Flexing political muscle


Agenda: If the Chesapeake is to be restored, government must take the lead, prodded by a stronger community will and political pressure.

April 04, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

FEW WOULD argue with the notion that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a reason to feel optimistic about restoring the bay to health.

With 100,000 dues-paying members, annual revenues of $18 million to $20 million, nationally recognized education programs and science-based campaigns to cut pollution and restore habitat, what's to argue?

How about whether it's actually going to work?

So says Howard R. Ernst in Chesapeake Bay Blues -- Science, Politics and the Struggle to Save the Bay, due in bookstores next month.

Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, strikes clearly and concisely at the central question about the Chesapeake's future:

Why have two decades of government action, with wide public support, not done a better job of restoring the bay? Conditions aren't getting worse, but a return to the healthy oxygen levels and underwater grass habitats of 50 years ago remains a distant goal.

Ernst's analysis cites the Bay Foundation as just one example of a far broader failure of the political process to achieve real environmental results.

The bay won't be restored solely by education, moral suasion and voluntary action, Ernst says. Only government can undertake the major actions necessary for a cleanup.

But as a political force, the environmental movement is grossly and fundamentally outgunned by agricultural and corporate interests that would resist a more aggressive cleanup.

In 1998 in Maryland, Ernst documents political contributions from groups directly affected by environmental regulation at nearly $4 million.

In the same year, pro-environment organizations gave a total of $5,300.

In one recent election cycle, members of Frank Perdue's family, concerned about regulation of poultry manure, out-contributed all the environmental organizations in the bay watershed states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The imbalance is really worse than this, Ernst notes, because it's amplified by polluters' greater and more focused use of lobbyists.

Environmental groups, ironically, are handicapped by the broad nature of their goals, such as clean water. All benefit, whether they support such issues or not.

Contrast that to agribusiness or industry fighting a specific regulation or tax burden. Those with narrow interests tend to be most politically involved and effective.

Add to this our prevailing economic views, which do a poor job of valuing nature and a good job of figuring the costs of environmental protection.

Then there is what Ernst calls "divided government": towns, counties and states throughout the bay's six-state watershed, all competing for jobs and development.

Separately, each gets most of the benefits of such competition, such as increased revenues, while environmental costs such as water pollution are distributed throughout the bay region.

Finally, the Chesapeake restoration, begun in the early 1980s, has long since passed through the classic period of "alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm" that typifies many big environmental issues.

We're now in the "post-problem" stage, Ernst says, where public attention is in a sort of idle mode, with spasmodic recurrences of interest. The governmental policies that result from all of the above, he says, "tend to be reactionary, voluntary and generally insufficient to meet the considerable challenges."

We can do better by the bay, he says, and we should start by understanding why the current political system isn't working. Among the book's recommendations:

Environmental groups like the Bay Foundation must become more political to compete.

A "1 percent for the bay" campaign (1 percent of state budgets) would raise $400 million a year in new money from the three watershed states for restoration.

Environmental interests must stop shying away from legal action and not rely overmuch on voluntary techniques and partnerships.

Windows of opportunity for real progress do occur, such as the 1997 outbreak of toxic Pfiesteria that led to more control of manure pollution. But Ernst notes we've let other legitimate crises, such as the summertime decline of oxygen, become almost taken for granted.

The problems of divided government could be partly overcome by expanding watershed-wide institutions such as the Chesapeake Bay Commission, representing the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

A new generation of water-quality guidelines being developed by EPA has great potential, if it's coupled with better enforcement and monitoring.

I hope Chesapeake Bay Blues is widely read and debated, because business as usual -- even tweaked a bit -- isn't going to cut it for restoring the Chesapeake.

One passage, "The Bay's Greatest Danger," presages the kind of "progress" I can easily foresee -- because we're pretty much there now. Here's how Ernst pictures it:

"A steady flow of agreements, reports and voluntary programs ... funding for environmental programs incrementally increases ... the scientific community is kept active researching and monitoring ... countless opportunities for environmental groups and industry to participate in the ongoing public policy debate ... occasionally even hard-hitting regulatory actions make their way through ... the restoration effort is promoted as a model ... decades pass and the Bay's most basic environmental indicators suggest little if any sustained improvement."

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