WASHINGTON – National and state environmental groups hailed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest’s appointment as head of the House subcommittee overseeing America’s national wildlife refuge system, praising him as a leader on environmental issues.
Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said last week he would make the nation’s wildlife refuges a top priority for the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, which will also oversee reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, among other issues.
“Gilchrest has been a consistent leader on environmental issues and on refuge issues in particular,” said Evan Hirsche, director of the policy office for the National Audubon Society. “We’re lucky to have him.”
His appointment as chairman is the latest success for a man who has been recognized by environmental groups as one of the “greenest” Republicans in Congress.
But his positions on Chesapeake Bay dredging issues have ruffled supporters of the Port of Baltimore, who accuse Gilchrest of jeopardizing the economic well-being of the port.
Helen Delich Bentley, Maryland’s 2nd District congresswoman from 1985- 1995, said she is baffled by Gilchrest’s repeated attempts to block appropriations for a variety of Army Corps of Engineers dredging projects that proponents say will allow deeper draft cargo ships to enter the port.
“In all my years in and around Congress, I’ve never known a member of Congress to try to kill an appropriation for something in his or her state except him,” said Bentley, who now works as a consultant to the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the Port of Baltimore.
“We should be encouraging the port, not discouraging it, as Gilchrest is doing,” she said.
But those same positions are praised by environmental groups from the Audubon Society to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to the League of Conservation Voters. Citizen activists working to block various corps dredging proposals say he is the only official who will listen to them.
“I can’t say enough good things about Rep. Gilchrest and his staff,” said Richard Noennich, a retired DuPont worker who is part of a group that blocked dredging of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. “He has restored my faith in government. He is honest, he has the highest integrity.”
Due in part to the efforts of Gilchrest and Noennich’s group, the corps recently shelved for at least several years a plan to deepen the C&D Canal, which connects the Delaware River and the upper Chesapeake Bay.
Port officials have said the deepening of the canal is essential if Baltimore is to compete with other East Coast ports
“His attitude against the deepening of the C&D Canal is not one that I can understand or that the maritime community can understand,” Bentley said.
The canal is just Gilchrest’s most recent battle with the corps. Last year, the corps dropped plans to dump material dredged from bay shipping channels at an open-water site north of Kent Island known as Site 104.
Susan Brown, the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, singled out for praise Gilchrest’s efforts to block Site 104.
“In general, the environmental community appreciates Rep. Gilchrest’s leadership at the national and state level to protect our clean water, clean air, open space and natural resources,” Brown said. “For example, Rep. Gilchrest has been a valuable ally in the fight to stop the practice of open-bay dumping.”
But Gilchrest earns high marks for initiatives he has started, not just projects he has blocked.
Theresa Pierno, the executive director of the Maryland Chesapeake Bay Foundation, pointed to the estuary protection bill Gilchrest shepherded through Congress last year.
“I think that Gilchrest has been very supportive and is certainly very knowledgeable on Chesapeake Bay issues,” Pierno said. “His estuary bill is a key piece of legislation that he is very proud of and rightfully so.”
The Estuaries and Clean Waters Act of 2000 authorizes $275 million over five years for joint federal, state, and local efforts to restore up to 1 million acres of estuary nationally over a 10-year period, including the Chesapeake Bay.
It also seeks to restore the bay’s severely depleted oyster stocks. Over the last 30 years, oyster harvests have fallen from 25 million pounds to 1 million pounds, and oyster populations are estimated to be just two percent what they once were.
“He’s been a leader on oyster restoration and funding,” Pierno said. “This is one of the problems, the depletion of the oyster population to just 2 percent of the original population.”
But while Bentley said she recognizes the need to protect the bay, she thinks that Gilchrest goes too far.
“There is nobody in the port who is not conscious of the environment and the need to keep the Chesapeake as pristine as possible, but at the same time, there has to be some economic balance, and that is what isn’t there,” she said.
Jon Robinson, chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, comes to the exact opposite conclusion.
“Usually, you will see Congress people going to bat for the big-money interests in districts, but there have been numerous examples where Gilchrest has worked for the environmental interests of his constituents,” said Robinson.
He cited the case of a resort-harbor development planned for a site near Ocean City that the corps declared was not wetlands.
“People went out there with video cameras during a drought and were standing hip-deep in water that the corps had determined were (dry) uplands. They showed they showed the tape to Gilchrest and he blew a cork,” Robinson said.
“He had the corps redo the work in an accurate way,” he said. “Other congressmen have been known to do just the opposite.”