Volume XI, Issue 12 ~ March 20-26, 2003

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Dock of the Bay

The Demise of an Honest Man
DNR’s plain-speaking fisheries chief may have talked his way out of a job

Since the mid-1990s, Eric Schwaab of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was a reporter’s answer to the age-old problem of getting straight talk from a bureaucrat. Over that span, he was not reluctant to talk on controversial issues. One could take, as they say, his words to the bank. He didn’t fudge, hem or haw.

Nor did he try to dodge bullets, which is the typical bureaucrat’s easy way out. I can’t recall a phone call he didn’t return, and usually promptly, even on his cell phone from the hinterlands if he wasn’t in his office.

photo courtesy of Bill Burton
Eric Schwaab not only knew his rockfish; he could also catch them.
Moreover, he willingly accepted calls at his home on evenings and weekends. It was obvious that he preferred that business within the Natural Resources bureaucracy be reported factually rather than otherwise, but he believed that both the public and the media had a right to know. Pretty much the same held for constituents of the department, and among both constituents and the press he had a strong following.

But all that came to an end last week when Schwaab, whose last job was director of fisheries, left the department in a surprise move orchestrated by the Ehrlich administration. Reliable word is that he was given the usual choice offered to others under the Glendening regime: Resign or be fired. He resigned.

Schwaab, 42, is not the type of bureaucrat to fight such things in the press. Department of Natural Resources and the governor’s office are mum about the subject, so we’ll probably never know the official details regarding this departure. When we talked not long after his resignation, he said he was unsure about the reasons behind his termination.

But from off-the-record talk by authoritative sources, it appears that in inner departmental deliberations, he was the same as he was with the press and DNR constituents. He spoke out, and sometimes vigorously. Word is that his departure came from the very top, the governor’s office.

We find it curious that Schwaab left at just about the time the department announced it was liberalizing regulations at the urging of lower Eastern Shore watermen who wanted, among other things, to reduce the hard-crab minimum size from five-and-one-quarter inches to five inches.

The commercial crabbers got their wish, pending the outcome of a public meeting at 6pm March 27 at Talbot Country Public Library and subsequent approval of the revised regulation. In soft crabs and peelers as well they got a like quarter-inch reduction in size through July 31, the same date the hard-crab quarter-of-an-inch change would expire. The liberalization also applies to recreational crabbers, though they were not much involved in the intensive lobbying. The crab issue was highly controversial within and outside the department, which is obliged to bring about a 15-percent reduction in catches.

A 35-year DNR veteran, Howard King, has been named acting director of fisheries. King was most recently director of outreach and legislative offices. Jill Stevenson, deputy director of fisheries, is on maternity leave.

We also hear via the grapevine that Ehrlich owes some paybacks, and we wouldn’t be surprised to hear of some other changes.

I disregard rumors that Pete Jensen, former chief of tidewater fisheries, played a role in Schwaab’s departure — though Schwaab was chief of all fisheries when Jensen was fired in a roundabout way by Glendening a couple years ago. Jensen, now deputy secretary under Ron Franks, is not the type to hold a grudge. He’s been around a long time, both in federal and state fisheries management. He knows both how the system is supposed to work and the need for fish and wildlife managers to speak their piece if the welfare of resources is to be safeguarded.

Schwaab was a career employee at the department and rose through the ranks, starting with Natural Resources Police. He was chief of wildlife and heritage before switching to the fisheries side. He will be sorely missed by Bay watchers.

— Bill Burton

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Everybody Loves Wild Rice
But Canada geese are eating Jug Bay’s crop all up

Migratory birds that stop over in the Jug Bay wetlands depend on wild rice to continue their fall journey. The rice that grows in the marshy stretch of the Patuxent near Lothian is related to the wild rice grown in Canada and sold for $6 a pound at Whole Foods Market. Ten years ago, expansive stands of the tall grass filled Jug Bay, attracting large numbers of migratory birds. Then the resident Canada goose population in Jug Bay exploded.

Resident Canadas have since ravaged Jug Bay’s wild rice by devouring the plants’ spring shoots. In a decade, nearly 90 percent of the wetland’s wild rice has vanished. At the same time, biologists have noted a sharp drop in the number of soya rails, bobolinks and other birds stopping over at Jug Bay to gorge on wild rice seeds.

photo by Scott Hertzberg
Greg Kearns, right, fences in wild rice that grows in the marshy stretch of the Patuxent at Jug Bay Wetlands. The rice, which also feeds migratory birds, has been devoured by a rocketing population of resident Canada geese.
Keeping Jug Bay’s bird population diverse and deep means saving a share of the rice from the ravenous geese. To keep geese from the wild rice, Greg Kearns, a naturalist at Patuxent River Park, fences off patches of marsh. The enclosures, which Kearns has been setting up since the mid-1990s, work by depriving geese of the space they need to land and take off.

