Bay in the crossfire

March 12, 2003

A POLITICAL SHOOTOUT between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the environmental lobby resulted yesterday in what he no doubt regards as an infuriating if not embarrassing Senate rejection of one of his Cabinet nominees.

But with all due respect to the governor, this fight wasn't really about him.

The most important message in the Senate's defeat of Lynn Y. Buhl to be chief enforcer of state environmental regulations is that the delicate ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay region is vital to Maryland. The economy of the state as well as the environment depend on government leaders who are committed to the goals of cleaner water, cleaner air and protection of natural resources.

Ms. Buhl, a former automotive executive and environmental official from Michigan, might have grown into the job of secretary of the environment. But she did not come to the task with strong enough credentials to offset grave concerns about whether some in the Ehrlich administration hoped to roll back regulations that might already be insufficient to halt the bay's decline.

Governor Ehrlich signaled during his campaign that he understood Marylanders want better than that. They don't consider protecting precious resources a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats, or business vs. greens.

They know there are creative ways and new technologies that will allow the state to meet the highest possible environmental standards without impeding business. All segments of the community - including farmers, watermen and sports enthusiasts as well as corporate leaders and environmentalists - need to be at the table together to produce these better ideas.

In many ways, Ms. Buhl was simply a casualty of what degenerated into a schoolyard brawl. The governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, environmental lobbyists and others were all engaged in power plays and muscle-flexing.

Sadly, that atmosphere is likely to linger while Mr. Ehrlich nurses his wounds over being the first governor in modern memory to have a Cabinet nominee rejected. But that distinction is no disgrace considering he's the first Republican governor in nearly four decades, and he's trying to deal with a Democratic-run legislature.

He should fight the urge to retaliate, and turn instead to the environmental wise men within his own party who can suggest a replacement for Ms. Buhl - someone who better understands what's at risk.

If nothing else, yesterday's vote should remind Mr. Ehrlich of what he acknowledged during the campaign: Protecting the environment is a powerful political issue in Maryland, one that he ignores at his peril.

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