Focusing on bay's small ecosystems makes conservation more manageable

November 16, 2009|By David Berry

The question is often asked: "Can individuals and companies be counted on to voluntarily act in the best interest of our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, or do we need a stricter set of regulations that force certain behaviors?"

A recent incident brought home the argument for more government policies that encourage correct behavior. A man was climbing into the cockpit of a sailboat when he accidentally knocked a half-filled bottle of soda overboard. He made no move to retrieve the trash, and when I suggested that he might consider the possibility, his response was, "I don't know how to do that."

He more likely meant "I don't want to do that." I lay on the finger pier and fished out the bottle.

There are probably many people such as this gentleman who, no matter how draconian the punishment for doing so, will simply ignore their impact on our waters. But after my irritation had lessened, I realized his initial statement was an apt description for the confusion many people feel when faced with an environmental challenge such as, "Save the Chesapeake Bay."

There will always be people who simply don't care, but there are many who want to do the right thing. They may be simply overwhelmed by the task.

Journalist David Owen noted this effect in a Sept. 20 Washington Post article about his new book, "Green Metropolis." To research the book, he attended environmental conferences and found, "One side effect of attending such events is the feeling of despair that inevitably comes from hearing well-informed people speak about global environmental problems. The challenges are so great that knowledge, paradoxically, can be incapacitating; the more you learn, the harder you find it to believe that a non-catastrophic resolution is conceivable."

In other words, "I don't know how to do that." If a well-educated and knowledgeable person such as David Owen feels this way, how must the average citizen or corporation feel?

We tend to approach environmental issues very broadly and attempt to solve them on an impossible scale. It's little wonder that people throw their hands up in frustration and say, "I don't know how to save an entire estuary such as the Chesapeake Bay."

In his book, "The Future of the Wild," author Jonathan S. Adams develops the idea of scale for ecosystems and ecosystem management. He says, "An ecosystem can be any size, from a rotting log to a watershed to a continent. It's not the size as set out by some arbitrary political boundaries but what goes on in it."

Ecosystems, Mr. Adams states, provide a way of understanding how the pieces fit together and then using that as a basis for solving problems that arise. "Some problems may indeed cover vast areas, but others may be quite local. The ecosystem approach works on both instances," he says.

Mr. Adams points out that there are few ecosystems without humans as a key part. You can't ignore the people or assume that the solution is to make them disappear. But are rules the answer to getting them to behave in a way that benefits the ecosystem in which they live?

There will always be the need for rules and regulations that enforce the behavior of people who refuse to understand their negative impact on the environment. But over the long term, the answer lies in making people understand that they are not an island and that even the simplest task done locally can have a major impact on the health of the entire ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is an ecosystem, but there are perhaps thousands of smaller systems that make up the entire watershed. Looking at each small ecosystem as a whole and solving its problems brings the issues down to manageable size. A true environmental approach recognizes all the elements present in an ecosystem, people included.

The Chesapeake Bay ecosystem has 16 million people, each one an individual who can make a contribution to the ecosystems that surrounding them, if we educate them. Fishing your trash out of the bay is a manageable problem that anyone should figure out how to solve. But do people know the impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay that results from planting one native tree?

There need to be laws, but we cannot let well-meaning people and organizations continue with the attitude of "I don't know how to do that." No workable plan to save the bay can exist without taking that into account.

David Berry lives and writes from Havre de Grace, where he also teaches sailing. He is author of the books, "Maryland Skipjacks" and "Maryland's Lower Susquehanna River Valley; Where the River Meets the Bay." This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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