BERLIN – Conservation giant Ilia Fehrer, one of Worcester County’s first true environmental activists and the grand dame of the local movement, has died, leaving a tremendous legacy that includes the Assateague Island state and national parks and the preservation of tens of thousands of wild acres.
Fehrer spearheaded the effort to designate the Pocomoke River a “Wild and Scenic River,” and to prevent the damming of Nassawango Creek. She founded the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island, which later became Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT), to save the barrier island from development.
Fehrer was instrumental in preventing the development of Harbortown, a massive community planned between Newark and Chincoteague Bay in the early 1970s, working alongside Worcester County’s other early conservation leader Judy Johnson.
She served on countless commissions and task forces, from the Delmarva Advisory Council to the Worcester County Planning Commission to the State Water Quality Advisory Board.
Her work earned numerous awards, including the Maryland Coastal Bays Program’s (MCBP) first Golden Osprey Award, which she shared with her late husband, Joe Fehrer, as well as the 2003 Ellen Fraites Wagner Award from the Chesapeake Bay Trust for protecting the bay and its tributary waterways.
The Nature Conservancy named Fehrer and her husband Joe Maryland State Heroes on the organization’s 50th anniversary. Two governors, William Donald Schaefer and Parris Glendenning, also honored Fehrer.
“We pretty much measure all of our standards of accomplishment by what she did, all of us in the conservation field,” said Dave Wilson, MCBP outreach coordinator. “It gives us a goal to strive for.”
Worcester County Planning Commission Chair Carolyn Cummins remembered a time when the Fehrers spearheaded local environmental concerns.
“There was a time when Ilia and Joe, that was the environmental movement in the county. We certainly owe them a lot,” Cummins, the most recent winner of the Golden Osprey award, said.
MCBP Director Dave Blazer said, “Her legacy is tremendous. She was obviously way ahead of her time on environmental stuff. She really stood up for what she believed in.”
Blazer recalled an incident at a public hearing over state environmental regulations on agriculture. Fehrer was one of the few at the hearing to speak in favor of the regulations.
“People started to boo her. One of the guys next to me tapped another guy on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you can’t boo her. That’s Ilia Fehrer. You’ve got to respect her opinion. She’s been doing this a long time,’” Blazer recounted.
Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said the countyis a better place for Fehrer.
“She as an environmentalist before there was an environmental movement,” said Phillips. “Thank goodness she was 30 years ahead of her time. She was a fighter.”
Attorney King Burnett, who worked with Fehrer on the ACT, said, “All of those things she championed when they were not accepted ideas to the people. It takes a little bit of courage to stand up in front of a crowd.”
Burnett worked with Fehrer on the Harbortown issue in the early 1970s. The fight against that development shaped the future of planning in Worcester County, he said, and Fehrer was behind it.
“That started the great interest in responsible planning in Worcester County. We see the results today with a real turn about in the county,” Burnett said. “Ilia was really the first person to stand up and try to say something about some of these proposals.”
It was not an easy task.
“There were nasty letters written to her, threats. Nasty things said to her,” Burnett said. “She was determined and she was tough. … Now Worcester County has embraced really most of the things she spent her life fighting for.”
Mary Ochse, a fellow member of the Citizens Advisory Committee who served on the ACT Board with Fehrer, said the detractors did not bother her.
“She came along and really stood up to the builders,” Ochse said. “She got pounded down really heavily but she didn’t care.”
Without Ilia Fehrer, Worcester County would look very different, according to Cummins.
“We’d be spread out in sprawl. That was back in the ‘70s before anybody was talking about sprawl,” Cummins said. “Our waterways wouldn’t be as clean. Development wouldn’t be as concentrated.”
Fehrer was an everyday type of activist, consumed by the details as well as the big picture.
“She was really a watchdog for both the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and Assateague Coastal Trust, keeping an eye on development that was going on in the county,” said Bill Killinger, who served on the Coastal Bays Citizens Advisory Committee with Fehrer.
“Ilia would go and see all these developments washing into these waterways and she’d call MDE [Maryland Department of the Environment],” said Cummins. “There was one enforcement person for the whole Eastern Shore. She would call and tell him so he could come down and do his job. I don’t know a time when Ilia was not right when she would call about someone violating the law.”
Worcester County Comprehensive Planning Director Sandy Coyman had high praise for Fehrer.
“She was just amazing. She got painted with the brush of an environmentalist but when she served on the Planning Commission she was very balanced and very fair,” Coyman said. “She knew her stuff. She had her facts straight.”
According to friends and colleagues, Fehrer was also a tremendous person.
“She was not someone to ever reply in anger. She never said an unkind word to anybody,” Burnett said. “All through all this she was raising seven kids. Their little home there on Federal St. was where everybody came to meetings. … I have nothing but admiration for her.”
Ochse added, “There are few people in this county who have the courage of their convictions to get out and fight for what they believe in. She is one of those people. She is one of my personal heroes.”
Wilson said he would always remember her “great smile.”
“We had dinner a couple of months ago,” said Wilson. “She was just as recalcitrant as ever. She was dying of cancer, and all she could talk about was the issues in Wicomico County. She was her usual self, not thinking about what her problems were, just trying to make the world a better place for other living things.”