Small fish fuel big debate Environment: At 10 inches long and less than a pound, Maryland's wild trout have become a powerful symbol in battles over development.

December 28, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

They're not cute and cuddly, nor proud and regal. About 10 inches long and weighing less than a pound each, they have the personality of, well, a cold fish.

But Maryland's wild trout, while hardly an endangered species, has become a symbol for residents fighting development throughout the region.

They have been noted in contentious battles involving everything from a proposed religious retreat in Baltimore County to the location of a badly needed highway in the Washington suburbs.

Other species can be just as sensitive to water quality, but stone flies and minnow-like daces somehow don't inflame an environmentalist's passion like the trout that swim in the state's cold streams.

"They are the canary in the mine that is there all the time," said Bob Lunsford, director of Freshwater Fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which monitors the health of Maryland's 800 miles of trout streams.

But while trout can gauge water quality and provide an important recreational resource for anglers, some government officials see them as an all-too-convenient tool for development opponents who care nothing about the fish.

"I hate to see the trout being thrown in front of the bulldozer," said Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, an avid fly fisherman. Posturing by residents who don't want their views marred by development demeans the trout, Keller said.

The health of trout streams has been an issue in a number of recent development fights in the region.

In Baltimore County, opponents of a proposed Loyola College retreat near Beckleysville and a planned 21-house subdivision near Jacksonville say the projects threaten trout streams. Activists have filed suit to halt the Hampstead Wastewater Treatment Plant's dumping into Piney Run to protect trout there.

Anne Arundel County has spent more than $500,000 to preserve land along a trout stream near Gambrills. The long-planned route of the Intercounty Connector between Prince George's and Montgomery counties has been scrapped because it would endanger a trout stream.

While some of the environmental concerns have proved legitimate, hearing officers in Baltimore County recalled one incident in which neighbors said they were worried about a project's impact on a trout stream, although testimony revealed that the stream was dry.

Officials with Trout Unlimited agree that trout can be used as an excuse to stop development, but they say they welcome any support to protect trout streams -- even if it is less than sincere.

In the case of the Loyola College project, neighbors initially opposed it as a potential source of traffic problems and drinking-water pollution. They later learned the project is near a trout stream.

"Opponents of development will look for any issue," said Jeff Wolinski, a Baltimore County ecologist who serves on the board of directors of the Maryland chapter of Trout Unlimited. "But trout lovers don't mind someone using trout to oppose development."

Said Jack Dillon, director of Valleys Planning Council, a land preservation group opposed to the Loyola project: "A lot of people don't understand why trout are important and don't care. But there is a legitimate reason to use them."

Trout are found in every county west of the Chesapeake Bay, from Anne Arundel County north. Four species inhabit Maryland streams, although only one is native -- the brook trout, which grows to about 10 inches and weighs a few ounces.

Pete Rafle, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited in Arlington, Va., described them as "living jewels" with their red-tipped fins and dark green bodies. Relatively short-lived creatures, they are easily spooked, and for that reason are a challenge to fishermen, Rafle said.

But trout require water no warmer than 68 degrees. Water running off highways and parking lots can elevate the temperatures of trout streams and kill the fish.

Lunsford said the state's trout population probably started to decline when the first colonists began cutting down trees along streams.

"We lost or changed the character of dozens of streams in Maryland," Lunsford said. "We'll never recover the 16th- and 17th-century levels."

Yet Department of Natural Resources officials also say Maryland's trout population is holding its own, thanks to tougher environmental laws of the 1960s and 1970s. Developers intending to build near trout streams must take precautions to limit storm water from running into streams and sometimes reduce the density of their developments.

In perhaps the most well-known case of modifying development to protect trout, a lake planned for Owings Mills had to be scrapped years ago because of the risk it posed to the Red Run stream.

The state also has increased its efforts to stock trout and to revive their habitat. The state releases 500,000 farm-raised trout into streams each year so that about 70,000 Maryland trout fishermen will not have to hook the wild species.

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