Gilchrest pushes House for conservation zone

Bill would create area in Delmarva devoid of new development

Gilchrest proposes Delmarva conservation area

April 04, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Thanks to an unlikely ally, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who has devoted much of his career in Congress to environmental protection, may be about to realize a cherished dream.

For several years, the Eastern Shore Republican has nurtured a grand plan for a development-free zone for farmers and wildlife that would span the three states of the Delmarva Peninsula. Now, Congress seems likely to back a measure that would direct the government to harness the public and private resources already available to make it happen.

"Our goal is to show that in a large megalopolis, from Boston to Richmond, there is an area where you can preserve agriculture by making it profitable, and in the process, you can also preserve a natural habitat for wildlife," Gilchrest explained.

Should the measure prevail, it will be due in large part to the efforts of Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a Republican rancher from California who has spent much of his House career trying to dismantle environmental protections - particularly the Endangered Species Act - that he sees as infringements of private property rights.

The proposed no-development zone - called the Delmarva Conservation Corridor - might be as narrow as 300 feet in some places and as wide as 30 miles in others. It would snake around the region's few urban areas to connect its vast rural tracts.

No actual lines have been drawn. But Gilchrest envisions that a bear, for example, could travel the length of the zone, from Cape Henlopen, Del., to Cape Charles near the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, without hitting a subdivision or a shopping mall.

Pombo is poised to offer Gilchrest's proposal as an amendment to the farm bill when House and Senate negotiators return next week from their Easter recess to shape the bill into final form.

"I think this is a way that we can preserve farmland and preserve habitat without depriving people of their property rights," said Pombo, who has negotiated specific protections for landowners to be included in the measure.

The California Republican explains his unlikely support for Gilchrest's plan by saying he's convinced that the farmers, ranchers and other owners of private land he champions stand to gain as much as wildlife would.

One of the proposal's central goals is to help farmers boost their profits so that owners of rural tracts would not have to sell out to commercial or residential developers. Another attractive feature, in Pombo's view, is that the rare birds and fish and other critters who have room to roam in a conservation zone would not cause regulatory havoc for property owners in areas outside the zone.

Still, Pombo's help was easier to secure than it might otherwise have been, Gilchrest says, because the plan is only a pilot program of three to five years that would apply solely to the Delmarva region.

"Rick is our advocate," Gilchrest said of Pombo, who has a place at the bargaining table because he chairs a House Agriculture subcommittee.

"Getting legislation through is like passing a kidney stone," Gilchrest said. "You've got to work with people whose views may be very different from your own or you won't have enough support."

As a leading environmentalist in the House, Gilchrest can perhaps be described as Pombo's opposite number. He is a fierce champion of the Endangered Species Act, as well as of protecting wetlands and imposing pollution controls to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.

Some of those controls would require farmers to curb the soil nutrients that wash into the bay and feed the algae, which can cover the water surface and block the sun, killing plants and fish beneath.

But Gilchrest considers himself an advocate for farmers as well. He recognizes, he says, the vital role that farmers play in preserving the rivers, streams, forests and fields that constitute wildlife habitat.

"A well-run farm with one farmhouse and all that open space is a thousand times better neighbor for wildlife than a subdivision - and will do far less damage," Gilchrest said. "If you lose agriculture, you become a giant suburb."

Under his plan, land set aside for agriculture could be used not just for farming but also for processing plants and other commercial elements of farm communities. And farming could involve crops as well as livestock, such as the Eastern Shore's chickens.

Logging, Gilchrest said, would be a particularly desirable land use. Trees are typically cut down once every 40 or 60 or even 80 years in a given area, leaving it free for wildlife habitat the rest of the time.

Even so, some advocates for farmers on the peninsula view Gilchrest's proposal warily.

Gilchrest is "saying the right words now, but we have serious concerns about how this would be implemented," said Valerie Connelly, chief lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau. She said she was troubled that the plan seemed to be conceived as an environmental measure, with farmers seemingly an afterthought.

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