The Virtue of Slow By Tom Horton

My bike has but one speed, unfashionable in a high-geared, tech-fueled world that now affords cyclists push-button shifting through a range of gears sufficient to conquer the Alps and pass Porsches.

Single-speeding is limiting — but also liberating. It makes you respect the lay of the land, seek the gentler slopes that meander alongside the hills, value the wooded corridors that block headwinds. Your pedaling becomes more efficient, your legs stronger. There is more to the joy of bicycling than more gears, more mileage, higher speeds.

The virtues of slow are especially relevant now to saving the Chesapeake Bay and the larger environment, as Congress debates major tax reforms based on a single, awful premise: We must grow the economy faster and bigger than ever.

“We face a crushing burden of debt which will take down our economy,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said. But his tax plan will add an acknowledged $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion to national indebtedness. It’s the only way “to get faster economic growth,” Ryan said. And “faster economic growth is necessary for us to get our debt under control.”

Never mind the circularity of that argument, or the fact that economists across the political spectrum think the level of growth Republicans are counting on is unachievable. The real dirty secret is that virtually no one on either side of the political aisle thinks that roaring faith-based growth would be undesirable; just unrealistic.

But environmentally, such growth would be disastrous, as will be Congress’s all-out, desperate attempts to achieve it if the tax package passes with its present, pedal-to-the-metal economic expansionism — think repeal of regulations, fast-tracking fossil fuel energy projects, suppressing troublesome climate science.

And what’s bad for the planet is bad for the Chesapeake, where a warming climate and sea level rise threaten wetlands, water quality and habitat. Plus, even under the best of circumstances we’re going to be hard-pressed to meet air and water quality goals by 2025.

And, environmental success is linked to economics as surely as my rear wheel is chained to my pedals.

The day may come when we achieve the inspiring vision articulated by green architect and designer William McDonough: “Imagine they announce a major new mall and your reaction is, ‘great’ that will mean cleaner air and water and more habitat for wildlife.”

In the meantime, despite progress in greening our economy, we still can’t grow without a negative impact on air and water, without depleting the habitats and natural resources we share with a shrinking array of other species, without adding to climate change.

And we scarcely even know how to hold a meaningful conversation about the broad implications of economic growth and environmental quality. Nor how to talk about the very real alternatives to high growth, and the benefits of steady-state economies that put no premium on growth at all.

An economy not devoted to growth is usually disparaged in grow-or-die terms, but it is more about quality over quantity. It emphasizes moderation of the rampant depletion of natural resources or filling the air and water with wastes like carbon dioxide. Education, innovation, community, time to ride a bicycle — all these can still grow. Population would not need to.

We need such conversations — not just because of growth’s environmental impacts — but because uncritically chasing after high growth as the path to greater national well-being is a dead-end strategy.

Consider the 4- to 6-percent annual economic growth projections spouted wishfully by supporters of current tax reforms — the way Congress pledges to atone for all the loss of revenue.

There were several decades where growth did come at least near the current, wild projections, writes economist Robert J. Gordon in his epic, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016; Princeton University Press).

But that ended by the 1970s, and was fueled by truly fundamental innovations, such as the automobile, the electrification of the United States and antibiotics, as well as the kind of world-shaking events we always capitalize: World War II and the New Deal that followed the Great Depression.

That period is not repeatable, Gordon and others argue, and the modest economic growth of recent decades bears him out. Productivity, or output per unit of labor and capital, is key to real growth, and it has been comparatively sluggish for decades.

But Congress persists in chasing high growth like an old dog that in puppyhood found something gloriously stinky to roll in, then revisits the spot daily with undiminished expectation.

An old dog may be indulged, but the crew in the U.S. Capitol would profoundly change our economy, environment be damned, addicted to growth that can’t happen.

Let them ride single-speeds.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, MD, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Op-Ed: The Dumbing Down of Smart Growth will Fail to Preserve MD Landscape by Tom Horton

If you’re not yet worried about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s abandonment of Smart Growth, you might want to read a new study on how Dumb Growth could cost Frederick County taxpayers some half a billion bucks.

First, a brief Smart Growth primer (which was once available on the Maryland Department of Planning’s website — until the website and department became a joke under Hogan): Smart Growth is the antithesis of sprawl, which is development outside areas planned and built for growth. Sprawl gobbles open space, increases air and water pollution, and costs more in new services than it ever offsets with taxes from new residents.

Sprawl, or Dumb Growth, can work politically, though, at least for a while. You just call it Economic Growth, or just Growth, which sounds fine to many people, especially bankers and developers and pavers and homebuilders — all of whom are good at electing candidates who’ll butter their bread.

That’s the way it worked in Frederick County for several years, until a more progressive slate of county officials took over in 2015 and began toting up the cost of “progress” under the former regime.

An August 2017 report done for Jan Gardner, the county executive, examined developments in the pipeline that will create 21,000 new housing units in the county, adding 50,000 new residents, 10,000 of them school age.

The fiscal bottom line: Taxpayers will fork out $340 million for roads and another $167 million for schools beyond anything that was planned or budgeted for, the county spokesman said.

A number of these developments also lock the county into agreements for up to 25 years, so that even if zoning gets stricter or developer fees are raised, the presently approved growth remains exempt.

The Frederick experience illustrates the perils of poorly planned residential growth, as well as the fallacy of believing it generates enough new revenue in property taxes to outweigh the demands it makes on government services.

This was one of the reasons that Maryland, under Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1990s, became a pioneer in pushing Smart Growth. Martin O’Malley, who preceded Hogan as governor, added teeth to Smart Growth in 2012 with a landmark law sharply limiting new development in areas that are predominantly farm and forest.
That law did not literally usurp traditional county power over land use; rather it dramatically curtailed, across rural landscapes, the use of septic tanks, on which sprawl development depends.

The law in recent years has begun to make a difference, and a major reason was the vigilance and “jawboning” of the Department of Planning, combined with the assistance it provided to counties in complying.

That threatens to unravel under Hogan, who announced in August to the Maryland Association of Counties that “Plan Maryland,” as O’Malley’s version of Smart Growth was called, “is off the books.” He was putting land use “back into the hands of local authorities,” Hogan said to applause.

