Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Ilia J. Fehrer (1927-2007)
MSA SC 3520-15133

Biography:

Ilia Fehrer stood up for Maryland’s environment and the lives of every creature that inhabited it in a time when industrial growth and suburban sprawl were popular and “going green” was unheard of. Fehrer was one of the very few who courageously spoke up against developers and for the preservation of Maryland’s natural environment in the 1970s, and she continued to do so for the remainder of her life. She dedicated her life to preserving Maryland’s wild and wildlife, saving tens of thousands of acres on the Eastern Shore, and informing Marylanders of the important cause of environmental protection along the way.1

Fehrer was born in Washington, D.C., to parents Paul and Marie Vodacekova Leonard on March 24, 1927.2, 3 She grew up on their family farm in central Maryland and at the age of fifteen her family moved to Baltimore, where Fehrer graduated high school. Fehrer attended what is now Towson University and taught elementary school in Baltimore.4 She then married Joe Fehrer  and became a stay at home mother to raise their eight children. Fehrer had four daughters, named Christa, Celeste, Melissa, and Michele, and four sons, named John, Damien, Douglas, and Joseph Fehrer, Jr.5

When Fehrer’s husband, Joe, a land acquisition manager for the National Park Service, was assigned to supervise the creation of the Assateague Island National Sea Shore, the family moved to Snow Hill, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore.6 It was here that Fehrer would discover her passion for preserving the local environment.

In 1972, Fehrer learned that Worcester County Commissioners rezoned 3,200 acres between Newark and Fehrer’s hometown of Snow Hill for the development of a community named Harborside, which was advertised by builders to be the “Hilton Head of Maryland”.7 Fehrer and her husband, along with fellow activist Judy Johnson, fought the development to the highest court of Maryland, which ruled in favor of preservation. This stopped the expansion of Harborside and kept over 1800 acres of forest and agricultural land from development.8 This land is now part of the Worcester Environmental Trust, which Fehrer helped organize, and is consequently protected from future development.9

This first success sparked Fehrer’s new career as an environmental advocate. She and her husband began contacting the Chesapeake Bay Program and The Nature Conservatory, working to persuade the groups and/or the state of Maryland to obtain and preserve land along the Pocomoke River and Chincoteague Bay.10 They became members of the Nature Conservatory in 1974 and helped charter the Maryland chapter in 1977.11 They continued advocating for environmental preservation through these channels and formed and joined further environmental protection groups. Fehrer and her husband were among two of nine members at the first meeting of the Nassawango Stewardship Committee on June 8, 1979.12

Fehrer went on to be a part of many commissions and committees aside from The Nature Conservatory and Nassawango Stewardship Committee. These memberships included the Maryland Environmental Trust, the Barrier Island Coalition, the Ocean Coastal and Pocomoke River Basin Advisory Council, the Maryland Coastal and Watershed Resources Advisory Committee, Worcester County Planning Commission, Snow Hill Planning Commission, Pocomoke State Forest Advisory Board, the Delmarva Advisory Council, the State Water Quality Advisory Board, and the Coastal Bays Citizens Advisory Committee.13, 14  She also founded the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island, which later became Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) and founded the Maryland Coastal Bays Program in the 1990s.15

As a part of her work in these watch groups, committees, and councils, Fehrer reported soil and erosion control violations, attended hearings related to the wetlands, called for hearings on water and sewer permits, and advocated soft shoreline protections.16 Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips describes Fehrer’s work best when saying, “She kind of took it upon herself to sit down at commission meetings, to demand that the meetings have more public access, demand that zoning meetings be more transparent -- really she was the first one to demand accountability from our elected officials.”17 Fehrer courageously stood up to officials, but these more aggressive techniques were not the only means she had to fight for Maryland’s’ environment.

One of Fehrer’s most effective methods for furthering the environments’ cause was her ability to teach citizens, politicians, and developers the reasons for environmental protection. Fehrer’s background as a teacher shone through her tone of persuasion for a cause that was highly unpopular at the time. Fehrer combated her opposition by educating both them and the citizens of Maryland. She did this by writing numerous newspaper editorials, commenting publicly on specific environmental events, organizing telephone and letter writing campaigns, leading canoe trips to observe nature, and authoring and co-authoring published works.

