Awaiting an Apology from Andy Harris by Michael H.C. McDowell

I am seeking a full and contrite apology from Congressman Andy Harris, over a verbal attack at a League of Women Voters Republican primary election forum on Sunday, June 10, 2018, at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills.

After a no-show by the other Republican primary candidates, the League cancelled the forum. Mr. Harris, however, agreed to take questions from the audience out in the lobby around 1:45 p.m. I joined a group of about eight voters gathered around Mr. Harris, half of whom I knew from Chestertown, where I live.

Mr. Harris first answered a question on health care and pre-existing conditions. After listening to the end of this particular exchange, I asked Mr. Harris a question on his environmental record. I got about 20 seconds into my question when, suddenly, Mr. Harris interrupted me in an aggressive, accusing tone: “I know who you are. I met you in Chestertown. You threatened violence and to kill one of my campaign workers. If you don’t step away, I will call a state trooper.”

I was absolutely stunned. I responded that this was complete nonsense and demanded he explain and retract his wrongful accusations. He persisted in ignoring my response and once again warned me he would call a state trooper if I further engaged with him.

I was shaken and angered by this utter lie. I took a few moments away from the lobby, to try and understand what had just happened. At no time have I ever threatened violence against anyone, and certainly no one connected with Mr. Harris’s campaign, and I never suggested I might “kill” one of his staffers. Where could this truly shocking accusation of Mr. Harris have come from?

The next morning, I spoke to Mr. Harris’s press secretary, Jacque Clark, and on her specific advice, emailed his campaign manager, Nicole Beus, and followed up two further times. Mr. Harris or his staff never responded.

Minutes after the June 10 attack, I recalled a posting on May 8, from a man who occasionally posts on Mr. Harris’s campaign Facebook site and supports Mr. Harris. I made a comment about this posting and received a threatening message to me and other critics of Mr. Harris from this individual. This person said he had a weapon and could shoot us!

I saw from this man’s personal Facebook page that he seemed to have been in the military, or was possibly still in the military, and his photo on the page shows him wearing military fatigues and brandishing military grade weapons. I responded to his post, saying that his comments were way out of line and possibly illegal and perhaps in breach of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He replied back suggesting I didn’t know what I was talking about. I let him know that I am on the advisory board of an historic military college, and know a number of flag officers, judge advocates-general, and other senior officers. This individual mocked my knowing “big shots,” and I didn’t bother responding further.

Later that day (May 8), I had a text and voicemail message from Mr. Harris’s press staff, which were friendly in tone, saying they were deleting this man’s threatening posts and, because I had responded to those posts, my posts would therefore also disappear and they wanted to explain why. I had no problem with that. I responded to the press staff within minutes, suggesting that this man be unfriended and/or blocked from Mr. Harris’s page and that this person should be reported to law officials. That is the last I heard on that issue.

Jacque Clark told me on the phone on June 11 that she indeed remembered that message to me from Mr. Harris’s staff.

Did Mr. Harris somehow mistakenly connect this man’s threat to the Harris staff with me? Did he completely wrongly attribute the threat to me, on account of this Facebook exchange? I want to know on what basis Mr. Harris justified his outrageous and false allegations about me at a public event.

I felt humiliated, angered, and shaken by Mr. Harris’s behavior towards me on June 10. About 10 minutes after this hostile attack, I showed a male member of Mr. Harris’s campaign staff (a burly bearded man with a Hogan campaign sticker on his shirt) the May 8 text I had received from Mr. Harris’s Capitol Hill staff, about the removal of the threatening post on the Harris Facebook page. The staff person suggested I take up the matter the next day. Did this fellow inform Mr. Harris about the clear evidence which I offered?

Mr. Harris verbally attacked me without any factual basis for his claims, refused to allow me to respond to his false accusations, and threatened several times to call a state trooper.

There are at least four witnesses to this appalling and totally unsubstantiated attack. I have spoken to four of them, three of them in person, one on the phone, and have their names, email addresses, and phone numbers. They completely confirm my account of what Mr. Harris said about me in front of them, to their shock and disapproval.

To repeat, I want a full and contrite apology and full explanation from Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris works for us, the voters, of whom I am one. The voters, and this voter, certainly don’t work for him.

As an elected public servant, Mr. Harris cannot be allowed to make such disparagements of a voter seeking information on his campaign platform.

Mr. Harris has had more than a month to act. He has done nothing. Shame on him. The voters of District 1 deserve better than the bullying, arrogant and offensive Andy Harris.

Michael H.C. McDowell writes from Chestertown.