The governor has also made it easier to develop using septic tanks again and given Cecil County a pass on complying with the 2012 anti-sprawl law.

He has not overtly tried to repeal the law itself, but in addition to Cecil, at least three more of Maryland’s 23 counties — Wicomico, Allegany and Queen Anne’s — have adopted plans or are pushing developments counter to the law.

But nothing is stopping any county whose citizens want to grow smartly. Charles County in Southern Maryland is a shining example after a six-year campaign to overturn a ruinous development plan.

As of 2016, Charles finalized a plan that stopped an estimated 339 major subdivisions on septic across 88,000 acres of open space. It also stopped about 123 new subdivisions in watersheds designated high water quality.

The new plan finally protects Mattawoman Creek, one of the Chesapeake’s best fish habitats; saves an estimated $2 billion on new roads; and cuts projected population growth in the next 30 years from 75,000 to 37,000.

Several Maryland counties have excellent compliance with the anti-sprawl law, while several others remain a mixed bag. For information on your county, contact 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide environmental land use group.

Rating Gov. Hogan environmentally is complicated by the reality that he is a tree hugger compared with national Republicans and the Trump administration, which set the lowest of bars.

He’s been good by any measure in important areas like Program Open Space, the state’s premier land preservation effort, and in aspects of air quality, such as greenhouse gas reductions. His transportation programs, though, remain far too road-improvement oriented, as opposed to pushing mass transit and mobility.

His environmental secretary, Ben Grumbles, gets high marks from environmentalists. His natural resources secretary, Mark Belton, might be good if nastier Hogan appointees would butt out of managing Bay fisheries.

The governor got a “needs improvement” grade on his 2017 report card from the Maryland League of Conservation voters; that’s the next to lowest of five ratings the group gives.

Hogan remains popular and has a good shot at re-election in 2018. But if the housing economy picks up, I fear a return to major sprawl development. In his re-election bid, the governor will face tougher questions about Smart Growth than he’s gotten so far.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Bay Ecosystem: Tangier Teen Ponders, Documents his Vanishing Island Home

Like most high school seniors, Cameron Evans is at the edge of change. He’s anxious about whether to major in photography or politics, annoyed about having to go to the dentist, animated when talking about the Yankees, his favorite team.
But most seniors don’t worry if they’ll be able to go home after leaving for college; or if they’ll have a home at all after the next hurricane. Evans does; he lives on Tangier Island, or what’s left of it, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

Cameron Evans enjoying his pastime — exploring Tangier in his skiff and taking pictures. (Dave Harp)

With no organized after-school sports to play at the Virginia island’s small combined school, and no girls to date because he’s known them all since kindergarten, Evans heads out most afternoons in a small skiff toward what remains of the Uppards, part of the Tangier settlement that was abandoned in the 1920s.

He has to stride carefully, over broken glass and severed tree limbs, pieces of hunting trailers and mud-crusted oysters. He uses his camera, a 16th birthday present, to document what has been lost.
On a recent visit, he found a headstone in the encroaching water: “Polly Parks, “Born 1876, died 1913.” He wiped the mud off Parks’ marker, as he has done before, and again placed it on higher ground, at least higher for now.
“If we don’t get help, this is what is going to happen to us. Our houses could wash away. Our graves could wash away,” Evans said as he laid the headstone in marsh grass. “And then there will be nothing to remember us by.”
Tangier and its surrounding archipelago of islands are washing away at a rate of 15 feet a year. In what Evans calls his “small lifetime,” he has seen more than 40 feet of high ground wash away on the Uppards alone. Along with that, the islanders have lost hunting trailers, possessions and even the buried skulls and bones of those who once made their home here.
Politician after politician has promised to help build a seawall on the east side of the island to protect its business district and harbor, where island men set out to work the water and their wives help tend the crab shedding tanks. And yet, there is no wall, no protection. Every storm takes more. Soon, there won’t be more to give.
The threat to Tangier’s future has been well-documented in recent years, as scientists and journalists declared the 400 islanders “climate refugees.” Reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others project their remaining time in years, not decades.

Exploring the Uppards, Cameron Evans finds a gravestone that has broken in half. He moves it to higher ground and tries to put it back together. (Dave Harp)

But it made national news again last spring, when President Donald Trump called the island town’s mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, after he appeared on CNN and declared he loved Trump like a brother and said the island could use a strong leader to build the wall. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and whose administration is rolling back federal policies aimed at mitigating it, told Eskridge he needn’t worry about rising sea level. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years,” Trump said on the phone, according to Eskridge, “and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.”
The Trump phone call focused national attention on the island’s predicament — Eskridge later debated former Vice President Al Gore on CNN. But what it hasn’t brought is a wall, much to the frustration of old-timers as well as students like Evans, who ponder their futures.
Eskridge said that, for the sake of future generations, he tries to remain optimistic. “Don’t lose hope,” he tells the youth. But it’s difficult, especially when Smith Island, just to the north in Maryland, has received more than $20 million in funding to shield it from erosion and rising waters — including $11 million to rebuild a marshy wildlife refuge.
Tangier’s seawall was once budgeted at $4 million; now, though, the Corps is talking about a more expensive project, likely $50 million, to armor the entire island. Eskridge doesn’t object to that. He just doubts there’s time, given the speed at which the Corps moves. The agency must wait for Congress to authorize the project and then appropriate the money to carry it out. The state committed $1.2 million for the $4.2 million wall in 2012, but the federal match never materialized. Despite lobbying from Virginia officials of both parties, Congress has never funded the project.
“We have families here. This is a thriving community,” Eskridge said. “They spend all this money to protect habitat for birds on Smith . . . and all the while, we’ve been trying to get this piece of seawall. If you’re going to do it, do it. But if not, stop talking about it.”
Tangier Island was home to American Indians long before the English explorer John Smith “discovered” the cluster of islands. In the early 1700s, three families from Cornwall settled there — Crockett, Pruitt and Parks. Their descendants remain, as does the accent, a mix of Cornwall and a Virginia twang.
Once, the island had more than 1,000 people in eight towns, with livestock and even an opera house. Today, three towns remain, clustered on one fishhook-shaped strip of land one mile wide and three miles long. Marshland hems in the island roads that connect the villages; the asphalt is barely wide enough for vehicles. Residents favor scooters, golf carts and bikes.
The island had a major moment in the War of 1812. The British had a large base there with a camp for 12,000 troops. Tangierman Joshua Thomas, an itinerant Methodist minister known as the “parson of the islands,” took them to task right after they burned Washington, DC, and were headed for Baltimore. He told the British they would lose. Thomas’s prophecy came true, and the surviving British troops passed back through Tangier in defeat to tell him so.
In 1821, a hurricane destroyed the British fort. Subsequent storms, including Isabel in 2003, have left their mark; even a high tide can bring flooding to yards and roads.
For the island’s high school seniors, the seawall is a concern that intrudes on their more typical teen cares about who’s taking whom to prom or what they’ll do after graduation. Taylor Pruitt, a friend of Cameron Evans, said she sometimes discusses the topic with her father, a longtime waterman, but her mother always changes the subject. For another friend, Isiah Creedy, the topic isn’t taboo, but the answer is the always the same: God has a plan. Pruitt plans to leave the island and study forensic science; she will move to a big city, she said, “somewhere where everybody doesn’t know everything about you.” Creedy plans to stay, taking a job working on the water in some capacity.
Evans is in between, sure to leave for college in the Virginia Beach area — he’s choosing between two — but figuring he’ll come back.

