Adventurer's back yard site of latest challenge Man, 82, aims to save Back River Neck from development


Jack Mowll built a boat to sail to Tierra del Fuego in search of a lost Indian tribe. He spent a year on a British cargo ship after half its crew mutinied. And he has traveled from Iran to Taiwan studying transportation problems.

But the latest adventure for this 82-year-old geographer takes place in his own neighborhood in Baltimore County's Back River Neck Peninsula, where he is trying to persuade property owners to join up with the state's new Rural Legacy Program and save their land from development.

"I come from the other end of the world," Mowll said recently, as he thanked the state for selecting Back River Neck for a Rural Legacy grant. "It's a beautiful block of land that shouldn't be destroyed."

Yesterday, the state Board of Public Works approved $1.5 million to preserve up to 2,000 acres on the Back River Neck. The state is devoting $29 million to Rural Legacy funding throughout Maryland.

The area -- a flat peninsula with forested wetlands, vegetable farms, marshes and waterfront homes -- might also qualify for up to $3.6 million in additional state and county money from other programs.

"Jack deserves to get acknowledged for initiating this thing," Charles E. Conklin, president of the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, said of the Back River Neck funding. "He kept knocking on people's doors. This would not have happened if Jack had not been persistent."

The conservancy co-sponsored the funding proposal, along with the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association and Baltimore County. Mowll heads the land trust committees of both the conservancy and the Back River Neck group.

For three years, Mowll has argued that the marshes, woods and fields on the Back River Neck are the Chesapeake Bay's shield from houses and factories a short distance away in Essex and Middle River. Mowll's aim is to stop more chinks from appearing in the armor. "You see all this development, and it sickens me," he said.

Through Rural Legacy, Mowll continues the community's 20-year effort to save the peninsula, said Alfred Clasing, an organizer of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association.

Born in Cleveland, Mowll moved with his family to Virginia and then to Baltimore as his father sought work during the Depression. In 1937, the family bought a two-story shore shack on 1 1/2 acres on the Sue Creek in eastern Baltimore County. The dwelling has been Mowll's home off and on ever since.

A small man with a grizzled beard, he offers an almost toothless smile. "I'm at the stage where my life expectancy is about 25 minutes. Why should I worry about such contraptions as false teeth?" he says, jokingly.

For most of his life, Mowll has been drawn to the water. At 22, he left a job as a secretary at Baltimore's Crown, Cork & Seal to join up with a British cargo ship seeking crewmen after a mutiny that ended in Baltimore.

When his tour ended in England a year later, Mowll intended to stay to explore his father's native country.

But disappointed over what he saw in the grubby port towns, he came back to Baltimore, where his family put him to work cleaning up the house they had just purchased on Sue Creek.

During the next several years, he sold advertisements and greeting cards, until World War II took him away again from the Back River -- this time to Texas, where he spent most of the war as an Air Force weatherman.

When the war ended, Mowll returned to Baltimore and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, where he received a doctorate in geography, which he describes as the "art or science of reality."

After he received his degree, he traveled the world devising solutions to transportation problems. His jobs have included analyzing the transit system in Buenos Aires, Argentina, advising the transportation minister of the Philippines and solving freight transportation problems in Iran.

By the late 1970s, he wanted to pursue other adventures. From a shed in his back yard, he began building a 38-foot trimaran that he planned to sail to Tierra del Fuego -- a group of islands off the tip of South America. Mowll wanted to search for the Alacaluf Indian tribe to test his theory that the rarely seen people had arrived by boat rather than over a land bridge.

But in 1983, with a new wife and daughter, he put the expedition on hold, and he later joined community leaders in trying to save land along the Back River Neck Peninsula.

The Rural Legacy Program -- a state effort to save 200,000 acres by buying land or purchasing the development rights so the properties cannot be developed -- provided Mowll and the others the opportunity they were looking for.

"He's done an excellent job," said John Hession, past president of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association. "He's a very intelligent gentlemen and committed to preservation of the Back River Neck."

Mowll and the others face the challenge of persuading land owners to sell their properties or their development rights. Fourteen property owners with more than 1,200 acres on the peninsula have said they are interested in participating.

"He's going to secure the development rights for a lot of land, and it's going to help the critical areas and the bay," said Guy Shaneybrook, a local real estate appraiser with two parcels he would like to enroll in the program.

One of the most prized parcels is the 637-acre Essex Skypark, which Mowll hopes can become a research station for Hopkins or the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Walking along the airfield, home to about 40 planes and an aviation school, he talks about his vision of researchers studying wetlands and taking core samples.

The owner of the land, Israel Shapiro, said he is talking with a builder about developing the parcel but is willing to consider an offer from Rural Legacy.

If Mowll succeeds in his mission to protect the land of the Back River Neck, he would like to return to his sailboat and his quest for the Alacaluf Indians.

"He's an eccentric with half his life to live at age 80-plus," said Conklin. "I hope he gets there."

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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