First, a personal confession: A few years back, the business of being a good environmentalist seemed, to me, a straightforward affair. As I weighed one issue after another, the world could be seen in just two colors—green and ungreen—which corresponded to two moral states: good and ungood. It was easy to distinguish one from the other. My thinking would run along lines like this: Trees are good, so the companies that chop them down are not. Or like this: Rivers are polluted, so the fault must lie with the most obvious, nefarious-looking suspect—discharge pipes at waterside factories.
When I spoke up at cocktail parties back then, it was with confidence. I'd read a book or two, hadn't I? And didn't I subscribe to greenish magazines full of hyperbolic screeds against greedy corporations? My confidence was badly misplaced. This I learned in recent years, first by signing on for a series of classes at Johns Hopkins University in an attempt (still ongoing) to earn a Certificate in Environmental Studies—and then by pursuing work writing about environmental issues here in the Chesapeake Bay region. As I waded into these deeper waters, I began to see a much murkier world than the one I'd known before. Some of the truths I'd regarded as self-evident turned out to be half-baked. New knowledge came in shades of color I couldn't quite pigeonhole as green or ungreen. I'm no expert yet, not by a long shot. So when I set out to write a story identifying a few of the public misconceptions about the environment that linger to one degree or another, I turned to real experts for help. I asked them about their cocktail-party experiences: What sorts of things did well-meaning, green-leaning lay people like me say that were misguided, or just plain wrong? Eventually, this led to the seven misconceptions that follow. They're not meant as an exhaustive list of every conceivable mistaken belief. Nor are they presented as incontestable facts, each beyond debate in every detail. Consider them instead as brief glimpses into that murkier world where, sometimes, it's not so easy being green.
Misconception Number One: We've got to stop cutting down trees.
A logging truck piled high with massacred trees isn't the prettiest of sights. It evokes images of whole forests falling in a frenzy of roaring chainsaws and fleeing birds. It stirs up primal emotions that got anchored deep in our subconscious selves while watching Bambi as children.
It's time we got past such nonsense. Yes, it's true that trees are almost always good for the environment. And yes, it's true that we need to be judicious and strict about chopping them down to make way for the likes of housing developments and unobstructed views from waterfront houses.
But things are different when it comes to the most important trees of all, the ones that stand in forests. "The State of Chesapeake Forestlands," a 2006 report by the nonprofit Conservation Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, touts these ecosystems as the greenest and cleanest of our land uses. Forests excel at soaking up nutrients that would otherwise pollute rivers, at purifying drinking water, and at absorbing air pollution.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed that stretches from lowermost Virginia into upstate New York contains 35 million acres of this forestland, but it's disappearing at an estimated rate of 100 acres a day, mostly to make way for residential housing. If we want to stem this tide, we need to look again at those logging trucks and see that they're actually doing good green work.
Two-thirds of our forestland is privately owned by individuals, organizations, and corporations. Some manage their lands for birdwatching or hunting. Others run timbering operations. They've all made a big investment by owning, managing, and paying taxes on their land. They did so expecting a fair chance to recoup that investment, or, better yet, turn a little profit.
"Look, if there's no market for me to sell a few trees every year, I've got to find another use for the land," says John Foster, a private forestland owner in Worcester County and president of the Maryland Forests Association, a trade group. "Down here, most forest is on land that's too steep or wet to farm. If I can't get any return, well, putting in some new houses is pretty much my only option."
That would be the worst possible outcome for the health of the Chesapeake Bay, which desperately needs the water-quality benefits forestland provides. That's why we need folks like Foster to continue with their work of planting, nurturing, and harvesting forestland in responsible, sustainable, and, yes, closely regulated ways.
Trade-group types like Foster aren't the only ones singing a pro-forestry tune these days. Most environmental groups do as well. In fact, a major recommendation of the certifiably green Conservation Fund's "Chesapeake Forestlands" report is to "protect large tracts of forestland by enhancing the viability of the forest products industry."
In 2004, the nonprofit Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology commissioned an assessment of this industry. The forestry sector does $2.4 billion worth of business annually in our state. Based mainly in Western Maryland and on the lower Eastern Shore, it creates jobs for more than 16,000 workers in parts of the state where good jobs can be awfully hard to find.
But the industry faces daunting challenges. Chief among these is the spread of residential development into the formerly isolated outposts where most forestry work is conducted. Even in small chunks, such developments carve up "working landscapes" in ways that wreak havoc on the economics of the trade. It's one thing to make a buck by working a contiguous 400-acre site; it's quite another to do it on a dozen different 30-acre sites, each bordered by a gaggle of homeowners who hate waking up to the roar of chainsaws.