A view of Tangier from the air shows how fragile the island is, and how exposed it remains during storms. (Dave Harp)

That doesn’t surprise his mother, Hope, a Tangier native who went away to college in Delaware. She returned to marry her high school sweetheart, Norwood, who grew up on neighboring Smith Island. In addition to Cameron, they have a seven-yeaer-old daughter, Lacee. For years, Norwood crabbed and Hope tended to his shedding shanty, where they supervised crabs about to shed their shells to become soft crabs, an expensive delicacy regionally. Now, Norwood is a lineman with the electric utility.

“I couldn’t wait to leave, but I went away to school and found it wasn’t for me,” she said. “I just wanted to be on the island. . . . Cameron doesn’t want to go too far from home. He loves Tangier. He wants to come back as much as he can.”
The seawall comes up in class at the island’s combined K–12 school. Principal Nina Pruitt said that she and the teachers are truthful with their 60 students about all sides of the conversation on climate change. Duane Crockett, who teaches civics and government, said that in exploring with his students what governments do for local communities, he has to add a rueful note to the textbook: The government hasn’t helped Tangier.
“We have wasted so much time discussing the causes that we are ignoring the effects,” said Crockett, who has his eighth graders write letters to all of their state and federal representatives asking for a wall.
Many respond, including Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican whose district includes Tangier, who said he was doing all he could. “I save them all,” Crockett said of the letters. Pointing to the back of his small classroom, he said, “I have a lot of promises in that cabinet.”
Cameron Evans, with his sandy-brown hair and bright blue eyes, is an “old soul,” his principal said, tied in with Tangier’s natural rhythms in a way she has seen rarely in her more than 30 years with the school.
Evans is an avid waterfowl hunter; there are 22 different species on the island. He’s also been selling some of his wildlife photos to tourists. The teen knows he has had a childhood like few others. And not just because he knows everyone on the island of 400 — their pets, vehicles, habits, boat names and family history.
“There are not many places like this that have a natural disaster occurring every day,” he said. “All that land is just gone, and it could have been avoided.”
On his way from the Uppards back to Tangier, he steered his skiff away from a Corps barge dredging the channel to keep it navigable. He cut the motor and drifted through open water, 40 or 50 feet across. Five years ago, he said, a storm broke through and created this channel. A seawall, he said, would have prevented it. And, it could prevent more loss.
Asked about climate change and sea level rise, he initially responds the way many skeptics do, saying, “I’m not a scientist.” But like Eskridge, he doesn’t dismiss the idea entirely; he just thinks erosion is the bigger problem.
In a way, Evans and Eskridge are not wrong. The erosion is noticeable, while the sea level rise is almost imperceptible. In the Bay, it will add 2 feet or more to everyday tides by around 2050. But erosion changes Tangier daily.
Evans talks about the melting glaciers near the poles, which scientists say are making the seas expand and rise. It makes sense, climate change, the senior mused recently. But the actions the world needs to take to reduce global warming are slow in coming, if at all, and will be too late to help Tangier, he reasoned. If every house put in solar panels, the island would still need a wall.
The teen is on a first-name basis with his congressman, and he’s shown his photos to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine during the Democrat’s visit earlier this summer. He tells them all the same thing: He doesn’t want his future to be a guessing game. He wants more years, hundreds of them, for the island. He hasn’t given up hope.
“I’ll never leave this place,” he said of Tangier, “and I hope this place will never leave me.”
By Rona Kobell
Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

Bay’s Oyster Aquaculture Harvest Closing in on Wild Fishery

More than a century after the first oysters were planted on a Virginia bar, aquaculture has firmly taken hold in the Chesapeake Bay. The value of Virginia’s oyster farms production has eclipsed the public fishery, and many oyster experts believe Maryland is heading in the same direction.

As of last year, 173 Maryland oyster farmers have leased more than 6,000 acres of the Bay and its tributaries, all of which are actively producing oysters. Harvest from those leases yielded almost 65,000 bushels in 2016 — an increase of 1,000 percent since 2012. In the meantime, Maryland’s public oyster harvest, suffering from mediocre to poor reproduction since 2010, saw its harvest drop 42 percent in 2016 to about 224,000 bushels.

“Each year for the past five, lease numbers and acreage have risen along with aquaculture harvest, while public harvest numbers declined,” said Donald Webster, a University of Maryland aquaculture specialist. “This year and next will be very difficult for the public fishery and, frankly, I doubt it will ever recover to amount to anything again.”

Oyster aquaculture in Maryland wasn’t always destined for success. Jon Farrington has been growing oysters in Southern Maryland for about 10 years and has experienced changes in the state’s permitting process, as well as methods for oyster production, that have moved the state’s aquaculture industry past its rocky start.

Farrington left his aerospace engineering job in 2006 to try growing oysters in a Calvert County cove. One of only six oyster farmers in the state at that time, Farrington was battle-tested with the various bureaucracies that needed to sign off on permits to grow shellfish. When the state changed its laws in 2009 to allow oyster farming in every county, Farrington was first in line to apply for his second lease. He was hoping the new law would mean quicker approvals, more encouragement for watermen to enter the field and less resistance from shoreline property owners who don’t want cages and floats disrupting their view.