Poodlenomics by Carl Widell

What has happened to our champion of free trade, Andy Harris? He and his beloved Americans for Prosperity have long supported free trade and low tariffs. But now that President Trump is leveling tariffs against everyone under the sun, even Canada, Andy Harris has rolled over. “Anything you say, Mr. President.” Principles forgotten, Harris has become Trump’s poodle. Welcome to ‘Poodlenomics.’

When President Trump announced tariffs against our largest trading partner, the European Union, Andy Harris did not object. When Trump proposed steel and aluminum tariffs against our allies, Harris let out not a whimper. Even when Trump introduced tariffs against Canada, which makes no sense whatsoever (we have a trade surplus with Canada), Harris didn’t even bark.

It’s not that others are not speaking out. Every other Congressman in the Maryland delegation has spoken out against Trump’s trade policies. Other Republicans, such as John McCain and Jeff Flake, have spoken out. The ultra-conservative Americans for Prosperity, of which Harris is a member, which has long maintained that free trade is the path to American economic success, has spoken out. It has called upon President Trump too, “ lift recent tariffs on aluminum and steel imports as well as the proposed tariffs on other imports from China,” (see Freedom Partner webpage: https://freedompartners.org).

Even the US Chamber of Congress, which Harris has long supported, has spoken out. On its website, the Chamber quotes Martin Feldstein, President Reagan’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, who argues that “foreign import barriers (i.e., tariffs) … are not the reason for the U.S. trade deficit. The real reason is that Americans are spending more than they produce…. The policies of foreign governments affect only how that deficit is divided among America’s trading partners.” (See https://www.uschamber.com/series/above-the-fold/trade-deficit-truths.)

Congressman Harris must know the basics of foreign trade accounting, but he chooses to go along with President Trump’s ill-conceived policies. Party over principle – that’s Poodlenomics.

What we need is a Congressman with backbone, with common sense policies, willing to reach across the aisle, who has served in Afghanistan four times and is willing to stand up to the President when necessary. Someone who is not a poodle. Have you looked at Jesse Colvin lately?

Carl Widell Widell is the chief financial officer and a director of Network Technologies International. He also served on the Talbot County Board of Education in 2008. 

You can Own the Chesapeake without Property by Tom Horton

I grew up middle class but land rich: roaming hundreds of acres of woods and marsh, hunting properties owned by my dad’s poultry company and his best friend. And I always dreamed that someday I’d be wealthy enough to afford my own wonderful, big chunk of Chesapeake, a dream that receded after I chose newspapering over chicken moguldom.

But there are a lot of ways to “own” land, as it has turned out — and many ways to become “rich.”

The most obvious way is to know and support the lands you, as a citizen, already own — your nearby national treasures, which for me include Assateague National Seashore and the Chincoteague and Blackwater national wildlife refuges.

Despite the millions who visit its beaches, Assateague’s remote, hike-in or paddle-in campsites are underused, partly because so many people focus only on summertime visits, when the sites are deadly buggy. Cool and cold weather adventuring is a taste easily acquired and opens up all sorts of territory.

I’m as road-averse as any greenie, but the need to access lands for logging and fire control means our region’s forestlands are full of roadways. Most are off limits to cars, but accessible for walkers, horseback riders and bicyclists (if the latter are willing to ditch those skinny racing tires). With Google Earth and similar mapping apps, and some ground-truthing to determine which of the mapped woodland roads are really there — or, conversely, are there but don’t show on the apps — I’ve been able to “acquire” thousands of acres of land around the Delmarva Peninsula where I live.

Farther afield, there’s massive back country access in Pennsylvania’s state forests — Michaux in southcentral Pennsylvania is one beloved by off-road bikers. Its 85,000 acres sprawl through several counties and are convenient to central Marylanders.

Many off-the-beaten paths also traverse private lands, or lands owned by private nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy. I find most aren’t often used by their owners, with the major exception of firearms deer season, which in most places occupies only a few weeks per year. Similarly, those who paddle marshways may want to know when it is duck season.

As a Salisbury University professor who runs a lot of field trips, I’ve several times driven up to a private landowner’s place and asked permission to explore or camp. Many have been quite cooperative. I now have “anytime access” to a wonderful patch of riverine forest where you can see what Eastern Shore woods might have been like hundreds of years ago.

Last year, I decided to explore the Chesapeake shoreline of Virginia’s rural Accomack County, simply turning onto every little road that ran west toward the Bay. There are a lot of those, and to my surprise I found more public access to little beaches, scenic views and launch spots for paddlecraft than most any other tidewater county I know of in Maryland or Virginia.