"These markets are the only way to perpetuate these forests," says Dan Rider, associate director of forest products utilization and marketing with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "The opportunities to make some money, they're what pays for the bird habitat, the hunting lands, the spiritual renewal, all of it. They're what give landowners the ability to keep forests as forests."
If commercial forestry activity were to slow or stop in Maryland, what would replace the lost supplies of local lumber in the marketplace? Most likely, it would be wood from tropical rain forests.
A 1999 study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics concludes that whenever well-meaning woods lovers in Europe and North America succeed in taking productive forestland out of commercial service, they juice up demand for imported supplies and put more of the rain forests in South America and Asia at risk. To make matters worse, the forestry work done in those parts of the world is less likely to be tightly regulated and more likely to be conducted in irresponsible, unsustainable ways than it is here in Maryland.
Misconception Number Two: City living is dirty. Country living is clean.
Or so it can seem to city-dwelling daytrippers as they cruise through open spaces where the air is fresh, the litter is sparse, and the roads are clear. Who hasn't been tempted once or twice to scoop up a few remote acres in Western Maryland or on the Eastern Shore to put up a new dream house?
In reality, however, this dream is neither clean nor green. Jenn Aiosa, Maryland senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, weighs in here with four reasons why this is the case. "First, what was that parcel before the house went up?" she asks. "Most likely, it was farmland or forest." Both, of course, are land uses pretty much everyone concerned with the Chesapeake environment wants to preserve.
Second, there are more than a few measly acres on one home site at stake here. In reality, most of these dream houses are built in clusters with other new homes, the development pattern that drives a process experts refer to as "fragmentation," in which big, unbroken swaths of working lands get broken up into smaller, disconnected pieces.
Fragmentation is usually bad news for farmers, as well as for the network of seed suppliers, tractor dealers, and other support operations they count on in their work. When residential housing encroaches on their turf, it tends to draw new and different sorts of businesses to an area—fancy convenience stores, upscale grocers, video stores, dry cleaners, and the like. Often, these new businesses crowd out older, traditional enterprises. Next thing you know, some poor farmer is driving 75 miles just to find some spare parts for his tractor. That's just one in a long list of the aggravations that come with fragmentation.
A third problem necessitates that we engage in some potty talk. "Most of the time," Aiosa says, "the places we're talking about are off of municipal sewage and off of city water. People are putting in septic systems, and the biggest misconception I encounter in my work is from folks who think their septic system doesn't pollute."
The facts say otherwise. There are perhaps 420,000 septic systems in Maryland, a sizeable number of them situated on environmentally sensitive lots along creeks and rivers. Traditional systems, which were never designed to deal with the water-polluting nutrients present in human wastes, allow between 35 and 100 milligrams per liter of this effluent to seep out into the surrounding environment. (New, improved systems that cost a few thousand extra dollars to buy and install can cut that seepage in half.)
City dwellers, by contrast, send their waste out through sewage treatment plants. Thanks to the "flush tax" tacked onto our water bills, Maryland is in the process of upgrading many of those plants to a new standard, "enhanced nutrient removal," or ENR. These ENR plants put septics to shame, releasing just 3 or 4 milligrams of effluent per liter.
Lifestyle issues make up the final problem Aiosa raises. Most folks pursuing a country-life dream keep working at jobs in distant cities, making long daily commutes. They and their fellow newcomers often create a demand for new and wider roads. It adds up to more air pollution, more roadway runoff, and more problems for the Chesapeake Bay.
"When you measure things on a per-capita basis," Aiosa concludes, "living in the city is usually a much cleaner way to go."
Misconception Number Three: Why don't we go after the filthy factories spewing stuff into our rivers?
Once upon a time, this was work that needed doing. That time was about 40 years ago, however. A lot has happened since then, most notably the passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, which did—and still does—a credible job of limiting, regulating, and monitoring pollution flowing from factory discharge pipes into waterways.
Today, this so-called "point-source" pollution from private companies adds up to a tiny and basically irrelevant footnote in serious measures of the pollution problems afflicting the Chesapeake Bay region. The four issues we do need to focus on are these: sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural sources; sediment and nutrient runoff related to residential and commercial land uses; various and complex sources of air pollution, including that from automobiles; and point-source pollution from municipal wastewater treatment plants (which Maryland is already in the process of upgrading, as we've mentioned).
That some folks aren't up to speed yet on this priority list is something Dru Schmidt-Perkins can get a little aggravated about now and again. The executive director of the nonprofit 1000 Friends of Maryland enjoys an occasional rowing trip out in the Inner Harbor, where she sometimes gets to small talking with other folks out there.
