FOR MORE THAN 30 years, every secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sooner or later has come up against this question:
What to do about Nick Carter?
Carter, a fisheries biologist who retired last week, unfailingly put the Chesapeake Bay's natural resources first, letting the chips fall where they might. His unflinching comments often made life tougher for a department under pressure to let development and fishing proceed as usual.
I have known him, and learned from him, since I began covering the Maryland environment 26 years ago. As much as anyone at his level in the state's environmental bureaucracies, Carter made a difference.
He did it with tenacity and perseverance. A slogan - "don't let the bastards grind you down" - hung in his office during the years he reviewed environmental impacts of proposed projects.
He did it with intellect and science. In response to a developer's query on how six building sites would affect habitat along the bay's edge, Carter issued a 42-page treatise. Like many of his commentaries and articles, it became a basic reference for colleagues within DNR. And he did it all with elan and spirit - distributing "Condoms for a Cleaner Chesapeake" to highlight the impacts of population on the bay; acting as host to unsuspecting colleagues at a "raccoon barbecue" where the meat was road-killed cats.
Ever the gourmand, Carter staged nutria cook-fests to encourage the public to consume the South American rodent that is ruining bay marshes.
He also once bit the heads off several dozen live and croaking ... But enough of Bad Nick.
Because of Good Nick, the operators of Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River changed turbine operations to stop kills of shad and herring that once littered the upper bay all the way across to the Eastern Shore. Because of Nick's work at Aberdeen Proving Ground and at Poplar Island, a dredge spoil site, the bay retained several hundred more acres of excellent fish habitat.
Because of Nick's analysis, a company that was planning underwater demolition in the bay called it off, likely avoiding a fish kill.
His lonesome battles to call attention to the impacts of agricultural ditching helped insure that the headwaters of a major Shore river, the Chester, remained intact.
He sees his career modestly, as summed up in a note to a friend:
"Though I've been in a million meetings and argued a lot for the critters and their places, and written a lot of recommendations for denials of permits, so very much of that has come to naught [and] some of the things I have seemed successful in ... just seem to have been the lesser of several evils."
At least a couple of hundred people would dispute that assessment. All - current and former DNR secretaries, co-workers, environmental leaders and citizens whose causes Carter's science supported - were for his retirement party last week at Wye Island.
Nick was seated on a throne of animal bones, crowned with furs of uncertain origin and flanked by two comely "fish chicks."
Music of the Kingston Trio, his favorites, blared, and a large chocolate nutria crouched on a cake with icing the color of pond scum. Heartfelt testimonials and raunchy remembrances mingled with the odor of road kill on the grill. "We love you Nick ... you cared about seeing that the right things were done," said DNR Secretary Sarah Taylor-Rogers.
"A man of letters - usually four," said another fan.
"I'm returning this," said one celebrant, padlocking a rusty leghold trap to Carter's ankle. Carter had done the same to him before his wedding march, and he'd saved that trap for years.
"A teacher, a mentor, a spiritual adviser," said Don Baugh, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's top education official.
The day before, in a surprise ceremony, DNR had named its library for Nick, a k a Worral Reed Carter III. It was fitting, because for years his high-piled office served as the department's unofficial lending library. At his retirement, I was asked to compare Nick to appropriate bay critters. The oyster came to mind - not much to look at, yet it stays put, and filters and sorts all that floats its way, turning it into something fine, leaving its environment cleaner.
I also thought of the great blue heron - master of two worlds, probing the minutiae of the mud between its toes, yet able to soar high, to view the bay whole.
Just so Carter. I've never known a grown person as ready to jump into the water fully clothed, to sample for minnows, grub for shellfish, check the aquatic vegetation; yet always studying the overarching issues of the environment. Carter was out front on so many issues, from dredge spoil disposal to the complex ways watersheds interact with streams and the bay.
In my 15 years of writing bay columns, he's the only one I've ever turned the slot over to - a piece on how the freedom to populate forecloses all other freedoms. Years later, it still rings true.
It's a testament to DNR that it eventually came to value Nick highly, using him all over the bay region to educate governors and senators and schoolchildren.
More than acres or stream miles saved, Nick Carter's value has been (and will continue to be) this: He pushed us to a higher environmental consciousness, held us to a tougher standard. And showed us how to have fun while saving a not always grateful world.