river's future.
Even more critical, Tom had the respect and the ear of farmers, politicians and other rural residents the length of the river.
It wouldn't have taken him more than a few phone calls to foment an instant property-rights uprising against the likes of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Park Service and the rest of us, delaying or killing any Nanticoke environmental programs.
In the end, Tom Tyler did more to start a truly effective effort for the river than anyone else could have -- so much so that I suppose we'll have to name some place along it in his honor one day.
I'd rather not be thinking in terms of memorials; would rather have Tom still with us, smoking too much, eating too many sausage sandwiches in every diner and country store between Accomack and Sharptown; would rather still be putting up with the calls he delighted in making to us "greenies" at daybreak on the cell phone in his Ford pickup as he sped among forestry projects.
But a cancer, discovered last winter, took him the evening of Aug. 12. He was only 55.
He went way too soon -- not only for his family and friends, but for the rivers and woods of the lower Shore.
Tom was among a handful of extraordinary citizens of the bay I've come to know in two decades of environmental writing. He had a fierce passion for his region and for the traditional work of its people; also, he grasped that a larger view could help %J maintain the region's environment in changing times.
After Nanticoke environmental meetings, he would sit in his pickup and pepper me with questions about the bay foundation, the Nature Conservancy, various individuals:
Where was so and so coming from? Did this person represent what his group felt? Did I trust that person? And I'm quite sure he was asking as much of others about me.
I also knew that his willingness to meet environmentalists halfway was not without risk. Some lifelong friends in rural Dorchester had turned on him for his efforts.
One night, Tom suggested that I meet him at his office the next morning in Sharptown; we'd take a walk in the woods.
On his office wall was a poem about the Nanticoke, written by an 11-year-old who'd come through on a bay foundation canoe trip. Tom was letting the group use an old lumber yard there as a campsite.
Pinned next to that was an article Tom liked, "A Deal From Hell," by some property-rights guy out of northern Maine, about how conservation easements were part of environmentalists' hidden agenda to take land out of production and erode freedom.
What did I think of the article? Tom asked. I said I thought it was easy to write from the Maine woods, that if the writer were in fast-suburbanizing Maryland he'd sing a different tune.
Although Tom bitterly opposed any notions of making the Nanticoke a national park or wilderness preserve, I had noticed that he was at least as upset as any environmentalist about the sprawl development that was encroaching on the Shore's farms and forestland.
"A goddamned cancer, and wherever our [Chesapeake Forest Products] property stops is where it starts," he would say.
And I had to admit, in the real world, commercial tree-cutting and replanting often seemed the best alternative.
That day Tom showed me his pride in Chesapeake's cutting practices, which left larger-than-required buffers of trees standing along roadways for scenic purposes, and along waterways to preserve water quality and wildlife habitat.
He was equally proud of "all the places we do not cut," including some of the state's rarest old Atlantic white cedars, where he was laying out a nature trail along the Nanticoke.
"Don't the woods just smell good?" he asked as we walked through myrtle and among pines, laurel, magnolias and cedars.
We can keep the river healthy without making it some kind of national park and shooing out the farmers and loggers and watermen, Tom said.
Let's just shoot for keeping it so that if people want a national park a hundred years from now, we'll still have the option, I said.
At his funeral, hundreds of people turned out -- the forestry community, politicians conservative and liberal, rural and urban; environmentalists; and natural resources officials.
He cast a wide net. Always, people said, Tom would tell them exactly what he thought, and he would always ask them, straight out, what they thought.
And, above what anyone thought, Tom Tyler cared for the rivers and the woods.
Pub Date: 10/25/96