"They'll say things like, 'Look how dirty this water is! It's all because of that factory over there, isn't it?'" she says. "I'm like, 'No, it isn't.' They're like, 'Yes, it's all from Beth Steel.' Or some other place like that. I'm constantly trying to explain that what's making the water dirty is runoff from streets, but some people just don't want to believe it."
Misconception Number Four: Developers and environmentalists will never agree on anything.
There are 5.5 million of us Marylanders at the moment. By 2030, there will be 7 million of us. Where the heck are we going to put 1.5 million people? Is it even possible to accommodate them without trashing our environment completely?
These questions were at the heart of Reality Check Maryland, a civic exercise conducted last year during four invitation-only sessions involving 850 people. Participants arriving at the event were assigned to small groups, each an even-handed mix of business leaders, elected officials, housing developers, and environmentalists. They were then told to reach a consensus about the guiding principles Maryland should adopt in dealing with growth issues.
"One of the fun elements of this," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, whose 1000 Friends of Maryland co-sponsored the exercise. "was the way people representing such different interests would look at each other at first and think, 'Oh, man, there's just no way.' Then somebody would speak up. It was almost always somebody from the business community or the development community. They'd say, 'The first thing we have to do is protect the environment.' The other folks at the table would all look at them in surprise: 'Really? OK!'"
The group's next task was to decide where an array of Lego pieces representing the new houses, new jobs, and new businesses should be placed on a map of Maryland. Almost always, the pieces landed either within existing communities or in "priority growth areas" that have already been designated as such by the state.
Here again, the let's-all-sit-down-together approach went pretty smoothly.
"People with typically divergent perspectives on growth and development issues can work together to identify a common vision," says Jason Sartori of Integrated Planning Consultants, the company that helped organize Reality Check. "This may have been the biggest 'a-ha!' revelation for our participants."
Interestingly, the lead financial sponsor of Reality Check was the Home Builders Association of Maryland. That group's Executive Vice President, John Kortecamp, says such cooperative projects undertaken with environmental groups are nothing new for HBAM.
Which brings us to the obvious question: If consensus is so darn achievable, why do we end up mired in bitter disputes such as those that erupted in recent months around Blackwater Resorts in Cambridge and the Four Seasons development on Kent Island? Both proposals eked out one level of approval after another over the course of several years, only to get killed at the last minute by state action taken amid furious public outcry against the projects.
"I don't think the wrong decision was made in either of these cases," Schmidt-Perkins says, "but I do think it's obvious that we need to change the process."
The way she sees it, conflict is basically built into the current approvals process. "We look at wetlands, transportation, schools, stormwater, but we do every one of them separately," she says. "Each involves getting a different permit from a different agency. We never have a chance, especially early on, to stop and consider the whole impact, everything together."
Schmidt-Perkins hopes that Governor Martin O'Malley sets a strong tone here by laying out clear, consistent, and environmentally responsible guidelines about which sorts of development projects will win state support and which won't. Most developers, she suspects, would welcome such guidelines—as long as the state actually sticks to them no matter which way the winds of public opinion are blowing on a particular project.
Kortecamp thinks it's high time Maryland's civic leaders come together and work out sensible approaches to dealing with the growth that's just around the corner. He knows there are a few folks on the green side of the aisle who are skeptical of just about everything developers say and do, but he hopes they find a reality check of their own soon.
"People who are opposed to everything, they're not real environmentalists," he says. "If they were real environmentalists, they'd be looking for solutions, wouldn't they? There's going to be more than a million people moving into Maryland in the next 20 years. They gotta live somewhere. They're gonna live somewhere. The question is, are we going to get that done in a rational way—or not?"
Misconception Number Five: If only we could find an alternative to fossil fuel . . .
Brief historical detour: A century ago, the invention of affordable, gasoline-powered automobiles was a gift from green gods up in heaven. It cleared away the gazillion or so tons of disease-ridden, pollution-laden horse poop that then fouled our roads and our waterways.
So be careful what you ask for, right? And remember that most every solution has a tendency to create problems of its own. So it is with ethanol. A biofuel made most often in this country from corn, it's a leading candidate in the search for a viable alternative to gasoline. Congress wants 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels on the market by 2012. President Bush is talking about 35 billion gallons by 2017. The country has 113 ethanol plants up and running, and another 78 are under construction. (Maryland doesn't have one yet, but three are in various stages of planning.)
Already, demand for corn is soaring. The price farmers get for a bushel has doubled from $2 last year to $4 this year. Is it any surprise that farmers in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland have planted an estimated 200,000 extra acres of corn this season?
The journalist Karl Blankenship has been writing in great detail lately about the complex, unpredictable implications this might have for Chesapeake waterways. He's the editor of Bay Journal, the monthly newspaper put out by the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay that's a great resource for following the region's environmental issues (subscriptions are free at bayjournal.com).