The law helped, and so have changes in the oyster farming process. But those changes took years. Now, nearly a decade later, Maryland has a $5 million aquaculture industry that has created close to 500 jobs in coastal areas, according to state figures, and shows little signs of slowing down.

Oyster aquaculture in Virginia is still far ahead, with $18.5 million in oyster sales in 2016. But Maryland aquaculture has definitely gotten its sea legs.

“I kind of thought maybe it would happen a little bit faster than it has,” said Farrington, who sells his oysters directly to restaurants. He also has a hatchery operation, selling “seed” oysters to fellow farmers. “On the other hand, the market has developed a lot more strongly than I had probably expected back then. All in all, I’d say, Maryland’s done a pretty good job.”

Several factors propelled aquaculture forward in Maryland after more than a century of resistance to the idea. First, more oyster farmers are raising “triploids,” sterile oysters bred from the Bay’s native species, Crassostrea virginica. Because they don’t expend energy on reproduction, triploids can grow to market size twice as fast as wild oysters — 18 months in Maryland waters, as opposed to three years for traditional oysters. In Virginia’s saltier water, they grow even faster.

Also, new techniques and equipment have made it more efficient: floating up-weller systems, which help seed oysters feed on plankton and grow more quickly, and a pulley system from Australia that rotates cages to reduce fouling and labor.

Many oyster farmers also find themselves in the equipment business; they can’t locate a cage or float that works in their location, so they make their own, and then other farmers want it. For years, Farrington sold a device called the Revelation that rotated oysters. Another oyster farmer, Johnny Shockley in Dorchester County, sells systems for cleaning and shaping oysters.

The state tackled bureaucratic hurdles for lease applicants. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources now coordinates the review process, sparing applicants the complexities of what used to be a multi-agency gamut.

At the federal level, oyster farmers complained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which required a separate permit, put them through duplicative reviews, so there too the processed was streamlined. Leases generally take six months to be issued now, instead of a year or more, said Karl Roscher, the DNR’s aquaculture manager.

Roscher’s office has added staff to speed application processing, which is helpful, as his office has received more than 50 new applications in recent months. Also crucial, according to fisheries director David Blazer, is an online mapping tool that allows an oyster farmer to see if there are potential obstacles to getting a lease in a particular location. For example, if the proposed lease is on top of a public oyster bar or a well-worked clamming area, the state won’t approve it.

Money and training have helped, too. About 80 percent of the leases are worked by a spat-on-shell method, where watermen let larvae set on natural oyster shell and reach a certain size before moving them to bags or containers on the bottom. Webster, with help from University of Maryland Sea Grant, has been training watermen how to set oysters. The number of prospective oyster farmers seeking training has grown from six in 2011 to 45 last year.

Since 2011, the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp. has approved $3 million in shellfish aquaculture loans to help growers acquire the needed equipment. The fund, known as MARBIDCO, originally prioritized loans to traditional watermen who were new to aquaculture. But MARBIDCO has since helped plenty of non-watermen, like Farrington and fellow Southern Maryland oyster farmer Patrick Hudson. The loans are low-interest and, if the borrower makes all of the payments, MARBIDCO forgives 25 percent of the principal.

Hudson, who was on his way to law school when he made a U-turn into the oyster business, said the MARBIDCO loan was critical. Banks, he said, aren’t inclined to lend tens of thousands of dollars for a start-up oyster enterprise.

“You have to buy cages and oysters before you sell anything. You need at least a million seed. And then you sit on it for a year and a half,” Hudson said. “Being able to pay just a couple hundred dollars a month was critical. Otherwise, you’re just leaving oyster aquaculture to the really rich people.”

For decades, that’s what watermen feared: that large seafood companies would gobble the leases, while the workers struggled. That has not come to pass. In several cases, watermen have become equity partners in oyster farms. Eric Wisner, a waterman, has about 500 acres under lease in the Nanticoke River. Ted Cooney, who owns Madhouse Oysters on Hoopers Island, has two watermen partners.

Cooney, who came to oyster farming after a career in healthcare financial services, said he’s pleased that the state is encouraging aquaculture. But the process still has problems. Almost three years ago, he applied for two leases in the Honga River; the state recently told him he couldn’t have one because it’s too close to a hunting blind.

“I was out of the swing of the gun, as far as I could tell, [but] two and a half years later, they tell me no. They should have told me 60 days after I applied,” he said. “In that time, I could have applied and already gotten another lease.”

Roscher said the goose blind didn’t show up on the state’s siting tool, so staff had to take measurements in the field.

Tension still occurs between user groups. While public oyster areas are generally established, clam beds and pound net locations are more intermittent. A few years ago, an Eastern Shore delegate introduced a bill in the legislature that would have made farming in clamming areas more difficult; the bill didn’t pass, so clammers and oyster farmers compromised, and the state promised to delineate clamming areas so farmers could avoid them.

Some influential property owners are still flexing their muscles, but Roscher noted that many of those efforts fail. Dialogue, he said, is far preferable to long lawsuits or boutique legislation. Last year, influential property owners in St. Mary’s County persuaded a state delegate to introduce a bill restricting oyster farms at historic sites; that bill, which was specific to the viewshed at Sotterley Plantation and Historic St. Mary’s City, died.

Roscher said that the public relations and bureaucratic problems are surmountable. What worries him is a shell shortage. The state and University of Maryland have grown oysters on alternative substrates built from granite and concrete, but they’re much harder to harvest from.

“There are a lot of different ways to grow an oyster,” Farrington said. “People are still trying to figure out what works best for their application, but as they do, we’re really going to see some production grow in the next couple of years. It’s still a relatively young industry, and people are really dialed in.”

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

Opinion: Tangier Island needs Help no Matter how you Define its Woes by Tom Horton

When I began a documentary film this year about climate change and the Chesapeake, I knew that even though local residents were affected by it, I’d never be able to record most of them talking about sea level rise.

They know what they see. And around Dorchester — Maryland’s lowest-lying county and the focus of our film — residents see erosion of the shoreline, high tides that seem to come more often and forests dying along the marsh edges.

