Adding a Human Element to Conservation

PETER A. JAY

November 22, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Nassawadox, Va. -- Northampton County, down here at the very end of the Delmarva peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, is at once stupefyingly rich and almost unimaginably poor.

To the east, out beyond a broad and intimidating expanse of mud flats, marshes and shallow bays, lie the barrier islands. Northampton's are Hog, Cobb, Wreck, Ship Shoal and Smith. Other islands, closer to the mainland, stretch north to Maryland: Parramore, Cedar, Metomkin, Wallops, and of course Assateague. North of Assateague and the Ocean City inlet comes Ocean City itself, which is, in more ways than one, the end.

Once humanity had a better grip on the shifting sands of the Northampton County islands than it does today. There was a town, Broadwater, on Hog Island, a hotel on Cobb. But now they are uninhabited. By deed, they belong to The Nature Conservancy, and by right of occupancy to the shorebirds and the occasional hiker or fisherman enterprising enough to reach them.

Hog Island is about six miles long, and six miles from the mainland. Two visitors who walked it the other day, end to end and back again, saw no humans, no human footprints except their own and no boats in the rough November waters offshore. They did see deer, waterfowl by the thousands and a peregrine falcon perched on a pole.

There is no other place quite like this chain of islands left along the Atlantic coast, and the fact that they are legally protected from development has powerful implications for Northampton County and for Accomack, its slightly more affluent neighbor to the north.

Northampton's population is a little below 15,000. It is racially mixed, rural in outlook and occupation, economically depressed. third of the houses lack running water. Half its residents earn less than $10,000 a year; one-fourth earn less than $5,000. It's not unreasonable to suggest that the county could stand a little prosperity.

Traditionally, the conservation movement has been ambivalent about the needs of poor people in beautiful and fragile places. Jobs and development go hand in hand, and where they're present, population growth generally follows. Economic progress, it has seemed to conservationists, always carries the seeds of destruction.

This perception, accurate or not, underlies the constant tension between business and environmentalists, between those who want to build and those who want to preserve. It has made land conservation appear a preoccupation of rich people who've made their pile and who now want to lock in the status quo so no one else can do the same.

The Nature Conservancy, which has spent many millions of privately donated dollars to preserve the pristine Virginia barrier islands, for years saw its sole objective as being the purchase of land. So buy land it did, measuring its success in acres protected.

But that's beginning to change now. The Conservancy, like other organizations with similar concerns, is sensitive to the charge of elitism, and is beginning to see its mission in more complex terms. In Northampton County it's trying out some new techniques that consider the human element of major conservation ventures.

Here, the Conservancy is working with a local builder and the county government to provide new housing for low-income people. It's also looking at new ways to market local seafood and agricultural produce at a premium, taking advantage of the attention the vast preservation project has brought to the region.

This in turn means making sure that farmers and watermen can still earn a living here, that mainland villages such as Oyster and Quinby and Willis Wharf retain their character and don't turn into second-home communities or tourist traps. It's a tall order, and there's certainly the chance it may not work.

Few states have wrecked their seacoast as thoroughly as Maryland, but most are trying hard. One day the unspoiled nature of the Virginia barrier islands may draw people here by the thousands and cause the sort of land rush that has undone countless other seacoast areas. But maybe not, if the right steps are taken while there is still time.

"This community has an asset in its own authenticity," says John Hall, the Nature Conservancy's man in Northampton County. He believes that protection of that authenticity, and the economy that supports it, must become as integral a part of the Conservancy's mission as the stewardship of the sandy seaside lands it has already protected.

It's a big job, and ultimately as much Northampton County's task as it is the Conservancy's. There's a lot riding on the outcome, which could influence the way major conservation projects are managed for years to come.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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