As my ecological comprehension of the region has grown, I’ve come to “own” the landscape wherever I travel. Riding through farmland, I notice the deep drainage ditching that makes agriculture possible. I know also that here, pre-drainage, a great cedar-cypress swamp once covered 60,000 acres, and beyond that I know the underlying wetland soils would immediately revert to swampiness if we could plug those ditches.

And while I favor swamps, I can appreciate where a green gloss on winter cornfields means the farmer is using cover crops to stop nitrogen fertilizer from running into the Bay. I also notice where farmers are plowing on the contour, installing grass swales and natural buffers to keep soil and nutrients out of the water.

Beware though: A keen appreciation for the land also risks heartbreak whenever you see the pipes and survey markers that mean field and forest will soon be stripped and paved for development.

Lately, I’ve been looking at the big power lines and gas pipeline right-of-ways that arrow across the landscape and wondering why we can’t make these do double duty as hiking-biking corridors.

The possibilities came home to me after some happy weeks roaming the Netherlands with lifelong Dutch friends. While that people-dense nation hasn’t 1 percent of the untrammeled landscapes of the United States, it is so interlaced with trails that there is scarcely a single citizen who cannot quickly hop onto a trail network that connects them to everywhere in the country.

Even where access is restricted, there are ways to push the edge. A friend of mine, who loves fishing and progging the remote seaside edges of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has outfitted his skiff with a foldout platform so he can pitch a tent on the bow while anchored alongside barrier islands that are off limits to overnight stays. Last year, he took a whole high school class along for a week with tents lashed to a barge.

I suppose if I’d gotten rich, I’d own more land than the tenth of an acre behind my home. But think how much time acquiring that wealth might have taken away from a lifetime spent roaming the Chesapeake.

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 those of the Bay Journal.

Solar Fields in Place of Cornfields: A Win-Win if There Ever Was One by Doug Boucher

In a recent article in the Bay Journal, the Chesapeake’s monthly environmental newspaper, senior writer Timothy B. Wheeler speculated that that the growth of large-scale solar collection fields on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, at the expense of cornfields, might have “unforeseen consequences on land use, local economies, wildlife habitat and maybe even water quality.” (“Solar Power’s New Look: More Landscape-Friendly Siting,” April 2018.)

In fact, we have enough scientific knowledge to foresee quite a few of those consequences — and they would be positive ones. For example: Cornfields are dominated by a single crop species, while the vegetation under solar fields is much more varied (native grasses, goldenrod, etc.) and thus more biodiverse. Because of these differences, the vegetation under and between solar panels provides much better habitat for wildlife — particularly for early-successional bird species, whose populations have been declining at alarming rates.

Similarly, solar fields provide much better resources than cornfields for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.

Cornfields are annual row crops and, of course, farmers try to keep the growth of weeds between those rows to a minimum. This means that they have considerable amounts of bare ground and thus substantial losses of soil to erosion, together with the runoff of the nutrients that spur eutrophication, a major cause of the Bay’s dead zones.

On the other hand, the meadow vegetation under solar fields is perennial, not annual, and thus provides year-round cover. So it reduces erosion and nutrient runoff significantly. This is true even compared to well-managed row crop rotations using no-till management and winter cover crops.

Unlike cornfields, solar fields don’t require the use of insecticides, fungicides, tillage or irrigation. Nor do they require fertilizer, whether synthetically or from manure, both of which lead to water pollution.

Solar fields provide substantially more revenue to rural landowners, with much lower costs as well as less risk. The income they generate is dependable over the long term because typical solar leases are for periods of 20 years or more.

This makes it possible for farmers to keep their land instead of having to sell it in the face of suburban sprawl. Moreover, the benefits of converting cornfields to solar reach far beyond the farm. By reducing global warming, they slow down the rising sea levels and extreme storms that threaten communities along the Bay and far beyond.

They also cut down on the air pollution from coal-fired electric power plants, gasoline-burning cars and natural-gas-heated offices. In this way they reduce one of the most important threats plaguing public health, manifested in such illnesses as asthma, toxic chemicals such as mercury, and smog.

Like a cornfield, a solar farm uses land and the sun’s energy to produce something that people vitally need. But it does it with a much more positive impact on the environment — locally, across the Bay’s watershed and around the world.

And, just as important, it makes possible the transition to an economy powered by 100 percent renewable energy — the critical environmental need of the 21st century.

Ecologist Doug Boucher is with the Climate and Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal or the Spy. 

Suggested Reading: Is there Honor Beyond Honesty by Al Sikes

Is There Honor Beyond Honesty?

America at its best is not intensely ideological. Today is not the best of times. Too many in the political and communication’s elite shape their messages or stories to fit their political intentions—knowledge is secondary.

