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Oh, the impertinence of the nonvoting bog turtle


BOG TURTLES don't vote. Bog turtles don't contribute to political candidates or to special-interest Political Action Committees. In fact, they're not interested in politics at all.

So they don't get much respect from the Carroll County commissioners, who've sounded off on the federally protected small turtles.

Consider proposed plans for the 6-mile Hampstead bypass project, which would divert through traffic from Route 30 around the town. Surprisingly untouched by the hand of Governor Smart Growth, the 35-year-old Hampstead bypass project is bogged down (for the second or third time this decade) by bog turtles, a threatened species.

Carroll's commissioners have railed against this impertinence of nonvoting reptiles against the grandeur of humankind.

Gouge's soup?

"They could sell them or make their soup," huffed Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, looking for a direct solution to the troublesome turtles. Never mind that it would be a federal (and state) crime, punishable by serious jail time and a $50,000 fine.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell, in his state of the county speech, also attacked the bog turtle and its defenders.

"We are allowing a small, self-appointed special interest group to impose its concerns on the majority," he declared of the bog turtle obstacles. Human convenience and safety seem to count for less than these turtles.

Actually, Mr. Dell delivered his address by videotape, as he was in New Mexico attending the American Farm Bureau Federation convention, where that special-interest pleader for government handouts and insurance-writing advantages was calling for death to the gray wolves of Yellowstone National Park.

The tiny, seldom-seen bog turtles are living in wetlands where they have lived for centuries. Their habitat lies within the path considered for the Hampstead bypass. The bypass path was changed a few years ago to avoid the turtles. But more were found.

Bog turtles became an official threatened species in 1997, under the Endangered Species Act. (Maryland listed them as endangered in 1972.)

So the Hampstead bypass, even if the $35 million cost was instantly available, could not be built as planned. The turtle must be considered; it's the law.

Existence of the protected turtles in the area was well known. News stories and editorials examined the issue (and wondered why legal protections of wetlands in the bypass route were skirted).

Elevated priority

What changed recently is that the Hampstead bypass was the only major public works project in Carroll County that was not eliminated by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plans for next year. That elevated its priority for the county.

Not that the Hampstead diversion is an emergency project. County and town support hasn't been unanimous. The languid process of highway construction assures that the bypass wouldn't be finished for years.

By definition, a bypass is meant to swing around highly developed areas. The dilemma is that building a new road does encourage further development and inevitably promotes sprawl. It's a significant consequence, even if it is not accurately quantifiable.

Other questions surround the Hampstead bypass. Will it smooth the flow of in-town traffic or create a bottleneck elsewhere? Will it help Main Street businesses (by making stores easier to access) or will it hurt them by diverting customers to outlying competitors?

In the old days

In the old days, that question was easily answered. Merchants fought to keep captive motorists in their municipal grasp for as long as possible, figuring they'd choose to stop and shop as long as they were stuck in the highway backup. Stop lights and signs were erected for that very purpose.

But it was never a proven success, and communities eventually began to favor bypasses as a better, though flawed, alternative.

Fact is, a bypass of a state highway is not designed primarily for the benefit of local establishments and residents. Its purpose is to improve the flow of traffic along a state road. That's for all motorists, regardless of residence, at taxpayers' expense. It's not supposed to be a local public works project.

In the old days, we also didn't recognize the environmental concerns of auto congestion. Traffic snarls waste enormous amounts of fuel and dirty the town's air with tons of polluting, smog-creating engine exhausts; lead from gasoline additives was a big health threat until it was eliminated.

These environmental concerns came to encompass endangered species and wetlands and other pieces of the ecosystem that were dismissed with human arrogance. Things such as the rare bog turtles are disappearing from our midst and need protection.

Thankfully, wiser people than the commissioners are speaking out on behalf of the hard-shell creatures. People such as Hampstead Councilman Larry Hentz, who predicts: "These turtles may be the town's biggest asset."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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