MD lawmakers approve bills to protect Bay, waterfront

Maryland lawmakers beefed up waterfront zoning laws and settled on a plan to spend an extra $25 million a year to clean up the Chesapeake Bay as they wound up their 2007 session in April.

The biggest environmental victory was a plan to revise two-decade-old Critical Areas laws to make it harder to put new development close to the Chesapeake Bay. Lawmakers agreed to give the state more authority to enforce those zoning laws, but they ratcheted back a plan to bar new development within 300 feet of the water. Instead, lawmakers went with 200 feet; current law requires a 100-foot buffer.

Lawmakers also agreed to a spending plan for a new Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund they approved last year to increase cleanup efforts. That fund was set at $50 million a year, but because of a cooling economy, lawmakers cut it to $25 million. The money will go to BayStat, an agency set up by Gov. Martin O'Malley to oversee state departments whose work affects the Chesapeake.

But another major item on the environmental menu-whether to slash carbon emissions to address global warming-failed. Legislation would have required Maryland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2050. The 90 percent target was changed to become a goal instead of a requirement, but the bill was still opposed by industry, which said it would hurt the state's competitiveness.

Nonetheless, the assembly approved several measures that would boost energy efficiency.

Lawmakers approved new renewable portfolio standards that double the requirement for Maryland to meet its energy needs through the purchase of energy from renewable sources including solar, wind and geothermal from 9.5 percent to 20 percent by 2022.

The assembly created a fund to use money the state will receive for joining with other Northeast states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative last year. The initiative establishes a cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions regionally. Maryland will begin auctioning greenhouse gas "credits" to emitters such as power companies later this year. Auction proceeds will be deposited in the new fund and be used for energy efficiency programs, targeted programs for low- and moderate-income residents, rate payer relief and renewable energy development.

The legislature also approved the EmPOWER Maryland Energy Efficiency Act of 2008 which sets a goal of a 15 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2015.

"Revising the Critical Area Act, establishing a framework for distributing the Bay Trust Funding and passing three energy efficiency bills were major accomplishments in a year when the legislature was focused on balancing a tight budget," said Kim Coble, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland executive director.

Among other bills passed:

  • The Living Shoreline Protection Act, which requires, where feasible, shorefront lot owners to use non-structural erosion control techniques such as "soft" shorelines and marsh creation to protect the shore from erosion instead of bulkheads or rip-rap.

  • New wetlands and waterways program fees were established allowing the Maryland Department of the Environment to collect permit fees associated with impacts to wetlands and waterways to cover some of the costs of administering the program.

Maryland DNR names fisheries director

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin recently announced the selection of Tom O'Connell, a respected 15-year DNR veteran, to serve as director of the Fisheries Service.

"This is a critical time for fisheries management in Maryland," Griffin said. "Tom's personal passion for protecting our resources, coupled with his extensive scientific and management experience, makes him the ideal choice to successfully lead the Fisheries Service."

O'Connell began his tenure with the DNR in 1993 as a fisheries biologist working on striped bass monitoring and management. Since then, he has served the Maryland Fisheries Service as its Legislative and Policy Program administrator, Coastal Bays Fisheries Management Plan coordinator, Oyster Restoration Program manager, and most recently the assistant director for the Estuarine and Marine Fisheries Division. He replaces former Director Howard King, who retired in December after 38 years with the DNR.

Cambridge museum accepts skipjack, plans restoration

The 98-year-old Flora A. Price, the largest surviving skipjack in the Chesapeake Bay, has deteriorated from its former glory as an oyster dredge boat in the early 1900s, but the Richardson Maritime Museum in Cambridge, MD, plans to restore the vessel so it can sail once more.

At 56 feet long and 18 feet wide, Flora A. Price is possibly the largest skipjack still on the Bay. It was built in Chance in 1910 and given to the Richardson Maritime Museum by the Old Harford Town Maritime Center in Caroline County. The Richardson Museum plans a $300,000 restoration project to turn the boat into an educational center with tours.

"Our motto is putting history on the water and this boat was going to be cut up if we couldn't take it," said Victor MacSorley, chairman of the Richardson museum's board of trustees. Many skipjacks had to be destroyed because they got in such bad shape and were too costly to repair.

Skipjacks were first built in the 1890s when local watermen found the vessel's shallow hull perfect for dredging oysters in low waters. But the need for skipjacks has declined along with dwindling oyster populations. The hundreds of skipjacks that once sailed the Bay have become symbols of the past when oystering was a profitable job.

About 20 skipjacks remain on the Eastern Shore. Chestertown waterman Doug West was the last waterman who owned Flora A. Price before he had to give up oystering and the boat.

"With the way oystering went, I was losing money in it," West said. Flora A. Price was last used for oystering in 2001, he said, adding that last year he saw about three skipjacks being used to harvest oysters. Most skipjacks today are preserved by nonprofit or private businesses that use the vessels for tours and educational purposes.

The mast, bowsprit and steering on the skipjack are still in good shape, said MacSorley, who urged the Richardson museum to restore the boat. The museum plans to raise about $295,000 more through grants and donations to complete the three-to-five year project.

Hunters, anglers worry about global warming

Global warming could force elk and mule deer out of much of the western United States. Wild trout could disappear in lower Appalachian streams. Two-thirds of North America's ducks may disappear.

A new U.S. assessment of the threat to fish and wildlife habitat has hunters and anglers calling for action.

Groups representing nine major hunting and fishing organizations met in April with the House committee chairman who hopes to write legislation to curtail greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

"These are the branches of the conservation movement from which I come,'' said Democratic Rep. John Dingell. He said the groups' concerns are very important in helping with a measure to address the problem.

The alarm sounded by hunting and fishing organizations is significant.

Alan Wentz of Ducks Unlimited Inc., one of the groups meeting with Dingell, noted that scientists are predicting that climate change "will significantly affect almost every aspect of our environment, including North America's wetlands and waterfowl."

The others groups are Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, BAAS/ESPN Outdoors, Izaak Walton League of America, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportsfishing Association, Pheasants Forever and the Wildlife Management Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group for hunters and sportsmen.

A report, compiled by the Wildlife Management Institute and based on work done by the groups, provided a glimpse of their concerns. It says:

Prairie pothole regions essential for waterfowl could lose 90 percent of their wetlands, causing a 69 percent decline in North America's breeding ducks.

About 42 percent of the trout and salmon habitat could be lost by the end of the century, with bull trout virtually disappearing in the high mountain West and wild trout from lower Appalachian streams.

While an increase in water temperature and other change could benefit some salt water marine species, sea-level rise would destroy thousands of acres of coastal salt marshes and seagrass that are home to larval and juvenile game fish.

"We know now that climate change has the very real potential to affect fish and wildlife resources and activities that hunters and angers hold dear...and on a landscape level scale that is incomparable in modern times," warned Matt Hogan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.