Michael Bloomberg’s address to the graduates of Rice University speaks to a code of conduct that is needed well beyond the campuses of Rice:

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-05-12/michael-bloomberg-at-rice-university-an-honor-code-for-life  

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Op-Ed: Where are CBF and CCA? By Marc Castelli

The Baltimore Sun reported on a 4.1-million gallons sewage spill into the Jones Falls on Monday the 16th of April. It stated that heavy rains inundated the sewer system. Baltimore is consistently the worst offender of raw sewage pouring into the Bay. That is to the tune of millions of gallons of raw sewage. Yet no one from either of the self-proclaimed Bay’s apex environmental groups raises the alarm about Baltimore’s sewage problem. If you aren’t aware of where all that sewage ends up let me tell you. It simply ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.

For two organizations that constantly crow about their stewardship of the Bay and its resources, it seems odd that when such a serious water quality issue like raw sewage arises, they are strangely silent. Apparently, it is much easier for the Bay’s “watchdogs” to go after the low hanging fruit of the commercial fishery. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association are just not visible when it comes to the constant threat that Baltimore’s ongoing inability to handle large rain fall amounts resulting in urban runoff and sewage overflows. Granted these spills happen at an alarmingly frequent pace but to not be heard about them reeks of a jaded attitude towards such serious issues.

Past president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association, Larry Simns and current president, Robert T. Brown, declared the MWA’s environmental concerns should be about wastewater management problems. If you pause to consider this, it will be easy to understand why a commercial fishery would be concerned about sewage in the waters from which it makes it’s living. Water quality is after all what we all are most concerned about. MWA does not have anywhere near the financial assets that both CBF and CCA could use to help ameliorate the issue of Baltimore’s repeated sewage overflows.

Let me give you a short history about the oyster industry and Baltimore’s sewage system. In the early parts of the last century, Maryland’s oyster industry was threatened by a cholera outbreak. You may ask how do oysters and cholera get together to sicken and kill people? Raw, untreated sewage is the answer. Baltimore did not always have a sewage system. It’s waste usually ran down the streets along with all of the garbage directly into Baltimore harbor waters and nearby tributaries. Somewhat like today. Oysters harvested in and near these waters were routinely shipped cold all over the U.S. to places like St. Louis, and Chicago among other cities. Maryland oysters were considered by aficionados to be the zenith of shellfish. That is until people started to get sick, and in some instances died.

Maryland oyster shucking house owners went to Baltimore and flatly told them the city was responsible and that if the city did not install sewers and a waste water system that Maryland would not only be responsible for widespread diseases like cholera but the state would stand to lose millions of dollars in profits and revenues. The sewer system that is currently in place dates back more than 100 years according to the Baltimore Sun.

The article goes on to state that the system is currently being up graded to prevent such releases of sewage into the waters of tributaries and the Bay. For the 25 or so years I have been involved in Bay issues I can only say I have been hearing such claims and they are not at all reassuring.

I just spent ten days working alongside watermen from the upper Bay doing what we call, “ghost potting”. Translated, it means retrieving derelict and lost crab pots. This work was done just outside of the Baltimore harbor at the mouths of the Gunpowder and Little Gunpowder Rivers. It was funded by MDOT and managed by the Oyster Recovery Partnership. The purpose was to mitigate wetland issues that will arise from the Route 40 bridges reconstruction over the two tributaries. Can you imagine what would happen to one of Maryland’s most iconic tourist draws if people started to put two and two together to conclude that crabs caught in that area are living in sewage-tainted waters? Go one step further and wonder what sport and tourist anglers would think if they realized the fish caught in the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay were having to swim in such waters? The folks that go swimming off the public beach at Miami Beach, where closures after such heavy rains are a common event, might also want to be concerned.

According to the Sun information about health concerns as a result of such overflows may be found here. Is there any reason why that information is not available from the CBF or CCA?

It has been nearly a week and yet no word from either organization. So again, I ask…Where are the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association when such sewage overflows occur. Just because this happens, every time it rains hard on Baltimore does not mean that these well-funded organizations should not constantly be raising the alarm and pointing out the need for Baltimore to lead the way in its own wastewater management.

Marc Castelli is a artist and photographer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His work is focused on watermen, lobstermen, their workboats, America’s Cup racers and their yachts, and the extended families that race their log canoes of the
Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore.

A Chesapeake Portrait, Painted by Almost a Thousand Words by Tom Horton

Photo by Dave Harp

Combing the beach, I stoop to pick up an essay for my upcoming college nature writing class. It’s a reddish, roundish pebble, tumbling in the clear lapping waves during a campout to the vanished community of Holland Island.