It’s easy to talk past one another, we who are comfortable with the lingo and concepts of climate science, and those who are not — even while all talking about the same thing.

This was on my mind recently when my friend, James “Ooker” Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier Island, VA, appeared on a CNN Town Hall with former Vice President Al Gore, one of the world’s foremost proponents of how humans are warming the planet.

Eskridge, who’s not convinced that this is really happening, was invited on the cable TV show because of a phone call he got earlier this summer that brought him in early from fishing his crab pots.

The caller was President Donald Trump. He’d heard about Tangier’s plight: battered by erosion that will soon spell its demise if it can’t find an estimated $25 million to $30 million to bulwark its Bay shore with rock. He’d also heard that the island of some 400 residents, with a culture harking back to 17th century England, had voted nearly 90 percent for him last November.

Ooker heard Gore out, but maintained: “I’ve lived there 65 years and I just don’t see it (sea level rise).”

I talked about the disjunct between the two men with Michael Scott, a colleague at Salisbury University and a professor of geography whose specialty is environmental hazards.

He and I are both in Gore’s camp on climate; but Scott has as good a feel as any scientist I know for explaining the nuances and complexities of such global, long-term phenomena at the level of the average citizen.

“I was upset that CNN portrayed (Eskridge) as this sort of pro-Trump nut job,” Scott said. Eskridge is not wrong at all when he says Tangier’s problem is erosion, the professor said, adding that it’s happening very quickly and is very noticeable.

“But there are really two processes going on and they are not separate,” Scott added.

The second process he refers to is sea level rise, propelled by a warmer climate that is melting glaciers. That’s exacerbated by land around the Bay sinking back to its original contours after being pushed upward by the glaciers that extended into Pennsylvania during the last Ice Age.

Add to that the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm and the potential slowing of the Gulf Stream that could back up more seawater in the Chesapeake.

Rising sea levels make erosion worse. But Scott’s not at all surprised that Tangier’s mayor said that he “didn’t see it (sea level rise).”

Sea level rise at this point, unlike erosion, “is happening very slowly,” coming up mere inches throughout Eskridge’s lifetime on the Chesapeake.

“It’s been slight enough up to now that it’s actually very difficult to measure unless you’re taking very precise scientific measurements,” Scott said.

But the overwhelming scientific consensus, he continued, is that the Earth’s temperatures have reached the point where a measurable acceleration in sea level is under way. In the Bay, it will add 2 feet or more to everyday tides by around 2050.

The forecasts for 2100 are less certain because we can’t tell how fast the massive ice sheets of Antarctica will melt. But estimates foresee everyday tides 5.5 feet above present levels, “and that’s probably on the low end . . . every time we look at it, it seems our estimates are too low,” Scott said.

A couple wrinkles disguise the coming impact further, he said.

First, it is quite possible for waters locally to shallow up as seas rise. In our filming, we’ve found examples of this in Dorchester County. The sediment eroding from shorelines and disintegrating marshes has to go somewhere, and it may fill in channels and other places where currents carry it.

The larger complication, Scott said, “is that sea level rise is not linear.” In other words, it isn’t going to happen steadily, inch by inch, over the years. That would be relatively easy to predict and respond to.

Unfortunately, the path to 2, 3, 5 or more feet of daily tide around the Bay is going to resemble a curve that steepens as average high tide levels rise.

“The trouble with an increasing curve is that for a while, things will seem as if they’re OK, but then the rate’s going to really increase and you’re going to lose the ability to adjust to it,” Scott said.

Helping localities around the Chesapeake adjust is where Scott’s passion lies; and he said we’re still at a point on the curve where we can act reasonably and cost-effectively.

“This (Delmarva) Peninsula is very precious to me and to my family . . . we want to preserve it for our children and we can do that if we are honest with what’s happening and with how we can try to respond,” he said.

He finds most people don’t care too much about why the tides and the erosion are getting worse, or about the politics of climate change.

“They want to know what is going to happen to them and what they can do about it,” Scott said. For many, the real threat won’t come in their lifetimes, and they aren’t likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars to jack up their houses.

The key he said, is to honestly acknowledge the threat and install public policies that over time guide “the way that development takes place, rearrange the way people build their homes, the way roads are maintained.

“And as we lose marshes we are going to need spaces on the landward edge for them to move into. . . . We’re going to need to buy the development rights to such places from the people who own them now . . . a very appropriate response.”

In low-lying places like Dorchester County, he said he thinks that “if we can get a hold of this in the next five to seven years, we have time to fix it that way. If we wait, then we will be in crisis mode, and things are going to happen in a very shocking and upsetting way.”

As for Tangier Island, it won’t make much difference now whether Mayor Eskridge and his townspeople vote yea or nay on closing coal-fired plants to reduce the long-term buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tangier needs rock, pretty soon, and no change in energy policies is going to change that.

Even the best seawall at Tangier is not the same as a dike, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and realistically isn’t going to happen. Even less likely are Trump’s assurances to Eskridge that his island would persist for “hundreds more years.”

But a seawall would buy time for another generation or two of Tangier residents to continue the island’s unique culture and heritage, time enough for hundreds of thousands of us to visit and enjoy that — a reasonable investment in my opinion.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Maryland Oyster Season Opens with Bad News – Harvest Last Season down 42 Percent

The public oyster harvest season began Monday, with Chesapeake Bay watermen no doubt hoping for a better haul this fall and winter than last. For Maryland watermen, though, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism.

Despite mild weather last winter, Maryland’s 2016-2017 harvest from public oyster bars was off nearly 42 percent from the year before, a steep drop from the modest decline seen the previous two years. Last season, 1,086 licensed watermen harvested 224,609 bushels of bivalves, down from a 384,000-bushel catch in 2015-2016, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Chris Judy, DNR’s shellfish division manager, attributed the harvest decline last season to lower “spat sets” of juvenile oysters since 2012, the last year in which there was good recruitment or reproduction. Spat sets since then have been poor to middling.

Disease made a dent as well last season, at least in some areas. Intensity of Dermo, one of two parasitic diseases afflicting oysters, rose last year above the long-term average for the first time in 9 years and was the highest since the last major outbreak during a drought in 2002. The survey found elevated intensities from Pocomoke Sound north to the Wye and Miles rivers. Dermo-related mortalities also increased in some areas.

