Bel Air. -- Mayor "Fish" Powell and other Ocean City officials are up in arms over the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' plan to ban boat and foot traffic near two bird-nesting areas. The last chance to reverse the decision will come at a public hearing scheduled for September 30. The civic leaders of Ocean City will do their constituents a big favor if they take time to think about the long-term implications of this ban. The economic arguments are all on the side of the birds.
Not a single person is going to cancel a trip to Ocean City because they cannot beach a boat on the small sand bar that lies just north of the Route 50 bridge. A few, whose interest in the environment is entirely submerged by the desire to do anything that appeals to them, will be inconvenienced, but they are not going to abort their vacation plans. Ninety-nine percent of the visitors to Ocean City will not realize the ban is in effect.
This year alone, however, several thousand people will travel to Ocean City just to watch birds. They come because coastal Worcester County has birds they cannot see anywhere else in the state, including the terns and plovers that nest on the north end of Assateague and on the small sandbar near the Route 50 bridge.
These visitors stay in motels, eat at local restaurants, stop for early-morning coffee at 7-11 and fill their gas tanks at local stations. They may not make much of an impact on a hot August afternoon when there is not an empty motel room to be found east of Cambridge, but they come year-round, and they come for one purpose -- to look at Ocean City's birds.
Eliminate the birds and you will eliminate a small but steadily growing segment of the Ocean City tourist trade.
Mayor Powell should ask some of the businessmen in Ocean City how they feel about sacrificing the bird trade for the sake of a few people who want to walk around a sandbar. He should ask the owners of Phillip's Hotel, where 30 to 50 bird watchers check in for the week after Christmas; many of them have become customers at other seasons. He should ask the owners of the Long Acre Cottages, who fill to capacity six or seven weekends a year with people who come to Ocean City to take offshore whale- and bird- watching trips. He should ask the owners of the OC Princess, who fill the boat a half-dozen times a year with bird watchers, and who are investigating the possibility of shorter trips every weekend.
The real problem is the perceived conflict between environmentalism and economic growth and development. In many cases the conflict is more perceived than real, fostered by politicians searching for an issue or a bogeyman. As many towns along the Atlantic Coast have discovered, eco-tourism is good business, and it does not have to compete with other interests.
Half a century ago Stone Harbor, New Jersey, discovered a large colony of nesting herons in the middle of town. They might have cleared the land and had one more block of houses, but they created a bird sanctuary instead. The Stone Harbor heronry is famous now, written about in national journals every year, and thousands flock to the town to see the birds. Economic and environmental cooperation paid off for both sides.
Cape May, New Jersey, is well known as a summer seaside resort, but it is world-famous for its birds. Tens of thousands of people flock there every year, many when the sun worshipers are bundled up at home. There is no conflict between town officials and the naturalists at the Cape May Bird Observatory over the need to protect the small stretch of beach harboring the last of New Jersey's nesting piping plovers.
Chincoteague, Virginia, would be another small water town if it were not for the National Wildlife Refuge and the ponies that live there.
More and more coastal towns are recognizing the economic benefits of environmental protection. Not every person who heads "downy ocean" is contemplating self-basting, and not every dollar is spent on a bottle of suntan lotion or an M.R. Ducks tee-shirt. Ocean City officials need to look at the long-term prospects for their town. There is virtually no room left to build, and the opportunity to expand depends in large part of being able to attract visitors in other seasons and for other reasons.
Ocean City officials ought to think about the needs of all visitors, not just the two idiots on jet skis I watched one day in June as they --ed their vehicles up onto the tern-nesting area of the sandbar near the bridge. The jet skiers jumped off waving their arms, flushing the few birds that had resolutely not deserted their nests when the machines hit the beach. The skiers jetted away laughing, pleased to have disrupted, and perhaps ruined, the breeding attempt of some of Maryland's rarest birds.
There were half a dozen bird watchers standing at the fisherman's access between 3rd and 4th streets when this happened. There were also a dozen or so fisherman present, a combination of residents and weekend visitors.
During the couple of hours the bird watchers were there, many of the fishermen took a break from the serious pleasure of sitting on a warm summer Sunday morning, watching the tip of a rod or teaching a 9-year-old how to bait a hook, to come over and ask what we were doing. They looked through our telescopes at the nesting skimmers and oystercatchers, told us about birds they had seen, and bragged, just a little, about the brown pelicans that have moved into the Ocean City area in the last few years.
They also expressed outrage at the behavior of the jet skiers, frequently in terms that required checking to see that no 9-year-olds were within earshot. They used the same language when four fishermen in a rented boat landed and walked, for no apparent reason, through the tern colony.
We wrote down the registration numbers of the jet skis and the rowboat, knowing that nothing would come of it, and left. A pleasant day at the shore had been diminished for all of us. We had learned a little about the fishing (nothing much was biting), the fishermen had learned a little bit about the birds (they liked the pelicans best), and the 9-year-olds had learned a little about selfishness.
I doubt the Ocean City leaders can overturn the state's plan to protect the nesting areas, but their desire to do so is short-sighted. If they had their way, that sandbar and other bird-nesting islands in Sinepuxent Bay will again become a personal preserve for a couple of dozen people, and the thousands of bird watchers will take themselves and their dollars to towns like Cape May and Chincoteague, where politicians and environmentalists work together to meet the needs of both vacationers and nature lovers.
Resort towns have an increasing amount of eco-tourism in their future, and many have seen that future clearly. But the town leaders of Ocean City can't get it in focus. Let them stop by the fisherman's access this weekend or next. There will be 50 or 100 bird watchers in town, and we will be glad to let the mayor take a peep through our telescopes. The view is very clear.
Eirik A.T. Blom is a biological consultant and a bird watcher.