For a couple of centuries, before erosion forced Holland’s people to the mainland, my pebble was a brick, proud and sturdy and eminently useful in its uniform rectangularity for stacking when constructing a home’s foundation with precise edges and level tops.

Made by humans, who have the corner on corners as no other species, the brick has been reshaped by nature, which embraces the rounded, the curved and the meandering, from spiral galaxies and loopy marsh creeks to the shells of whelks.

The brick/pebble thus becomes distilled and refined to a rich essential — to an image — the straight versus the curved, the human versus the natural.

This gives my fledgling essayists a useful lens. Later in the semester we’ll look at farm drainage ditches versus swamps, the former doing one thing very well — whisking rainwater from cropland; the latter doing no one thing spectacularly — just nurturing life in diversity unknown to the ditch and the cornrow.

They may expand their view further, to the pavement and the curb, the gutter and the storm drain, versus the woody debris and leaf duff of the forest floor; they may ponder which of those landscapes, during a downpour, a trout in a stream would most like living next to.

A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but a good word image is worth a hard drive’s worth of photos. Word imagery is especially important when you are writing to explain a six-state, 64,000-square-mile, Atlantic-to-Susquehanna ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay. Here are a few of the images I’ve found useful over the decades:

The Skinny Bay

From Havre de Grace, MD, to Virginia Beach, the Bay’s about a million feet long — and up to 100,000 feet wide. Yet the average depth is around 21 feet. So many implications flow from that.

Large as it looks, the estuary has scant water to dilute runoff from Cooperstown, NY, to Altoona, PA, to Lynchburg, VA, so how we use the land matters big time for water quality.
This essential shallowness also means that light penetrates to the bottom copiously, growing lush habitats of seagrasses, which support waterfowl and waterfowl hunting cultures and soft-crabbing.

It means that wind pushes water around so easily that it is often more important, ecologically, than the tides. It also also dictates the classic “deadrise” designs of skipjacks and other watermen’s crafts, evolved to make their living in skinny water.

Wet

The Chesapeake ecosystem for most of time is widely understood to have been green, with forests covering most of its watershed. But thanks to the scientific detective work of people like Grace Brush of Johns Hopkins University, we now comprehend how much of the landscape was also wet, dammed and ponded by millions of beavers.

Brush’s work, now in book form — Decoding the Deep Sediments, available from Maryland Sea Grant — shows how prevalent the pollens of aquatic plants are in sediment cores that allow us to look back through what was washing into the Bay in centuries past.

Green and wet. Why does it matter so much? Because that landscape fostered the healthiest Chesapeake, the landscapes we should most try to emulate and restore.

Ask yourself, WWBD — what would beavers do?

Edges

Edges are inherently interesting: the gradations of color and texture that artists employ to draw the eye to the glorious intersections of the seasons, adorned by the great migrations of fish and fowl they trigger.

Life loves an edge. Hunters who prowl the seams where forest meets field know this, as do fishermen who troll the dropoffs from shallows to channels, as do blue herons and egrets, nesting eagles and beachcombers (I prefer “proggers,” the waterman’s term for them).

The Bay, with around 11,000 miles of tidal edges, is at the heart of the heart of this phenomenon. That includes the overwhelming preference of humans to also locate along the edge, drawn by everything from places to discharge waste, cool their power plants and hoist drinks to the sunset.

The search for peaceful co-existence between humans and the rest of edge-loving nature is a fundamental tension that runs through much of my writing.

Ecosystem Services

If you would be popularly read, avoid such terms, but not what they include. Consider the oyster. The revelation in recent decades of their immense values in filtering and cleansing Bay waters has fundamentally changed the way we regard them — not only as a tasty food and commerce by the bushel, but also as sanctuaries for the health of the Bay.

Some scientists say it’s likely that the reefs, built by oysters to form undisturbed, undredged, untonged communities, are at least as valuable for habitat as for their filtration.

And One Last Favorite: Horseshoe Crabs

These marvelous animals are living fossils for whom the rise and fall of dinosaurs was just a short span in the species’ history. When they scrabble onto remote beaches in May and June, with nothing else in the scene but the full moon gleaming on their bronze-colored shells from above, sand and the lapping of saltwater below — that’s as close as you will ever get to traveling back in time half a billion years.

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.

Op-Ed: How Much Woods Would a Woodpecker Need if It’s to Succeed? By Tom Horton

The piney woods stretching for miles around us smell springy, as warm winds melt the last of a big January snow. At the crest of a rise, Bobby Clontz stops his pickup: “Look back . . . that’s a hard view to beat.”

