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A Soft-Spoken But Fierce Defender Of Maryland’s Forests


Bonnie Bick is an unassuming person. She’s a 72-year-old former flower child and pre-school teacher with a soft voice, who has little money and few possessions, but loves walking in the woods near her small brick house in southern Maryland.

But among land conservationists, she is a hero – a fierce and tenacious fighter who outlasted developers and the political establishment in Charles County to stop a highway project – the Cross County Connector, which would have fed sprawling subdivisions. The project has now turned into a proposal for a much greener bike path surrounded by trees.

“It’s a very exciting end for that terrible, long ordeal – fighting the Cross County Connector,” Bick reflected. “It was like a miracle to stop it.”

Over three decades of unpaid and often unrecognized behind-the-scenes work, Bick took on development projects that many people thought were unstoppable -- but it was the gentle, patient, tenacious Bonnie Bick who proved unstoppable. The result: She quietly helped to save thousands of acres of green space in a state increasingly consumed by cul-de-sacs and strip malls.

U.S. Representative Donna Edwards, a Democrat who has known Bick for 18 years, said that she deserves a lot of credit not only for pushing back against sprawl, but also for fighting for healthy urban areas served by public transportation. In addition, Bick has welcomed minorities into a conservation movement that is often very white, Edwards said.

“Bonnie is a different kind of environmentalist, because not only does she believe in preserving the environment, but she believes in making sure that vulnerable communities are protected as well,” Edwards said. “Not all environmentalists take that tactic, and that’s why her work was so important and deep in not only in southern Maryland, but also around the Oxon Hill / Fort Washington area.”

Bick said she is driven by a philosophy of building up cities, so that rural areas can remain rural. But she also believes in protecting wildlands for other forms of life.

 “I’m a big supporter of the protection of biodiversity, and large properties that haven’t been disturbed are usually very biodiverse,” Bick said. “I am a great believer in thinking globally and acting locally. If we could just get a lot of people motivated to protect the most valuable resources in their area, that would be a good thing for everyone.”

Bick worked with allies to protect almost 1,000 acres of threatened property near Mattawoman Creek, one of the most fertile fish breeding grounds in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. And, back in the 1990s, she helped to lead a grueling but eventually successful multi-war war to stop a 4,600 home subdivision, office complex and golf course proposed the banks of the Potomac River.

“Not only would Chapman’s Landing have destroyed the quality of life for the people in the area, but it would have also changed the nature of the lower Potomac,” Bick said. “Because Chapman’s Landing would have put a city – a new city – right on the river. It was just a terrible threat.”

In the end, Bick and allies convinced then-Governor Parris Glendening to halt the project and instead create Chapman State Park and Chapman Forest.

“She’s pretty unusual in that she can work at all levels. She will knock on doors, and she will also call on governors,” said Jim Long, a physicist and co-founder of Friends of Mattawoman Creek. “She’s fearless in approaching the upper echelons of government, and yet she is still very warm in working at a grass-roots level. And she has vision. Before anyone else, she recognizes when there is an opportunity or a problem.”

Devoting a lifetime to fighting against the suburban development complex –without a salary or institutional support– has been emotionally grueling work that has required personal sacrifice.

“Bonnie is a minimalist,” said Edwards. “She doesn’t believe in accumulating lots of things. And she’s not materialistic, at all. So I think in her personal life she has minimized her needs, and that actually has liberated her when it comes to volunteering and doing community work for nothing.”

It hasn’t been easy. Bick has been threatened with lawsuits. And once, 12 years ago, after she angered local officials in Prince George’s County by fighting a condo and retail project called National Harbor, the local officials threatened to use eminent domain to seize and demolish her home in Oxon Hill to build a stormwater pond.

“It was a terrible situation to be in, because I really loved that house,” Bick recalled, explaining that she had grown up in the home and that her father had designed it.

Many saw the condemnation threat as an attempt to intimidate Bick. It didn’t work. Bick kept fighting, and kept her home.

In 2006, Bick nearly died in a car accident driving away from a land preservation press conference.

“I had nine roken ribs and my lungs collapsed,” Bick said. “And my pelvis was broken in six places and my sacrum was broken and my bladder was smashed and ripped up and my liver was lacerated. I was put into an induced coma.”

After she woke up in her bed at Washington Hospital Center, Bick continued to meet with her fellow activists on ways to protect their beloved Mattawoman Creek, which was threatened with the highway project and subdivisions.

One of those who met with her in the hospital was fellow conservation volunteer Linda Redding.

“There are thousands of acres that have been saved because of Bonnie’s efforts,” Redding said. “And I think the take-home message is that one person can make a difference. A lot of people say ‘I can’t make a difference. It doesn’t matter.’ But that’s wrong. Bonnie proved that one person can really make a difference.”

Bonnie Bick’s difference has been protecting the Chesapeake’s unique and priceless landscape, and her work will last forever.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.