Kearns and volunteers boat into the marsh with a supply of posts and four-foot fencing. Mucking about in the shallow river, they construct squares around beds of wild rice. The hard, dirty work pays off. In the summer, swatches of wild rice fill fenced portions of marsh while unprotected marsh sits bare.

Fencing restores small sections of rice, but Kearns and others have long argued that the resident Canada geese population needs to be controlled before the wild rice can make a substantial recovery.

Two years ago, Maryland lifted a ban on resident geese hunting. Over two seasons, hunters reduced Jug Bay’s resident geese population from 500 to 100 birds by Kearns’ estimate.

“I think there will be a resurgence of wild rice now that we have put the geese population down,” he says. “If we can get the number of resident geese down to the 25 that were here a decade ago, we will see a dramatic recovery.”

After this year, Kearns doesn’t plan on investing in additional fencing. Instead he will move fencing around the marsh to protect newly seeded stands. Still, he foresees having to gather seed and plant new stands for years to come. “The seed doesn’t move around the marsh very quickly,” he explains. “To restore the expansive stands of wild rice any time soon, we will have to keep moving the seed around.”

On March 22 from noon to 4pm, Jug Bay Wetland Sanctuary needs volunteers to collect wild rice seed placed around the marsh to determine where the seed germinates best. Then, on Saturday, April 12, the sanctuary needs more volunteers to help construct fencing. (Volunteers for either day meet at the sanctuary.) Kearns will need more help with fencing and seeding throughout the spring and summer.

Information? Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary: 1361 Wrighton Road, Lothian • 410/741-9330. www.jugbay.org. Or Greg Kearns at Patuxent River Park, Upper Marlboro: 301/627-6074.

— Scott Hertzberg

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Where Is He Now?
Chuck Larson’s busy with family, higher ed and Naval Academy fundraising

Remember Charles Larson, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s pick for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket? Life has slowed down since the hectic months of the campaign.

“I’m staying busy and intellectually challenged,” he says. “Yet I have time for my family.”

These days, the retired admiral and former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy and commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command is vice chairman of the Board of Regents for the University of Maryland. He now visits the state house — where had votes fallen differently he would have served — to testify before the legislature on education bills.

photo by Sandra Martin
As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s running-mate, admiral Chuck Larson wore a winner’s smile.
He’s also chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation, which is in the middle of a $175 million capital campaign. Of particular interest to Larson is an endowment for the ethics center he started while superintendent.

Several corporations have him on their boards of directors, and he consults with companies on defense issues and intelligence analysis. Soon, he’ll be traveling for a convention of admirals to Hawaii, where he’ll speak on Asia, defense and foreign policy.

Larson insists that this is a lighter workload than he carried during the campaign.

“I was surprised by the intensity and level of commitment that’s required for a campaign,” he says. “I have a newfound respect for the emotional, physical and mental stamina needed.”

Larson counted on the transferability of his broad experience when he accepted Townsend’s call to politics. “The practical side argued that I hadn’t been involved in politics,” he says. “But I’d been an admiral for 20 years, and being an admiral requires an understanding of how the system works, eliminating roadblocks, building coalitions and financing programs.”

But politics proved a strange game. One oddity was hearing people cheer for him and chant his name. In the Navy, when he entered a room or took the podium, people would stand quietly and respectfully.

Larson says that campaigning is “a good process,” but admits to some frustrations.

“The biggest disappointment,” he says, “was how difficult it was to get an honest airing. The press was interested in the intrigue of the campaign and what was happening behind the scenes.” That focus, he says “makes the campaign reliant on money, television and advertising.

“Everybody is for education, safe communities, healthcare, prescription drugs and better transportation,” he adds. “The difficulty is distinguishing between those that mean it and those that are only campaigning.”

Despite the difficulties, Larson found running for office “to be the experience of a lifetime.”

“I was grateful for the opportunity to try to serve,” he says.

Now, he’s grateful for time with his family, especially the recent arrival of his fifth grandson.

— Nancy Hoffmann

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Way Downstream …

In Pocomoke City, a $1.1 million state grant will upgrade the wastewater treatment plant. Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who has promised to fight nitrogen pollution, said the award “will reduce nutrient deposits into the Bay, improving aquatic habitat”…

In Iraq, a likely victim of war hasn’t been talked about much — migrating birds. Iraq’s historic rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, are on the migratory route of pelicans and white storks that fly north from mid-March to mid-April. “From a biodiversity point of view, this is the worst possible time of the year to have a war there,” ornithologist Phil Hockey told Reuters …

In London, new rules designed to reduce traffic have claimed a powerful victim — Prime Minister Tony Blair — who faces a $1,600 fine for failing to register his family auto. Blair’s office said he “has been busy” …

Our Creature Feature comes from Mexico, where there’s good news fluttering about. After a devastating freeze that killed some 75 million monarch butterflies last year, biologists report that the much-loved Bambi of the insect world has recovered, and remarkably so.

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Last updated March 20, 2003 @ 1:57am