A tawny, sunlit sea of native grasses and low shrubs laps the dark columns of tall, widely spaced loblolly pines. Light streams through the green needles, which gleam as they toss in the breeze. It’s a classic pine savannah, often described as “parklike.” Psychologist John Falk has found humans associate strongly with such landscapes, which resemble the African savannahs where humanoids climbed down from the trees hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Bobby Clontz, left, and Bryan Watts walk through the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, just south of the James River. (Dave Harp)

Such pine parks once covered much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, from Virginia to Texas; nowadays, perhaps 1 percent remains. And this remnant, including the 3,200 acres that Clontz manages here at The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve just south of the James River, is now strongly linked with a tiny, endangered bird.

The red-cockaded woodpecker was listed as nationally endangered three years before the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. The cardinal-size bird depends on pines old enough to have become diseased with a fungus that rots their heartwood, a process of decay that can take up to a century or longer.

The heart-rot that would mean ruin to the logger is the salvation of the RCW, as it is commonly called by birders and conservationists. A red-cockaded woodpecker may spend a year or two of its five-year average lifespan excavating its nest, boring through several inches of tough, outer wood and creating a chamber in the softened heart of an old pine.

The red-cockaded woodpecker

Piney Grove Preserve is a “lifeline,” the last shot for the bird in the whole Chesapeake region, said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, who’s along today. Since the 1970s, as corporate logging took down the remaining great old pines, the center, part of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, has been documenting the bird’s march toward extinction in Virginia and researching its habitat needs.

“Mitchell [Byrd, founder of the Center] would come back to check on a nesting area and find woodpeckers flying around, landing on stumps where their habitat used to be,” Watts recounted. By 2002, Virginia was down to two nesting pairs. The last RCWs in Maryland disappeared from Dorchester County, their northernmost range, between the 1950s and 1970s, as the last old-growth pines there were clear-cut.

Virginia state Sen. Garland Gray, whose timber company owned Piney Grove, was no friend of endangered birds, deliberately cutting and otherwise altering their nesting areas to avoid restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.

Ironically, Gray’s company cut pines on a long-term rotation — every 70–90 years — unusual in an industry that typically harvested trees at much earlier ages. So, when The Nature Conservancy acquired Piney Grove in the late 1990s, it was already potential RCW habitat.
Birds had to be trapped and transferred from North Carolina to jump-start breeding in the preserve. We hear proof today that it has worked: the woodpecker’s nasal, raspy calls and probing the bark platelets of pines for insects.

Sheets of whitish sap girdling some trees make it easy to spot nesting cavities. The woodpecker spends a good deal of its day chipping sapwood around its nest to encourage a flow of sticky resin that discourages snakes and other predators from entering.

Piney Grove, Watts and Clontz said, is nearly at “saturation,” with 13 nesting red-cockaded woodpecker pairs and 70 birds total. The additional birds are integral to the RCW’s unusual, cooperative nesting. They act as “helpers” by helping to feed the nesting pairs’ young. A nesting “cluster” can require up to 400 acres of territory, Clontz said.

Setting the woods on fire is one of Clontz’s most important duties. He’s burned as much as three square miles at a time. Fire is key to pine savannahs, keeping the understory open and free of hardwoods, which discourages predators and creates the habitat that the woodpecker needs.

Expansion plans, using adjoining state forests and pending private land deals by The Nature Conservancy, could soon enlarge the bird’s habitat here to as much as 30,000 acres.

This is critical, Watts said, because all of the other RCW restoration sites in this northernmost part of the bird’s range (North Carolina and Virginia) may vanish because of accelerating sea level rise in the next century. An attempt to get the woodpeckers nesting in the nearby Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has not yet worked.

What’s good for the woodpecker also lends needed help to other species, like the brown-headed nuthatch, chuck-will’s-widow, bobwhite quail, coastal fox squirrel and Bachman’s sparrow. All but the sparrow are thriving at Piney Grove, and Watts wants to introduce that bird here as well. Nontidal wetlands throughout Piney Grove form a rich habitat for state-threatened fish and salamanders. Clontz is re-introducing longleaf pines, too. Longer lived than loblollies, they form the primary red-cockaded woodpecker habitat throughout most of its range and once covered an estimated one million acres in Virginia.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is up to 6,000 nesting clusters throughout its range, extending through coastal plain pines all the way to Texas. The core of its comeback involved U.S. military bases like Fort Bragg and Eglin Air Force Base. Their training missions required preserving large blocks of old forest, which military exercises frequently set afire—a perfect prescription for the bird, Clontz said.

The little bird has driven big changes. Research on its habitat needs by Watts’ center has changed forest management across millions of acres, far beyond Virginia.

