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Longtime land protector departing

After 25 years in state government and about 300,000 acres of Maryland farms, forests and wetlands preserved, the man who gave William Donald Schaefer chiggers is leaving - on his own terms.

Michael J. Nelson, a holdover Democrat in the Ehrlich administration, didn't need to be pushed out of his high-level job in the Department of Natural Resources. The Crisfield native, who has overseen the state's land preservation efforts for more than 15 years, is bound for California to start a new life.

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"I'm 50, I've been doing this for 25 years. I think half my life is enough," Nelson said recently.

Despite being the public face of one of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's most cherished programs, Nelson managed to survive as an assistant secretary nine months into the Ehrlich administration before leaving voluntarily and on cordial terms with his Republican bosses.

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His departure ends a state government career that began as a fresh-out-of-college aide to Gov. Marvin Mandel and acting Gov. Blair Lee III. He left the State House staff for a job at DNR after Lee's 1978 primary defeat.

Even more impressive to observers of state government was Nelson's ability to remain on friendly terms with the notoriously grumpy comptroller, Schaefer, a vituperative critic of Glendening and his land conservation spending.

Patience and humor

At meetings of the Board of Public Works, it was Nelson's job to explain the environmental and recreational merits of the projects paid for under the state's Open Space and Rural Legacy programs. More often than not, Schaefer would chastise Nelson for "spending money the state doesn't have."

Where other bureaucrats cringed during Schaefer's tirades, Nelson would deflect the comptroller's wrath with a shrewd combination of firmness, patience and dry humor. By the time the vote was taken on his agenda, Nelson usually had won Schaefer's grudging approval - or at least an abstention.

"While they would joust and parry on certain issues, they had a deep, abiding respect for one another," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an admirer of Nelson.

That respect was built during the eight years Nelson served in the same role when Schaefer was governor.

Nelson said it wasn't easy to sell the city-bred Schaefer on the merits of spending state money to protect the state's hinterlands. But in spite of Schaefer's "bluff and bluster," Nelson said, he was always willing to listen - and look.

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More than any governor or comptroller he worked with, Nelson said, Schaefer wanted to see what the state was buying with his own eyes. So for 13 of the last 17 years - excluding the four years Schaefer was out of public office - Nelson served as tour guide to one of the most demanding men in Maryland.

The assignment has produced some memorable moments.

Nelson recalls visiting some of the state's most inaccessible areas with his charge, bouncing along in four-wheel-drive vehicles with Schaefer's head bouncing like a bobble-head doll.

Once they went to the Youghiogheny River in far Western Maryland to inspect a site the state wanted to acquire. At one point, a field biologist produced a hellbender, a large and far-from-cute salamander native to the region.

Nelson said a heated conversation ensued between Schaefer, who wanted to give people access to that scenic spot, and the biologist, who wanted to protect the hideous but endangered amphibian from hordes of curious taxpayers.

"You can imagine the sparks that flew between the dedicated biologist and the dedicated public servant," Nelson said.

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But later, after learning at a rafting equipment factory in Grantsville how important the wild river was to local jobs, Schaefer relented, Nelson said.

"Because he was willing to listen as governor, he eventually became a supporter of increased money for land conservation," Nelson said. "It's a genuine respect we have for each other. He really is my friend."

'I got chiggers!'

It wasn't always a smooth process though.

At one point, Nelson recalled, Schaefer decided he wanted to learn more about the state's forest management programs. So Nelson set up a trip to the Pocomoke State Forest.

Somewhere along the line, Schaefer became infested with some of the biting denizens of those woods.

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Soon after, Nelson received a standard thank-you letter from the comptroller's office with the words of gratitude crossed out. In its place, Schaefer had scrawled: "Nelson, I got chiggers!"

By this time, the occupant of the governor's office was someone Schaefer found even more objectionable than chiggers: Glendening.

"We went through the same process with Glendening that we did with Schaefer, and eventually he realized the value of land conservation," Nelson said.

Glendening would go on to raise spending on land protection to historically high levels.

The person putting together the financing for those often-intricate deals - involving local governments, legislators, private organizations and landowners - was Nelson.

Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said he worked with Nelson on several acquisitions.

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"He had not only the knowledge to define the issues but the personality to interact with the diverse group of legislators and executives that have overseen the programs," Busch said.

After Glendening's 1998 re-election, Nelson found himself in the crossfire between the governor and Schaefer. It was a position many bureaucrats would have dreaded. Said Nelson: "I liked being there."

Nelson said Glendening understood the challenges he faced and sometimes called to congratulate him on his patience with the comptroller.

"He's a professional, an absolute professional," said Glendening.

When Ehrlich took over in January, the administration fired most top-level Democratic appointees at DNR. But Nelson, whose friends include high-ranking Ehrlich aide Paul Schurick and Republican Del. George C. Edwards, survived.

Nelson said it helped that he got to say yes to a lot of people around the state for many years.

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"As Ehrlich went across the hinterlands, I don't think he heard a lot of people saying Mike Nelson is a bomb-thrower and getting rid of him should be the first order of business," he said.

Nelson became a team player in the new administration even as his budget was cut severely. He said the new administration has not been heavy-handed in attacking his programs, but he recognized that Ehrlich's priorities are not his own.

"You don't own these jobs," Nelson said. "A governor has only so many positions to change the face of government, and I'm in one."

Sometime next month, Nelson said, he will fly off to San Diego to start a new life with a parks director, Renee Bahl, with whom he's had a long-term, long-distance relationship. He's looking forward to continuing his career in resource conservation.

At Nelson's last Board of Public Works meeting this month, Ehrlich expressed regret at his departure and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp called him a "model public servant."

But it was Schaefer who gave Nelson the best send-off.

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"Out of deference to you, I have nothing on this agenda," the comptroller said.

It passed unanimously.


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