BERLIN – Ilia Fehrer, who once received death threats from opponents during her career as one of the first and most powerful environmental advocates in Worcester County, was honored with membership in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame this month.
Fehrer, who died in 2007, transformed not only the laws, but managed the more difficult task of transforming the culture of Worcester County, said Carolyn Cummins, a fellow environmental activist and spokesperson for a group of seven women, Ilia Fehrer’s Legacy of Women, who nominated Fehrer for the honor.
Public sentiment changed the county from a place where wetlands and forest were considered obstacles to be filled or felled, to a place where wetlands and forests are protected, through Fehrer’s efforts.
Now, no political candidate can get elected in Worcester County without expressing allegiance to environmental protection.
Fehrer is the first woman from Worcester County inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, Cummins said.
“We learned an awful lot from her,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas Gulyas. “She left a real legacy for us to follow. She had high expectations. It’s hard to live up to but it can be done.”
Fehrer’s legacy is not just philosophical. She left behind distribution networks for environmental protection, from the organization that became Assateague Coastal Trust to the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
While Fehrer was an example for others, she recruited and educated and organized people as well, taking them out onto the water or into the woods, starting organizations and converting people to more environmentally friendly ways of thinking.
“She really primarily was a teacher,” said Jeannie Lynch, a Planning Commission member and former commissioner who worked with Fehrer.
Fehrer also knew how to talk to people to get her message through to them, particularly using this skill to convince state agencies to enforce environmental laws already on the books. Part of her arsenal was irrefutable scientific evidence.
As an advocate for environmental protection, Fehrer stood up at public meetings, but she also worked within the system by serving on advisory boards and commissions.
“What I learned from Ilia, if you get active on one of these committees, you can have a lot of impact,” said Cummins, herself a longtime veteran of the Worcester County Planning Commission.
Lynch said that people should carry Fehrer’s work forward by paying attention and taking action early on with new laws or projects, such as the county rezoning maps, code and subdivision laws recently delivered to the county government.
“Now is the time to do that, not when it’s already done, and then complain about it,” Lynch said.
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, and helped convince the U.S. Congress to preserve the island.
Fehrer was instrumental in preventing Harbortown, a massive community planned between Newark and Chincoteague Bay in the early 1970s, from happening. She also served on many 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 and the Ellen Fraites Wagner Award from the Chesapeake Bay Trust for protecting the bay and tributaries.
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.
“I’m so struck by how many of us it takes to even attempt to accomplish what she did,” said Cummins.
County Commissioner Linda Busick, a member of the Maryland Commission for Women, which sponsors the Hall of Fame, said Fehrer took up for environmental matters because she believed in them.
“What was extraordinary about Mrs. Fehrer was that she held this conviction, that wildlife and wildlands have value for their own sake, before it was popular to do so,” said Busick.
According to Gulyas, “We’d be a county totally tarmacked by now if not for her foresight. She might have been a little lady, but she was a dynamo.”
Cummins said Fehrer “was so far ahead of her time.” She added, “She just stuck at it long enough, she stuck at it for 40 years. Eventually people come around if they hear it often enough.”