And the military, in part from concerns it that would become the last refuge for the woodpecker, created a multi-billion-dollar program to protect natural lands outside of bases for a variety of purposes, a program that now extends throughout the Chesapeake watershed.

Tending to the woodpeckers’ survival, as with so many endangered species recovery efforts, brings science and conservation to bear on restoring whole ecosystems.

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. 

Op-Ed: Some Things We Know by William C. Baker

By William C. Baker, for the Bay Journal News Service

In case anyone is asking: Warmer temperatures do hurt the Chesapeake Bay, in many ways.

In a February interview on a Las Vegas television station, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggested a warming climate might actually be a good thing. “We know that humans have flourished during times of warming trends. So, I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal temperature should be during the year 2100, or the year 2018?” he asked.

Here in the Chesapeake, there is overwhelming documentation of the damage that climate change will wreak on this national treasure. And it’s not just about the future. The inconvenient truth is that we’re already witnessing the damaging effects of climate change.

Based on long-term records from the piers at the Chesapeake’s two historic marine laboratories — dating back to 1938 at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomon’s Island, MD, and to 1948 at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point — the Bay is getting warmer.

Warmer water has less capacity to hold dissolved oxygen, and dissolved oxygen is critical for life in the Bay, its rivers and its streams. Higher temperatures exacerbate the Chesapeake’s dead zones, expanding both the size and the duration of oxygen-deprived areas in the Bay.

Scientific models agree that storms will become more intense in the future. Storm intensity and increased rainfall will adversely affect the Bay’s ecological health. Increased scouring and runoff from more intense rain events, regardless of the season, carries significantly more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to local rivers, streams and eventually, the Bay.

Increases in water temperature are known to affect the distribution and health of aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake. For instance, species that are already stressed by high summer temperatures — such as the eelgrass, which provides important fish and crab habitats in the Lower Bay — may be greatly reduced or eliminated. Goodbye grasses. Goodbye crabs. Simply put, grasses equal crabs.

Warming waters caused by climate change also directly affect the distribution and range of animal species along the mid-Atlantic coast. Species at the southern end of their range, like soft-shell clams, are already retreating northward up the Atlantic Coast toward colder waters.

Atlantic menhaden, a critical forage fish in the Bay food web, haven’t produced strong year classes in the Bay in 20 years, possibly because climate-related shifts in ocean currents interfere with or interrupt their life cycles. The lack of strong menhaden reproduction in turn affects rockfish, which turn to blue crabs as a primary food source. That has negative nutritional consequences for the rockfish and obvious negative consequences for crabs.

And those same crabs may be facing new predators such as red drum, which have expanded their range northward into the Chesapeake.

There is no serious debate over the impact of climate change on the Bay. Climate change, and an EPA administrator continuing to ignore the science, are making all of our efforts to restore this national treasure much harder.

William C. Baker is president and CEO of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Op-Ed: Talbot County Budget needs Moderate Growth by Laura Price

You may be wondering what all this talk is about our property tax revenue cap. What is it and why is this Council or anyone talking about asking our citizens to agree to an increase in property tax? Many years ago, Talbot County citizens voted to put in place a “revenue” cap (not a rate cap) of 2% or CPI-U (consumer price index), whichever is less to protect themselves from being taxed out of their homes due to property values rising so quickly. Talbot County did not have the Homestead Tax Credit which now provides protection and keeps our taxable assessment at a constant level for our primary residences.

Since then, times have changed, most notably, in 2010 when Talbot’s income tax revenues dropped from $31 million to $19 million, nearly a 40% drop in one year! That same year our property tax revenues were just under $28 million and the rate was 43 cents, the lowest in a decade. This was due to our revenue cap law that actually requires lowering the rates during times of increasing assessed values of real property in the County. It had been 55 cents in 2001 and is currently 57 cents in 2018.

I looked over my own property tax bills for the past 15 years. I was surprised by how much my total bill went down from 2003 (.553) to a low in 2010 (.432). My total payment decreased 18%! As a small government, fiscal conservative, I believe in low tax rates, but even I don’t think my property tax payment should go down. I’m happy if it stays the same. Today, in 2018, the rate and amount are almost exactly the same as 17 years ago. Think of all the additional resources that could have been put into our county had our rates simply remained the same. Then maybe we wouldn’t be talking today about this problem.

What else has changed? In 2012, the legislature in Annapolis passed a law that legally requires every county in the state to fund education each year in an amount that never decreases. No matter what happens in the economy or to county revenues or even if we found savings and efficiencies, we may NOT decrease the Board Of Education (BOE) budget ever.

