Joseph W. Fehrer, 88, Shore environmentalist and co-founder of trust


Joseph W. Fehrer, a noted Eastern Shore environmentalist who founded the Worcester Environmental Trust with his wife and helped preserve the Pocomoke River and Nassawango Creek, died of Parkinson's disease Tuesday at Deer's Head Hospital Center in Salisbury. He was 88.

"They were a prime force in the evolution of an environmental conscience on the Lower Shore," said Bruce Nichols, an agricultural conservationist and U.S. Department of Agriculture worker. "Employees in government agencies often had their hands tied by politics, but the Fehrers could make noise."

Mr. Fehrer's passion for the outdoors began in his youth in Baltimore where he was born and raised.

"He grew up near Clifton Park and with his brother would go over to the park and walk through the woods to Herring Run Creek," said a son, Joseph W. Fehrer of Snow Hill.

"He would take trips with his father to the Shenandoah and down where the Blue Ridge Parkway is today," the son said. "He was exposed to the outdoors early in life, and it became his unpaid career."

Mr. Fehrer was a 1934 graduate of Polytechnic Institute and graduated two years later from Baltimore Business College. He worked for several years as a secretary and later manufacturers' representative for Mack Trucks in Baltimore before going to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939.

In 1946, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers, where he was chief of the real estate division for the Corps' Baltimore and Washington districts

During the 1950s, Mr. Fehrer was summoned to the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was given a top-secret classified assignment to acquire land at Weather Mountain in Western Maryland, and at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to build a bunker to house members of Congress in case of nuclear war.

In 1967, Mr. Fehrer began working for the National Park Service as chief of land acquisition and moved his family from their Pelham Avenue home in Northeast Baltimore to Snow Hill.

Mr. Fehrer assembled the properties that eventually became the Assateague Island National Seashore, one of the nation's premier coastal preserves.

His fell in love with Assateague Island during his first summer on the Shore, when he and his wife and their eight children lived on the beach in a pop-up camper.

"He was buying up properties that in some cases were out in the Atlantic Ocean just to gain title to the land," said Ajax Eastman, environmental activist and former longtime president of the Maryland Conservation Council.

Mr. Fehrer's partner in land preservation was his wife, the former Ilia Leonard, whom he married in 1948. Together, they shared a love of the rural Eastern Shore and enjoyed exploring by canoe its rivers and creeks.

But times were changing, and by the early 1970s, developers were proposing building Harbour Town, a development that was billed as "The Hilton Head of the North," in Worcester County.

It was through their efforts and the Worcester Environmental Trust that approval for the project was overturned in state appellate courts.

For the past 30 years, the couple made it their business to be aware of proposed developments in the county as well as continuing their stewardship of the land.

"In those early years, they were often pilloried for the efforts. It wasn't easy," said Ms. Eastman. "But they stuck with their values and purpose, and helped pave the way for future generations of people who would be interested in environmental protection."

She added: "He was so quiet and effective and he helped energize us."

After retiring from the National Park Service in 1973, Mr. Fehrer turned his attention to the preservation of the forests and swampland along the Pocomoke River. A 56-mile fact-finding tour of the river by canoe in 1975 helped the couple make an inventory of the river's environmental and wildlife assets as well as its problems.

He was taken with the beauty of the Pocomoke-Nassawango cypress swamps, home to rare plants, Atlantic white cedars and 12 kinds of orchids.

Mr. Fehrer established the Nature Conservancy's Nassawango Creek Preserve and for years was chairman of the Nassawango Stewardship Committee.

He successfully convinced the Nature Conservancy of the need to preserve the land. Since 1978, it has acquired 7,200 acres, and when added to state-owned lands, makes 11,000 acres of the watershed's 44,000 acres permanently wild. The Nassawango Creek Preserve is now the largest nature preserve in the state.

For years, to arouse interest in the preservation of the Pocomoke River and Nassawango Creek, Mr. Fehrer enjoyed giving guided canoe tours to politicians, schoolchildren, reporters or anyone who shared his dream.

"Years ago, we were going to tour the Pocomoke, and he took me inside his house, set me down to watch a half-hour slide show on the river, and then we piled canoes on the car," said Tom Horton, environmental columnist for The Sun. "It was a fall day and one of the most glorious days I've ever spent in the outdoors. I remember the light coming through the cypress trees as swans flew overhead. It remains one of my top 10 outdoor memories."

He added: "And through his work, the Pocomoke has become one of the premier wildlife rivers in America."

"The Nassawango Creek Nature Preserve is a fitting tribute to Joe's incredible effort in assembling parcels of land," wrote Ms. Eastman in 1995 when proposing the couple for the Olivia Irvine Conservation Award, presented to a Marylander for distinguished work in the field of nature conservation.

Mr. Fehrer was a communicant of St. Francis deSales Roman Catholic Church in Salisbury, where a memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Thursday.

Surviving, in addition to his wife and son, are two other sons, Damien C. Fehrer of Farmville, Va., and Douglas G. Fehrer of Fairfax, Va.; four daughters, Christa Fehrer of Florence, Mont., Celeste Bunting of Salisbury, Melissa Fehrer of Snow Hill and Michele Fehrer of Summersville, W.Va.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, John N. Fehrer, died in 1976.

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