He won’t be home for Christmas. On Monday, Bill Ellen, a law abiding, mild-mannered marine engineer from Mathews, Virginia, was locked away in a cell in the Petersburg Federal Penitentiary after being caught up in the tangled bureaucratic maze of our wetlands regulations.
In 1987, Ellen was hired by a private owner to convert part of his Maryland estate into a 103-acre wildlife sanctuary. That job cost Ellen his life-savings and his freedom.
His wife Bonnie is at a loss as to what to tell their children. Some well-meaning friends have advised her to tell their two and four-year-old boys that their daddy is simply away or a while. Others say she must take them to the penitentiary to see their father or they will feel abandoned.
But, what can Bonnie tell these children. How can she possibly make them understand that their father is in jail for building duck ponds?
Now Bill Ellen is not the first law-abiding citizen to run afoul of our wetlands law and wind up behind bars, but his case is, by far, the most outrageous. If Ellen, who runs a nonprofit wildlife rescue center, who worked for four years regulating wetlands and coastal development, can be locked away for converting bone-dry land into ponds for waterfowl, think of what can happen to a poor guy just trying to put in a driveway or fill a low spot in his backyard.
According to the EPA, here is the bottom line on wetlands: If you can dig down 18 inches and find moisture, not water, for seven days out of the entire year, you’ve got yourself a wetland. The Corps of Engineers says it must be moist, not wet, on the surface for 15 days before your yard can be declared a wetland. You live in a desert and that moisture came from your sprinkler system. If the Feds come calling, don’t expect that to get you off.
Ellen knew all this. That is why he hired scientists, obtained aerial maps, coordinated extensively with local, state and federal officials and secured 38 different permits before he began his work. But, in the middle of his project, in 1989, after Mr. Bush’s “No Net Loss of Wetlands” speech, over zealous bureaucrats in five government agencies changed the rules.
The case is long and involved, but Mr. Ellen’s violation is technical. He allowed two truckloads of dirt to be dumped in an area that the Soil Conservation Service had previously deemed dry. Now a technical violation used to get you a fine, but today, these federal enviro-Nazis can lock you away for up to three years.
Is this what EPA Administrator William Reily had in mind when he boasted at the Republican National Convention “This Administration has prosecuted more environmental criminals than (in) the whole history of the EPA combined”?
This action, which has drastically curtailed a project that could have improved the environment, placed Bill Ellen behind bars, leaving Bonnie and the children without support. It also left the wildlife rescue service they’ve run since 1985 in jeopardy. It is an indication that our policy is seriously off-track and out of control!
Call the president’s comment line at 202-456-1111 everyday for an entire week. Ask Mr. Bush to pardon Bill Ellen. Tet ten more people to do the same. Please do this faithfully. If over 1,000 calls come in on behalf of Bill Ellen in a day, it will be a part of the president’s daily briefing.
Tell Mr. Bush that it’s criminal that we are locking up dirt movers while turning out robbers, rapists and murders because of overcrowding.
Ask him to get us out of this wetlands mess and get Bill Ellen home for Christmas.