MSX, the other parasitic oyster disease, increased in prevalence on bars where it had been found previously, reaching a level 20-fold higher than what it was three years ago.

The DNR team that conducts annual surveys thought that the state’s oyster population last year had reached a crossroads, either pausing briefly before continuing to recover or on the cusp of another major decline. “Only time — and weather — will determine which direction Maryland’s oyster population will take,” the 2016 fall oyster survey concluded.

In Virginia, by comparison, harvest from public bars slipped 5 percent last season over the previous season’s take. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission tallied the harvest from public oyster bars at 246,000 bushels in 2016-2017, down from 259,000 bushels in 2015-16, according to Laurie Naismith, spokeswoman for the commission. The higher salinity of Bay water in Virginia tends to yield better oyster reproduction.

Maryland’s public oyster harvest season runs through March 31, 2018, while Virginia’s extends into April. The busiest portion of the oyster season will kick off Nov. 1, when harvest methods in Maryland expand from hand and patent tonging and diving to include power and sail dredging in designated areas of Calvert, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary’s, Talbot and Wicomico counties. Virginia’s public harvest is limited in early fall to the use of hand tongs and “hand scrapes,” a rake-like device; the fishery expands in November to include patent tonging and in December to power dredging.

Of course, for many consumers, the concept of an oyster “season” has blurred, if not faded altogether, as aquaculture has gained strength in the Bay. The output of Virginia’s private oyster farmers, who harvest bivalves year-round, has matched or exceeded the public oyster harvest most years. In Maryland, the growing but still fledgling industry produced 64,609 bushels last year, up from around 50,000 bushels in 2015.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

PA legislator’s bill to privatize cleanup gets mixed review

A Pennsylvania lawmaker wants Keystone state municipalities struggling with Chesapeake Bay mandates to let private industry take care of it. He says for-profit companies can get the job done better and more cheaply than government can. Others, though, are not so sure.

State Sen. Richard Alloway II, a member of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, introduced the Clean Water Procurement Program bill in June. It would require 850 municipalities under orders to reduce their stormwater pollution to pay $500 million over 10 years into a state-managed fund.
That fund would be used to pay private entities for making nutrient reductions to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with the federal “pollution diet” for the estuary.

“I have a fundamental feeling that government shouldn’t be shelling out money or doing the work,” said Alloway, a Republican who represents several south-central counties. “Government has been doing that for years, and we’re still behind. The private sector is going to provide the solution with technology.”

Alloway’s bill is one of several introduced in Harrisburg this legislative session that seek new strategies for financing water-quality improvements in cash-strapped Pennsylvania, which has cut environmental programs even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly warned the state that it was missing pollution reduction milestones.

Bills similar to Alloway’s have been introduced without success at least three times since 2013, all at the behest of Bion Environmental Technologies. It’s one of two companies that have built state-financed pilot projects in Pennsylvania intended to reduce farm runoff. Alloway acknowledged that the bill he introduced this year was drafted by Bion, though he bridled at critics’ suggestions that it’s a bailout for the company.

Bion and another company, EnergyWorks, underwritten in part by state loans, installed systems on two large farms a decade ago to demonstrate technologies that can convert nutrients in animal manure into marketable byproducts. The projects were touted at the time as a way to keep animal waste from fouling streams and the Bay, while also generating economic benefit. And the nutrient reductions themselves were to be salable to others required to reduce their pollution.

At the time, Pennsylvania was also developing its first nutrient trading program, initially intended to help municipalities save money on costly upgrades to wastewater treatment plants by paying farmers to curb their runoff. Advocates of the projects said the state loans they got would be repaid with income from nutrient “credit” sales.

Equipment in the floor of Kreider Farms’ dairy barn collects manure. Unable to generate sufficient revenue, the project to convert cattle waste into energy and other byproducts has shut down. (Bion Environmental Technologies)

Bion, though, is in default on the $7.8 million state loan it received to build a manure treatment system on Kreider Farms, a large dairy operation in Lancaster County. The facility has been shuttered for three years, a move Bion CEO Dominic Bassani said was needed to stop losing $25,000 a month in operating costs.

EnergyWorks also fell behind on repaying at least $11 million in state financing to build its $40 million system at an egg-laying facility near Gettysburg. EnergyWorks has renegotiated the terms of its loan and continues to make partial payments.

The two large pilot projects were betting on selling nutrient credits for $8 to $10 per pound to pay back their state-funded loans — but nutrient credits have traded at a fraction of that for the last seven years. Wastewater treatment plants were expected to buy most of the credits, but many chose to upgrade their plants instead.

“Our facility was created as a nutrient credit generator; it was not an afterthought or part of the process,” said Patrick Thompson, president and chief executive officer of EnergyWorks Group, who supports Alloway’s bill. “This is an implicit public-private partnership. We went into this [believing] that we would create a public good. And it was up to the state to create a market for this public good.”

Bion CEO Bassani said he doesn’t see Alloway’s bill as a municipality-funded bailout. Rather, he said it gives cities and towns an affordable alternative to costly projects aimed at reducing stormwater pollution. “We’re offering nutrient reductions for less,” he said. “You’re reducing such a small amount and spending a fortune. Until you can figure out how you’re going to solve this problem, stop the spending. This is taxpayer money.”

As written, Senate Bill 799 would tweak the Pennsylvania nutrient trading program with an influx of new buying power — $50 million a year — garnered from communities required to reduce polluted runoff from their streets and parking lots. Stormwater pollution is the only source of the Bay’s nutrient problems that continues to grow.

Alloway and Bassani argue that instead of investing in costly infrastructure projects, municipalities can meet their nutrient-reduction obligation by paying to have farms deal with their animal manure. By “buying” nutrient credits for practices on farms, the municipalities would be absolved. Companies like Bion and EnergyWorks would bid to get 10-year nutrient-removal contracts.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors opposes the bill, accoreding Elam M. Herr, the group’s assistant executive director. “As written, there are too many unknowns,” Herr said. Many municipalities have invested heavily in meeting their state and federally imposed stormwater control requirements. They’re also mandated to reduce sediment as well as nutrients, he said, which is not a pollutant currently covered by the state’s trading system.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation blasted a similar bill two years ago, saying it “threatens to derail current clean water restoration efforts and divert critical funding from proven science-based practices, while favoring proprietary, corporate-backed and costly manure technologies.” But B. J. Small, spokesman for the foundation’s Pennsylvania office, declined to comment on the current bill.