One of Fehrer’s published works, the “Dynamics of Maryland Barrier Islands”, an informative pamphlet published in 1980, is a prime example of Fehrer’s effective use of persuasion and advocation through education.18 The “Dynamics of Maryland Barrier Islands” provided basic information on the Fenwick (Ocean City) and Assateague islands. The pamphlet outlined the formation and parts of islands, along with structural and non-structural means of preserving islands and protecting them from erosion. Fehrer used informative and non-aggressive language in this pamphlet, which is its key persuasive appeal. Fehrer wrote that we needed to “coordinate” with “State and Federal agencies” and “examine and consider” “conservation” and “corrective engineering” due to the “tremendous expense” of development on the barrier islands.19 She invited the reader to make up their own minds on the matters of preservation by using words like “examine”, without reducing the importance of her cause as she still used urgent language in describing the “tremendous expense” the islands were going through. The primary purpose and tone of the pamphlet was educational, in fact, the principle group sponsoring and funding the pamphlet was not even an environmental group; it was the League of Women Voters Educational fund that provided the cost.20 In a time when environmentalists were booed and ridiculed, Fehrer used the perfect strategy of informing Marylanders in a non-aggressive, but still urgent, tone.

Fehrer continued to inform the public about the need for environmental protection through means aside from published works. She wrote numerous editorials to papers like The Baltimore Sun standing up for environmental rights. She addressed everything from building codes, to coastal bay protection, to enlightening readers on the subject of global warming, when there were more skeptics than believers on the connection of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.21, 22, 23 She also took a more personal approach toward educating the public by leading hundreds of canoe trips and forest, wetland and beach activities for school groups, local organizations, and the media.24 She did not just inform Maryland on environmental causes, she also gave citizens a chance to act by organizing telephone and letter writing campaigns for the natural resources of Worcester County and the rest of Maryland.25 All of these public actions helped her effectively advocate for environmental protection and made her a known expert on the subject of environmental protection and advocacy. Because of this, Fehrer was interviewed countless times by the media when an environmental issue became news. Fehrer was consistently up to date on the law and environmental issues, which was no small task, and because of this, she became a public figure for environmental protection.26

Through her hard work and demands of accountability, Fehrer had a great impact on saving Maryland’s natural environment. Aside from saving 1800 acres from the development of Harborland, Fehrer also prevented the damming of Nassawango Creek while creating the Nassawango Creek Preserve, which has expanded to 10,000 acres under the care of the Nature Conservatory.27 She established a water-quality monitoring program, helped designate both the Pocomoke as a “wild and scenic river”, and helped designate the Worcester County rural legacy area.28 She testified before Congress to save Assateague Island, helped bring in millions of dollars for land conservation, and successfully lobbied for legislation that protects wildlife and water quality.29 Fehrer effectively combated offshore waste incineration, the construction of an industrial park near Ocean City, the demolition of wetlands and forests for development and inefficiently planned suburban sprawl.30 She consequently gave Maryland an unspoiled Chincoteague Bay and Pocomoke River, along with our own education on environmental causes.31

Fehrer’s ability to educate the state and stand up for Maryland’s environment and its inhabitants did not go unrecognized. Fehrer received numerous awards including, the Chesapeake Bay Trust - Ellen Fraites Wagner Award in 2003, selection into the Worcester County Women's Hall of Fame and the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, where she is the first woman from Worcester County to be honored at the state level.32 Fehrer received recognition from the National Women's History Project for her role in the 2009 Women's History Month theme, "Women: Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet."33 She was also recognized for her leadership in preserving and protecting the environment at a reception at the former Silver Spring home of Rachel Carson, a Maryland environmental pioneer in the 1960s, hosted by the Maryland Women's Heritage Center, the Maryland State Department of Education and the Rachel Carson Council.34 She received certificates of appreciation from The Nature Conservancy; Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service; the Worcester County Commissioners and others.35 Ilia and her husband, Joe, received many joint awards as well. In 1987, they received the Feinstone Environmental Award at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and in 2002 they received the Golden Osprey Award from the Coastal Bays Program, which they founded.36 The Nature Conservancy named Ilia and Joe state heroes on the associations’ 50th anniversary.37 As a living memorial, the Assateague Coastal Trust hosts an annual Ilia Fehrer and Judy Johnson Memorial New Year's Day Beach Walk, a walk which Fehrer and Johnson did annually on New Year’s Day during their lives as environmental advocates.38

Fehrer died Tuesday, July 17, 2007, the at age of 80 from a long illness. Her husband of 56 years, Joe W. Fehrer Sr., died two years prior on Aug. 9, 2005.39, 40 But the environmental cause of the couple lives on through family and many environmental advocates in Maryland. Joe Fehrer, Jr., continues Ilia’s cause as Land Manager for Nassawango Creek Preserve.41 Just like his mother, Joe, Jr., now engages the community as a voice for environmental protection in the media through commentary and editorials.42 Her cause is also carried on through the voices of other environmental activists whose lives she touched and actions she inspired. Her bravery paved the way for others to stand up for the environment, as U.S. Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest described, "She has been an inspiration to many to follow her lead and stand up for conservation and preservation."43

Ilia Fehrer led a hesitant and skeptic community towards understanding and advocating for environmental protection through her persistent actions and informative methods. She understood what Maryland needed and was assertive enough to stand up for the environment in a time when environmental protection was unpopular throughout the country. She dedicated her life to this work and successfully saved thousands of Maryland acres and changed many minds throughout her life.
 
