You can Own the Chesapeake without Property by Tom Horton

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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.

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