PennAg Industries Association, an agricultural trade group, recently wrote a letter to Alloway supporting the bill — but with a long list of questions and clarifications needed for full support. “PennAg supports the use of technologies as one of the approaches for the Commonwealth to utilize. However, there is not one standalone solution which will generate all the necessary results for Pennsylvania to meet the Bay obligations,” wrote Christian R. Herr, the group’s executive vice president.

One of the bill’s most vocal critics is David Hess, former Department of Environmental Protection secretary, who now represents the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. He contends that Alloway’s bill is too narrowly drafted, and that it would funnel more taxpayer money into specific high-tech agricultural projects. He said that he, and his clients, have problems with that.

“We need to work with Senator Alloway and others to bring more private capital to family farms to make up for the deficit in state funding,” he said, “ “but instead of bringing in a system that would benefit one technology and one solution, we encouraged him to look at these other alternatives instead of high-cost high technology.”

Alloway’s bill, which has just four co-sponsors, is pending in the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, where it’s expected to get a hearing in the next few months.

He said the bill is just a starting point, and he has invited environmentalists, farm interests and municipalities to help revise it. But he insists that private enterprise be involved, and that it have a dependable source of revenue.

“You’re never going to meet your goals by appealing to businesses to do things for the good of the environment,” he said. “When businesses do something, they do it for the good of the bottom line.”

By Donna Morelli, Bay Journal News Service

US House Moves to Keep EPA from Enforcing Bay Pollution Diet

In a move that environmentalists charged would undermine the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this month to bar the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from taking action against any state in the Bay watershed that fails to meet pollution reduction goals set by the EPA six years ago.

The measure, an amendment to an EPA and Interior Department spending bill put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, passed Sept. 7 by a largely party line vote of 214 to 197. On Sept. 14 the House passed the omnibus spending bill by a similar margin.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–VA)

Three GOP House members from Pennsylvania — G.T. Thompson, Bill Shuster and Scott Perry — joined Goodlatte in introducing the amendments. Goodlatte, whose district includes most of the Shenandoah Valley, has pushed unsuccessfully before to block the EPA from enforcing its Bay “pollution diet.”

The 40 House members whose districts include a portion of the Bay watershed split nearly evenly on the controversial issue – 19 voted for it, 18 against, the latter including six Republicans. The Bay watershed delegations in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia overwhelmingly supported curbing the EPA’s authority, while those from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware did not. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, who would have opposed the amendment, was on medical leave and missed the vote. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-VA, also missed the vote. And Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District, does not have a vote.

In a statement issued after the House vote, Goodlatte said his amendment was needed to prevent a “federal power grab” over the Bay cleanup effort. “My amendment stops the EPA from hijacking states’ water quality strategies,” he said. “It removes the ability of the EPA to take retaliatory or ‘backstop’ actions against the six states . . . if they do not meet EPA-mandated goals.”

Goodlatte said that Congress had intended for states and the EPA to work collaboratively to carry out the federal Clean Water Act. But in the Obama administration, he added, “every state in the watershed has basically been given an ultimatum — either the state does exactly what the EPA says, or it faces the threat of an EPA takeover of its water quality programs.”

But Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Goodlatte’s amendment would strip the federal-state restoration effort of needed accountability just as water quality is improving. She pointed out that the states had all agreed, after failing to meet earlier voluntary cleanup goals, to work toward the pollution reduction targets the agency set in 2010.

“However, only EPA has the ability to enforce the agreement in the event that a state fails to meet its commitments,” Coble said. “By suspending this backup enforcement authority, the Goodlatte Amendment threatens the viability of the [cleanup plan].”

The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution as called for in the 2010 plan. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials have warned they’ll take “backstop” actions. Those can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller livestock operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants.

The EPA briefly withheld nearly $3 million in grant money from Pennsylvania in 2015 after finding the state lagging badly in curbing farm runoff and stormwater pollution. The money was restored, but the agency has since warned the state it may take additional actions if it doesn’t do more to meet its pollution reduction goals.

The EPA’s authority to enforce its “total maximum daily load,” or pollution diet, for the Bay, was challenged in federal court by farming and building groups. They were joined by attorneys general for 22 states — including Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, now the EPA administrator — who feared that the Bay pollution diet might inspire similar federal pressure on states to deal with nagging water quality problems elsewhere, particularly in the massive Mississippi River watershed. District and appellate courts upheld the agency’s authority in the Chesapeake case, though, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to review those decisions.

The House has yet to take a final vote on the spending bill, which would provide $31.4 billion in fiscal 2018 to fund the Interior Department, EPA and several other agencies — restoring many, but not all, of the sharp cuts proposed by the Trump White House. The Senate also is still mulling its version of the bill, which could differ markedly from the House’s.

Environmental groups have said they will urge senators not to go along with the Bay amendment. It’s far from clear if the two chambers will be able to agree on the overall budget, a standoff that would effectively kill this restriction on EPA.

MD Septic Pollution Lawsuit Cleared for Trial

A Caroline County judge has ruled that a former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground to unchecked septic pollution, will have her day in court.

In early September, Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen denied a motion by the town and the state to dismiss the case, saying that a jury needed to decide if either bore responsibility for the pollution to Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on the 100-acre property that Gail Litz used to own.  The judge has yet to set a trial date.

In 1996, the Caroline County Health Department closed the campground’s lake to swimming, citing unsafe fecal coliform levels in the water, which were traced to failing septic systems in nearby Goldsboro.

That same year, the town signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment acknowledging that residents’ septic systems were failing. The order outlined a schedule for the town to install a public sewer system and said Goldsboro would be fined $100 a day if it did not comply.

The town never undertook the wholesale fix, and the state didn’t enforce the order. In 2010, Litz lost her property to foreclosure and filed a lawsuit, alleging the town and county’s negligence cost her the property.  She asked for $7 million in compensation.