I understand the principle. We all would like certainty in our budgets. We need to plan for the future and no one ever wants to have to live on less, but things change, economies change and tax revenues change. One assumes they will increase enough to meet our citizens’ needs. Sadly, this is not always the case.

So what else has changed? What is so dramatically different that a 1 or 2 percent revenue cap won’t be able to pay for? Education funding is always an issue. Each year the BOE asks for an increase, sometimes reasonable, sometimes staggering, and sometimes the state mandated escalator kicks in (up to 2.5%) but the 2012 Maintenance of Effort law does allow/mandate the county to break the tax cap solely to pay for increases in education funding. The county council has done just that 3 times in the past 5 years. The total property tax rate went up 5 cents per hundred, which is nearly a 10% increase in everyone’s property tax rate. This is not insignificant. This raised $3.7 million in additional property tax revenues, devoted solely to TCPS K-12 expenses. Total education funding is 52% of our budget or $43 million per year; this includes TCPS, Chesapeake College and debt service on county schools.

But these tax increases did nothing to help the other 48% of our county budget, which totals just over $40 million this year. So where does it all go? Public safety, including Sheriff, Emergency Services, Corrections and Volunteer Fire Departments are the largest at $17 million (20%). Even with this funding, Public Safety has significant unfunded, unmet needs to provide our citizens with the services they need and expect. Add in state mandated departments and our court system at $7.4 million (9%) and County functions which include Public Works, Planning & Permits at $5.8 million (7%), Health department at $2.4 million (3%), and our Roads department at $3.3 million (4%), which by the way used to be completely paid for by the state before funding was cut 90% about 9 years ago. That leaves about $4.8 million (6%) to pay for our Library, Parks & Recreation, Tourism & Economic Development and our Social Services and Aging programs. The grand total for FY18 is just over $83 million.

We have been able to provide all these county services within our property tax limits and only one small income tax rate increase in 2012 from 2.25% to 2.4%, after the economy plummeted. As the most fiscally conservative council member over the past 8 years, I have kept a keen eye on the budget and watched our expenditures, keeping them as efficient as possible, while meeting our essential needs.

The good news is our economy has recovered significantly. Our income tax revenues have come back to about $27 million per year, much improved over the $19m we dropped to, but still far from the high of over $31m. With a healthier economy does come an increase in costs, and the same services will cost more.

One of our main issues is keeping up with the costs of Public Safety and Emergency Services. As we have all seen recently, we must have a fully staffed and well equipped Sheriff’s Department to protect us. We need to have a more competitive salary scale because we are losing our most valuable and trained deputies to surrounding counties for better pay. The same thing is happening in our emergency services department. Our Paramedics and EMTs, who face intensive calls every day, are also lured away to nearby counties. With Talbot having the highest percentage of retirees of any county in the state, it is critical for us to continue this as our #1 priority. The request in this upcoming budget is approximately an additional $1 million and over the past decade, we have increased funding 60%; this need will continue to grow and outpace other county services.

At this point our biggest shortfall will be in capital expenses. Currently our annual debt service is about $3.9 million, but we have three big projects coming up quickly. The largest is Easton Elementary School which is currently in the design phase at a cost of $30 million. The debt service on that project alone will be approximately $2.4 million per year. The next project is a new Sheriff’s building. The county moved the Sheriff to our Talbot County Business Center temporarily to make room for a Central Booking facility that will allow law enforcement officers to get back on the road quickly. When that building comes down in the next 3-5 years for the airport, we will need to have a space ready for our Sheriff, at an approximate cost of $12 million, approximately $1 million per year for the debt service. Our Health department was identified many years ago as inadequate and should be replaced. The estimate is $8 million, about $650,000 per year in annual debt service. These three projects will add $4 million to our operating budget, doubling our annual debt service to $8 million. At this time, we have no revenue source to pay for them.

In coming up with a simple and reasonable way to solve our problem, my proposal (“The Price Penny Plan”) would be to do a penny increase per year + our 2% revenue cap and limit it to 4 years to keep the current cap in place. This would allow for some moderate growth in the budget to pay for these items specifically. It would cost the average $350k homeowner a modest $35 and a $1m homeowner about $100 per year. This could generate an additional $3 million plus the natural growth and get us closer to balancing our budget.

The citizens need to decide if they want the county to maintain or increase services and how much, if any, they are willing to pay. I, as your Councilmember, ask your help; to familiarize yourselves with our current budget and the future needs and revenue shortfalls. Let’s all try to figure out together how to move forward to keep Talbot County supported with the essential public services that you, the citizens deserve.

Laura Price is a member of the Talbot County Council