Environmental issues a rising concern among Md. voters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland voters are increasingly concerned about the health of their rivers, forests and air, are against the rapid introduction of non-native oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, and oppose the sale of state preservation land, the Sun Poll released today shows.

In a state dominated by the bay, voters are showing a growing awareness and concern for environmental issues, according to the survey of 800 registered voters conducted for The Sun last week.

Behind education, health care and the state budget, respondents said the environment was the issue they most wanted the governor and General Assembly to address in the 90-day session that begins this week.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has received mixed reviews for his handling of environmental issues.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in a speech yesterday in Annapolis, broke a two-year silence on his successor's performance, saying he was angered by policies to build new highways without a thought for mass transit, to drain funding for open space programs, to pursue the sale of public lands and to appoint officials who have long opposed conservation programs.

"Everyone here knows the past couple of years in Maryland have been difficult for those of us who care about the environment," Glendening told the crowd of nearly 400 liberal political activists at the Maryland Progressive Summit.

Environmental advocates have criticized Ehrlich's appointments to key administrative posts as being too friendly to industry, and the recent revelations that some state parks property could be sold to developers was widely decried.

Still, voters say the governor is handling environmental issues better than the budget and other matters, a finding that environmental experts said most likely results from Ehrlich's passage last year of a sewage fee commonly called the "flush tax" to pay for treatment plant upgrades.

"Has he been strong on every environmental issue? No. But that one gave him significant notoriety, and it was deserved," said Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

In the poll, 8 percent of registered voters named the environment as their top concern, up from 5 percent a year ago. Among them was Georgia Thistel, a 69-year-old retiree from Baltimore.

"I think that our Earth is a lot more fragile than most people believe it to be," Thistel said. "If we do not keep the ecology in balance, then of how much importance is our education or our health or anything else?"

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said her conservation group has felt the surge of concern, receiving growing numbers of contacts in recent months.

"With all the recent news, citizens have been directly expressing it -- calling up to say 'What can we do to protect our parklands? What about the bay?'" she said.

Lawmakers this year are expected to tackle several issues related to the Chesapeake and public lands, including when and how non-native oysters should be introduced into bay waters, and whether state preservation property should be sold to help balance the budget.

Ehrlich has advocated an aggressive timetable for using Asian oysters to supplement a decimated native population and help filter the water. The governor has pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to shorten its timetable for studying the issue, but neighboring states have balked.

More than seven in 10 registered voters surveyed say the issue needs more study, while 10 percent said they favor the idea.

"All the science is reporting that you need to know more," Swanson said. "In order to make that choice, we must have sound science, and that's what the public is saying."

Legislators also plan to introduce bills giving the Assembly the power to block the sale of state-owned property set aside for preservation. A furor arose after the Ehrlich administration negotiated a no-bid arrangement to sell a forest in Southern Maryland to politically connected contracting company owner Willard J. Hackerman at a below-market-value price. Hackerman promised to preserve the land, but documents showed he also intended to build homes there.

Documents also showed that the Ehrlich administration identified 3,000 acres of land in and around state parks for potential sale -- part of an inventory of all state holdings.

More than two-thirds of voters said the state should not sell conservation land, even to help the state budget. Among those who approve of Ehrlich's performance as governor, six in 10 oppose the sale of land.

Voters gave mixed reviews about the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Nineteen percent said it had been getting better over the past few years, while 31 percent said it was getting worse, and 37 percent said its health was the same.

Voters were also asked about Ehrlich's job performance in several areas, including keeping campaign promises, getting things done, handling the budget shortfall and working with the legislature.

Thirty-five percent of voters said Ehrlich was doing a good job protecting the environment, and 8 percent gave him an excellent rating, for a total positive score of 43 percent. He got a 44 percent negative score, with 24 percent ranking him fair and 20 percent giving him a poor grade.

Staff writer Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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