If you know Crisfield, you know marsh. There's marsh all around the town. Houses are built on it, or on piles of oyster shell dumped at the edge of it. You drive through it to get to the work boats, and you sail through it to get to the oyster and crab beds.
And when you want to make your town the capital of barge repair on the Chesapeake Bay, and not just the capital of crabs and oysters, it blocks your way.
Environmentalists cheered when the Army Corps of Engineers last month denied Crisfield the permit it needs to turn 28 acres of marsh and shoal into a maritime industrial park and barge center. But folks in Crisfield, whose dreams of becoming a commercial port have been turned down by an assortment of government agencies during the last 35 years, were angry that outsiders took away their chance to bring jobs to town.
If those people lived in the midst of Somerset County's 55,000 acres of wetland, many said, they would think differently about filling in 28 acres.
"It's people running our lives that don't live here," complained Philip Goldsborough, a local mechanic working on an oyster tongue pump at the work boat marina last week. "My family goes back to the 1600s here. We aren't scientists around here, but we know a little about marsh."
And in some cases, he advised, "The marsh is no good for anything."
"Except snakes and mosquitos," his companion, Marion East, interjected.
The marsh involved in the controversy lines a bay on the Little Annemessex River, on the northwest side of town. Under the city's proposal, it would be filled in. The two-mile channel to the bay shipping lanes would be dredged to a depth of 12 feet, and a turning area for barges would be dredged. The dredged mud would be used to fill in the marsh.
Environmentalists concerned with the Chesapeake Bay attacked the plan as soon as it was proposed by the city five years ago. They argued that a vital piece of the bay's ecology would be destroyed: The wetlands are important habitats for wildlife, from game animals to microbes. The wetlands help filter the pollution washed from streets and farms, and they remove oxygen-robbing nutrients that strangle fish and underwater vegetation. They give sediment a chance to settle before the water enters the bay.
Like others in Crisfield, Goldsborough and East insisted that they do not want to ruin the marshes but gladly would give up 28 acres of marsh to bring in new business, fight chronic unemployment and keep young people from leaving.
"All we're asking for is clean industry, like barge repair," Goldsborough said. "No chemicals or anything like that. If they can hire 500 people, that would be a great help."
Seafood still is king in this city of 2,984, which is dependent on its crab and oyster catches. A giant red crab decorates the town's water tower, and the annual Crab Derby attracts thousands of visitors each summer. The seafood packing houses are the biggest employers, and almost everyone else who can find a job works on the water.
But that still leaves an unemployment rate of 10 percent in the best of times and more than 30 percent during winter freezes, when oystering is impossible. In the last five years, the unemployment rate has fallen below 10 percent only for one month, and declining oyster stocks do not make the future look bright.
The city has advanced several proposals in recent years to attract shipyard industries by constructing a deep-water port. All have been turned down by state or federal agencies.
Stuck out on the marsh, miles from the main highway and a three-hours drive from the Bay Bridge, Crisfield is not in the sort of place that industry or high-tech firms seek out. But it is just two miles from the shipping channels, halfway between Baltimore and Norfolk, and just the place, many in Crisfield believe, for the repair and building of the barges that ply the bay.
"We're looking for jobs -- that's the bottom line," said City Manager Julian Tyler, who estimates that the industrial park could employ up to 300 people. "We are talking just 28 acres. If there are any little critters out there, they can just swim across the channel and make themselves at home again."
But the Corps of Engineers, which must issue permits for projects affecting inland waterways, decided that the environmental damage would outweigh the economic benefits. Engineers spokesman Gary Holloway said his department is not as concerned about a barge facility causing pollution as by the loss of valuable marshland. And he said the engineers would be willing to reconsider the project if Crisfield could prove that it would be an economic success.
"They just didn't have the commitments from businesses to utilize what they wanted to develop," Holloway said. "We're not unreasonable. We realize the state of the economy down there, and that this would be a very good venture to them . . . . In a depressed area, which Crisfield is, we might look at the area differently than we would look at a community that's booming. But you have to weigh everything."
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources was prepared to "conditionally accept" the Crisfield project, according to assistant secretary Thomas C. Andrews. The conditions, in addition to insisting that the industrial park not cause water pollution, would have included the same guarantees of economic viability that the Army engineers wanted.
"The conditions that the corps laid down to us are pretty stringent," said Tony Bruce, the Crisfield city solicitor coordinating the project. He said the city had commitments from only three marine-related firms to move into the industrial park, occupying about a quarter of its area, but that officials were sure that the park could be filled once work started.
"It's difficult to sell an industrial park," Bruce said, "when all the buyer can see is marshland."
"It kind of put the town in a chicken-and-egg situation," agreed Andrews.
But when news arrived that the Army had vetoed the idea, environmentalists were delighted.
"We are in 100 percent agreement," declared William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who called the marsh involved "spectacular."
"We just don't understand why you'd need to take all those barges to Crisfield to work on them, rather than bring them to Baltimore, Hampton Roads or one of the Steuart Petroleum sites on the Potomac," he said.
"There's no doubt they are in depressed circumstances, but so are a lot of other places," said Judith Johnson of the Committee to Save Assateague Island, which fought against the Crisfield project. "Why don't they go into the tourist trade, rather than something that can only destroy the only business they have."
In Crisfield itself, few challenge the belief that the industrial park and barge repair center is a good idea. Mitch Oakley manages a barge repair yard at the edge of the proposed project, employing 12 people. If the channel were deepened and proper facilities installed, he said, there would be no shortage of business for himself and others. There are no adequate shipyards for barges in Baltimore, he said, while Norfolk yards are overpriced because of Navy business. Meanwhile, Crisfield has boat-wise laborers looking for work.
"All the concern for saving the bay, you have to take it and weigh it against the concern for saving the people," he said.
The general opinion in Crisfield is that the Corps of Engineers' decision was an example of the Eastern Shore being picked upon by Marylanders on the other side of the water.
Marion East saw it as proof that the Bay Bridge should should be torn down, so the westerners could not come across to interfere. Several suggested that no one dared offend the seafood packers, who might have to pay higher wages if workers were lured to the barge business.
But Crisfield is not giving up.
"We're a little discouraged, but I don't think anyone is throwing in the towel yet," said city manager Tyler. "I don't know why the folks down on the Western Shore are worried about a little bit of wetland down here . . . . It's hard for someone sitting up on the 20th floor of some building up in Washington or Baltimore or Philadelphia to know what's really going on down here."
"There's no end to the marsh around here," said Goldsborough. "That's our point."