 

Endnotes:

1. Cara Dahl, “Area Conservation Community Loses A Legend.” The Dispatch, July 20, 2007. http://www.mdcoastdispatch.com/article.php?cid=18&id=963 Return to Text
2. “Ilia J. Fehrer.” Daily Times, July 22, 2007. Return to Text
3. “Fehrer, Ilia”. Social Security Death Index. http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi?lastname=Fehrer&firstname=Ilia&nt=exact Return to Text
4.“Ilia J. Fehrer.” Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. 12 March 2009. http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/fehrer.html Return to Text
5. “Ilia J. Fehrer.” Daily Times. Return to Text
6. Jenny Hopkinson, “Pioneering environmentalist honored.” Daily Times, March 22, 2009. Return to Text
7. “Fehrer.” Daily Times. Return to Text
8. Ibid. Return to Text
9. Ibid. Return to Text
10. Michael Conger, “How it Began: The Nature Conservancy’s Nassawango Creek Nature Preserve.” Nassawango Creek Preserve Stewardship Committee Newsletter, January 1999. Return to Text
11. Ibid. Return to Text
12. Ibid. Return to Text
13. "Fehrer.” Daily Times.Return to Text
14. Dahl, “Area Conservation Community Loses A Legend.” Return to text
15. “Fehrer.” Daily Times. Return to Text
16. Ibid. Return to Text
17. Hopkinson, “Pioneering environmentalist honored.” Return to Text
18. Ilia Fehrer, Dynamics of Maryland barrier islands; Fenwick (Ocean City) and Assateague (Annapolis, MD : League of Women Voters of Maryland, 1980). Return to Text
19. Ibid., 6. Return to Text
20. Ibid., 11. Return to Text
21. Ilia Fehrer, “Editorial--Vulnerable to hurricanes.” The Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1996. Return to Text
22. Ilia Fehrer, “Editorial-- Fragile coastal bays incubate life, but need greater protection.” The Baltimore Sun, March 13, 2001. Return to Text
23. Ilia Fehrer, “Editorial--Answering challenge of a warming planet; QUESTION OF THE MONTH.” The Baltimore Sun, June 26, 2004. Return to Text
24. Karl Blankenship, “Ellen Fraites Wagner Award given to Eastern Shore advocate.” Chesapeake Bay Journal, June 2002. Return to Text
25. Nancy Powell, “Environmentalist Fehrer honored locally, statewide. Worcester woman credited with improving quality of life in Maryland, Busick says.” Ocean City Today, March 20, 2009. Return to Text
26. Hopkinson, “Pioneering environmentalist honored.” Return to Text
27. "Ilia J. Fehrer.” Maryland Commission for Women. Return to Text
28. Dahl, “Area Conservation Community Loses A Legend.” Return to Text
29. Dave Wilson, “An Advocate - An Inspiration - A Friend.” Coastal Bay Program News, July 23, 2007. http://www.mdcoastalbays.org/newsarchive2.php?subaction=showfull&id=1185194371&archive=1212427432&start_from=&ucat=1&  Return to Text
30. “Ilia J. Fehrer.” Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. 12 March 2009. http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/fehrer.html Return to Text
31. Wilson, “An Advocate - An Inspiration - A Friend.” Return to Text
32. Ibid. Return to Text
33. Powell, “Environmentalist Fehrer honored locally, statewide.” Return to Text
34. Ibid. Return to Text
35. “Fehrer.” Daily Times.Return to Text
36. “Ilia J. Fehrer.” Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Return to Text
37. Dahl, “Area Conservation Community Loses A Legend.” Return to Text
38. “ASSATEAGUE ISLAND: Join in annual New Year's day walk.” Daily Times, December 15, 2008. Return to Text
39.Dahl, “Area Conservation Community Loses A Legend.” Return to Text
40. “Fehrer obituary.” Daily Times, August 14, 2005. Return to Text
41. “The Nature Conservancy Appoints New Land Manager for Nassawango Creek Preserve.” The Nature Conservatory. http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/maryland/press/press2538.html Return to Text
42. Joseph W. Fehrer, Jr., “Commissioners' actions create citizen concern.” Daily Times, June 4, 2009.  http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20090604/OPINION01/906040420/Commissioners++actions+create+citizen+concern Return to Text
43. Bill Kerbin, “Shore conservationist dies.” Daily Times, July 18, 2007. Return to Text
 
 
 

Biography written by 2009 summer intern Stephanie Berger.
 
 
 
 

Return to Ilia J. Fehrer's Introductory Page
 
 
 
 


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