Bay views: the good, the bad, the business

March 27, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The development interests were represented only in effigy when the environmental types gathered at the National Geographic Society in Washington the other day. There he was, a friendly looking guy in a tweed jacket and yellow hard hat, grasping in his left hand a long roll of paper. More big plans, no doubt.

He was smiling, but silent. And who could blame him?

Out in the Explorer's Hall Museum they were doing the press preview show for the opening of "Chesapeake Changes," a six-month exhibit about North America's largest estuary that opened yesterday at 17th and M streets N.W. in Washington. It's free of charge and it runs through Sept. 26.

Videos, maps, dioramas, even live fish and turtle displays illustrate the wildlife, the marshes, the seafood, the way of life that the bay has made possible for centuries. And the mess we've made of it in just a few negligent decades here in the late 20th century.

Joe Developer, a glossy life-size color photograph mounted on contour-cut plywood, stood close enough to hear the whole thing. You know he'd heard it all before.

There was Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the president and chairman of the National Geographic Society, telling the crowd of about 100 reporters, environmental officials and society staffers that he's traveled a lot, and the Chesapeake is unlike any body of water he's ever seen.

"It's what the environmental battle is all about," he said. "In a sense it's a microcosm of what's going on in this country. I'm real excited about it because I think we're making progress. It's not the bay it was when I was a kid, but it sure is better than it was 10 years ago."

This year, he said, the society is turning its venerable journalistic guns on an irreplaceable resource upon which all life on Earth depends: fresh water. The bay exhibit, staged in collaboration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is the opening shot, he said, with a television special and magazine articles to follow.

Then environmental writer Tom Horton stepped to the microphone. Big guy with an easy-going manner, just the sort Joe Developer would probably hate to confront at a public hearing on some new waterfront project.

Mr. Horton, a Sun columnist, talked about a fellow he knows on Smith Island who goes out and nets terrapins when he needs a little extra cash. Once he caught a big load to help pay his wife's medical bills.

"He used the bay as a kind of bank account," Mr. Horton said, using terms even a developer could understand. The bay, he said, is "a world-class resource that has suffered a world-class downturn."

Ann Powers, vice president and general counsel of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, added this: "I think we are beginning to realize it's a small world and that water connects us."

Joe Developer wouldn't say a word, of course, not until he's asked. He's part of the show, standing back in an alcove with life-size figures of Ms. Environmental Scientist, Mr. Waterman, Mr. Farmer and Young Girl, who has discovered the joys of the Chesapeake on fishing trips with her grandpa. Depending on which way you come in, Mr. Developer is either the first thing or the last thing you see.

If you see him at the end, it means you have already seen the big maps of the bay and learned that the land area that empties into it, the watershed, is immense, comprising 64,000 miles and parts of six states and the District of Columbia. You have learned that the activities of 15 million people in one way or another cause a ripple on the Chesapeake. You have seen the three-dimensional laser disc video "aquarium" and learned about horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, sea horses.

You also have heard folklorist Tom Wisner's video voice-over, in which he extols the fecund bay shallows where grasses and critters thrive in sunlight: "The edges, that's where the action is. It's what gives the bay its character."

Joe Developer has a different spiel, a speech written by the National Geographic staff to represent what the exhibit researcher called a "composite attitude." Touch him on the left breast pocket and he'll tell you his troubles:

"The environmentalists say build smaller houses closer together and back from the water. But most people still want big houses on the water. And I aim to please. Now don't get me wrong. I love the bay, but I have to make a living. I'm a businessman."

But before you get too smug about this pleasant-looking man with a ravenous appetite for natural resources, look into his pale blue eyes and see if you recognize him. Pogo had a phrase for it, way back when Earth Day was the rage: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

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