Campen wrote that the “most significant and overarching disputed fact” in this case is whether, and to what extent, the pollution of Lake Bonnie continued after the 1996 consent order. “This factual dispute must first be resolved by a jury before other factual or legal issues can be addressed,” the judge wrote.

For seven years, across various courtrooms, Goldsboro’s attorneys said that the town had no money to fix the problem, and that Litz had waited too long to file suit.  The state also argued that it was not legally obligated to enforce the consent order. Lawyers for the MDE contended that they could not force Goldsboro to pay.

Those arguments prevailed in lower court hearings, but in February 2016, Maryland’s highest court said that the state’s failure to enforce the consent order could be viewed as “inverse condemnation” if Litz could prove it was the septic pollution that caused her loss. The case was sent back to Caroline County Circuit Court for a trial.

A trial was all Litz has wanted since she filed the lawsuit seven years ago. After losing her home and lake, she moved in with her son and his family in Florida, and worried that she wouldn’t have any inheritance to leave them.

“I just want responsibility taken and my children and I to be compensated,” she said. “No one can replace the home we loved and treasured.”

This summer, as the case went before Campen after the town and state filed to dismiss it, both began raising new arguments. After years of not disputing Litz’s claim that Goldsboro’s failing septic systems contaminated Lake Bonnie, MDE attorneys spent much of a July hearing questioning how much of the lake’s problem could be laid on the town. They pointed to other possible sources, including a small llama herd and a chicken farm. In motions filed before the hearing, they also contended that Litz lost her property because of poor business decisions.

Meanwhile, Goldsboro’s attorneys, who had always argued the town could not afford the fixes, said the town was “not obligated” to fix residents’ septic tanks because they were private and fell under the county health department.

In 1985 and again in 1988, Goldsboro residents voted down a sewage plant that would have raised their rates. The plant would have cost several million dollars, but at that point, the federal government was willing to fund 90 percent of it. The cost to Goldsboro residents: between 39 and 62 cents a day, according to Litz’ lawyer, G. Macy Nelson.

After the bank foreclosed on Litz’s property, it sold the campground and lake for $400,000 to a family that now uses the land as a private residence. Three decades after the county health department declared that Goldsboro desperately needed a wastewater treatment system, the state and federal government funded a solution. In 2015, the county broke ground on a $19 million wastewater plant on Greensboro that will connect to the 100 or so homes in Goldsboro, about 10 miles away, next year.

by Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.

Habitat: Getting Back Home by Liza Field

How was your summer getaway?

“Trip from hell,” my neighbors reported.

They’d headed west to escape the mugginess, traffic, politics and heat of our Eastern states, hungry for clear mountain vistas, cool breezes, hikes and fly-fishing in Montana.

Instead, haze and heat met them. The warmed trout streams of drought-stricken Montana barely trickled. “We ate smoke for days,” they said. Wildfires surrounded them — even pouring smoke down from Canada.

They drove home dispirited, not just from the loss of so much North American forest, but the loss of a vision, the mirage of some last unspoiled refuge out there in a world that no longer exists.

A coworker’s family had fled in the opposite direction, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for a similar escape from heat and traffic, for some ocean breeze and carefree birding.

But construction workers accidentally chopped a power line to their isle — the umbilical cord to human livability there — winking out AC and shuttering grocery stores.

Our denuded coastal areas, once cooler, covered in wildlife-rich forest and flanked by fish-filled tides, are no longer habitable for long without trucked-in food and refrigerated buildings.

It’s true nearly everywhere.

Sitting in inland-bound traffic, my colleague had time to ponder our profound dependence on a power grid that wasn’t needed by our ancestors, whose landscapes were cooler, edible, livable.

This fall they’re spending their vacation refund on making their own place more alive — converting some lawn to shade tree saplings, a garden and native shrubs for those migratory birds they’ve always traveled elsewhere to see.

And the smoked-out neighbors? Alarmed by the loss of so much western canopy and groundwater, they also decided to create a rain garden, to protect local groundwater, and begin converting portions of lawn to canopy.

I find this remarkable. The two summer getaways from hell each in fact opened a way out of hell on Earth. That way leads back home. And it’s a route recommended by a growing groundswell of younger environmentalists.

Emma Marris is one. This environmental science writer/speaker encourages people to get out and explore nature in their own imperfect realm.

“I try to get [people] psyched about the possibilities of whatever kind of space they have direct control over,” Marris says. “Their backyard, or the roundabout on their street. Or their window box, if they’re in Brooklyn.…There’s a lot you can do with fiddling with your garden and making it much more biodiverse.And if you want to get into it … you could be planting the plants that certain migrating birds and insects need.”

Marris, who is “more interested in joy than despair,” is tired of the doomed-Earth news that only makes humans want to run away from our own world.

Millennial conservationist Evan Marks has a similar return-to-home ethic: “I think, ultimately, it’s probably unplugging the phone, putting your hands in the soil and just becoming a citizen [of the] planet.”

After managing sustainable farms around the world, Marks felt a call to return home and stir life, hope and community in his native Orange County, CA. Gathering helpers, he turned an old house and dirt lot into what is now a thriving ecological refuge, teeming with young and old student volunteers.

Back in my Virginia mountains, water-quality advocate Tim Miller is also helping kids and adults to feel at home in nature — and to invite nature back home.

Miller quit his indoor teaching gig to get humans back outdoors. His goal is to stir up love for the homeland and awareness of how local landscapes influence the entire world downstream.

“I work to re-establish a connection that’s been frayed between people and the natural world,” Miller told me. “If we love something, we want to protect it … a great blue heron standing in a creek, fireflies dancing on a summer’s evening, a tree growing stubbornly out of a rock.”

This love also brings humans back to life and joy. “I’ve seen middle school kids squeal with delight the first time they hold a crayfish,” he said.

Miller regularly takes hundreds of middle-schoolers into their local Catawba Creek, alongside a local cement plant. They learn stream species and water quality basics, from that mountain stream to its Chesapeake Bay destination hundreds of miles east.

Many of these kids will never in their lives get to go see the Chesapeake Bay — or an ocean, for that matter. But you’d never convince them, giddily exploring their local creek, that they aren’t on a vacation in the exact place they want to be.

Liza Field is a conservationist, tree planter and ethics teacher in southwest Virginia.