Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
Heroes for the Century
Maryland’s Top 20th Century Conservationists
I noted in Candus Thomson’s column in the Sunday Sun a tribute to Frank Smoot of Pikesville, who passed away in May and for whom a memorial service was held recently at Hunting Creek in Cunningham Falls State Park, Frederick County. It was a fine tribute to a gentle man who for more then 80 years had devoted much of his time to being a conservationist.
Frank Burt Smoot was a close friend, charming in a rustic fashion, a man of humor but one who could be tough and unyielding when things were going contrary to sound conservation. He preferred the word conservation to environment and ecology.
“Conservation has conserve within it, and that’s what I’m for,” he told me one of the last times we chatted. “You can’t find conserve in those new fancy words.” He always stressed conserve: conserve natural resources for future generations and conserve for the sake of what you’re conserving, whether it be fish, fowl or trees.
Whatever the cause, Frank could be counted on to push the cause of conservation in his folksy and effective fashion.
In her tribute to Frank, Candus quoted Paul Helm, a former member of the Sportsfish Advisory Commission, as saying “The reason was that there were no other candidates” when relating the state’s refusal to name Frank conservationist of the century.
No one came to appreciate Frank Smoot more than this writer, but I’ll take issue with Paul Helm. I’ve not been around for a century it’ll be a half century next month and Frank rates in the top three of the past 50 years I’ve worked the outdoors beat. I can’t rate them first, second and third; it’s a toss up.
Truth is, we’ve had some damned good conservationists in Maryland. It’s just that they’ve fought uphill battles to make the politicians listen to their sage advice. The other two of the top three in my book:
• Baltimorean Talbott Denmead, a friend of Frank’s, who until well into his 80s as a crewmember of the old Maryland Fish & Game Commission staff wrote and worked tirelessly for conservation projects across the state. In earlier days with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Talbott wrote the regulations that made black bass a game fish across this nation; no more commercial netting. Old timers remember him as the Father of Largemouth Bass.
• Dr. Reginald V. Truitt of Stevensville, who fell a decade short of Frank Smoot’s longevity and who founded the Chesapeake Bay Biological Laboratory at Solomons. Call him the Father of Chesapeake Bay Science. For many years, he headed all natural resources administration and brought to Maryland a modern scientific approach to natural resources management and study.
For the old U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, he was the first to study oysters in a scientific fashion, and he halted the practice of stocking to bolster fish stocks. “Fish know more about where to hatch than man, and they should. They’ve been at it for at least many tens of thousands of years,” he told me in an interview in 1977.
… and Peers
There were Judy Johnson and the late Bill Green of Snow Hill, who at their time and expense for years effectively fought to Save Assateague Island. They started as voices in the wilderness; people eventually started to listen. Then came the steam-roller effect, and out the window went federal proposals to allow the building of 5,000 homes on the thin sand spit that protects the mainland from the fury of the Atlantic.
There were the late Baltimoreans George Gambrill, Gardner Hoerichs and Archie Cohen, the three top honchos of the old Maryland Rockfish Protective Association when I arrived in Maryland in the mid ’50s. They devoted their energies and cash in an ongoing campaign to make fishermen and the public aware that rockfish were in trouble. They were activists in the true sense of the word.
The rockfish group had folded by the time rockfish stocks crashed and the moratorium came, but they made their mark in a coastal campaign from Maine to Florida to save stripers from nets in many states. You might call ’em the Fathers of Rockfish Awareness.
There was the late Curly Byrd, better known as the president and popular football coach at the University of Maryland, who in his 70s took over as tidewater fisheries boss with the switch from a commission to an agency.
With the energy of a man half his age, Byrd was determined to make Chesapeake Bay a magnificent sports fishery while not running commercial fishing out of the state. He succeeded, probably beyond his own expectations, and against formidable odds. You might call him the Father of Bay Recreational Fishing.
There was the man who brought Curly Byrd into the picture, a man who hailed from Crisfield, the very heart of commercial fishing, and who sent chills down the spine of sports-fishing interests only later to be acclaimed by many as the greatest conservation chief executive in this state’s history. He was Gov. Millard J. Tawes, who later became the first secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.
He surprised everyone in his quest as governor to make the pleasures of our natural resources state parks, forests, fish and game available to all the people of Maryland. He was governor and DNR chief when the state park system had the greatest growth in our history. For a time it was as good as any in the nation, until hard times hit and budgets were cut. Call him the Father of Forests and Parks.
• Jim Coulter, the DNR chief who put his job on the line more than once in bucking governors to back sound conservation practices
• Tom Horton, who wrote the greatest columns on the Bay for the Sun, pieces in which he explained in common language what was wrong and why. Call him the Father of Bay Awareness.
• Republican U.S. Senator Mac Mathias, who fought long and hard in Congress and the state for Bay projects.
• Barbara Mikulski, who took on where he left off.
• Former Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, probably the state’s first chief who worked effectively to guarantee citizens could reap the wonders of the environment. His crowning achievement was making a long stretch of the Susquehanna shoreline a state park and safe from development. Call him the Father of the Susky.
Look around. We have now and in the past many true conservationists, people like Frank Burt Smoot with agendas of their own. Enough said.