At the moment, ethanol is one of those good-news/bad-news affairs. On the upside, farmers who've endured a long run of marginal bottom lines in recent years are on the verge of making real money. This might well help some of them pay down some debt, upgrade some equipment, and stay in business—saving farmland that would otherwise be lost to residential development.
On the downside, corn ranks as the least environmentally friendly of our region's major crops. Growing it releases more of the polluting nutrient nitrogen into the environment than growing soybeans or grains. Experts cited by Blankenship say the great corn rush of 2007 could add a daunting 15 million pounds of nitrogen to our waterways.
But it's still early in this game, and a lot can change. The vision President Bush is pushing has corn-based ethanol giving way in the near future to switchgrass-based ethanol. A native perennial, switchgrass needs less fertilizer than corn and is stingier about releasing nutrients into the environment. Best of all, you can make much more ethanol out of an acre of switchgrass than you can out of an acre of corn.
But the technology to make ethanol from switchgrass isn't ready yet. Some experts predict it's on the verge; others say the whole notion might be a pipe dream. The federal research dollars pouring into switchgrass may help answer this question soon.
So what should we do in the meantime? That's a debatable call. Policy makers could do some proactive tinkering by sweetening the pot on existing programs that encourage environmental stewardship in the agricultural sector. Mostly, though, it seems like a time to cross our civic fingers and hope for the best while trying to chart a course between the friendly shores of rising farm income and the dangerous shoals of rising nitrogen inputs.
Misconception Number Six: All invasive species are bad.
There's an exception to every rule, and this rule is no exception. Many of the non-native species of plants and animals that invade our Chesapeake ecosystems are, in fact, bad for the environment. Three wanted-poster villains on this front would be the nutria, a hideous-looking South American rodent; the mute swan, an elegant-looking European import; and phragmites, an aggressive bully of a reedgrass. All three have the nasty habit of wreaking havoc on the native grasses that have swayed for so many centuries in wetlands that play a critical role in the self-cleansing mechanisms of the Bay's ecosystem.
But then there's hydrilla. When this invasive underwater grass showed up in the Potomac River in the mid-1980's, it was scorned as a nuisance and a threat. But now that two U.S. Geological Service scientists, Nancy Rybicki and Jurate Landwehr, have spent nearly two decades observing the return of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) to the Potomac, it turns out that hydrilla is a hero.
The study they published earlier this year in Limnology and Oceanographyconcluded that this invader did not crowd out native grasses. Quite the reverse: Its arrival early on in the recovery process of a polluted waterway helped create and spread conditions that allowed a diverse array of native grasses to return and take root. Even the migrating waterfowl are happy, as they seem to love munching on hydrilla.
Misconception Number Seven: If we leave the Bay alone, Mother Nature will fix it.
It seems a sweet enough sentiment, doesn't it? If humans would just keep their hands off for a change, then maybe nature would find her way back to a natural state. Around here, this concept generally involves a bit of wistful talk about what the Chesapeake environment was like before European settlers got here.
It must have been quite a sight to behold, so much cleaner, healthier, and more productive than the one we know. But here's an odd question: Was it truly natural, at least in the sense implied by green buzzwords like "pristine" and "untouched"?
The journalist Charles C. Mann has been all over this one lately. His 2006 bestseller, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, shows that everything we learned in grade school about life in the Americas before Europeans arrived was pretty much dead wrong.
Leave nature alone? That's an idea virtually all Native American societies rejected, judging by a historical record that shows them managing their surroundings in ways far more aggressive and extensive than anyone ever suspected. Surveying current scholarship about environmental practices in a broad cross-section of cultures in North and South America, Mann reports that while some indigenous societies managed nature in brilliant, sustainable ways, others made monumental blunders that left huge stretches of land barren and uninhabitable.
In the May 2007 issue of National Geographic, Mann turns his attention to our own Chesapeake region in an article about the establishment of the Jamestown colony. He describes how the wide-open forests that so impressed Europeans were really a creation of Native American land-management practices, like the regular burning of underbrush. He reports that the local tribes built a strong agricultural sector, clearing large swaths of land for corn and other crops.
The notion that there was an untouched Chesapeake of yore that we're striving to return to is a myth. The last time this place wasn't managed by human societies to one degree or another was 12,000 years ago, when the woods were full of woolly mammoths.
Mann makes a related point in his article. It concerns how successful the earliest of European settlers were in altering their new surroundings in profound, irreversible ways. He's not talking here about the usual suspects of environmental degradation—the smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution, say, or fleets of vessels depleting a fishery.
Rather, he's referring to the likes of earthworms and honeybees, a pair of species we rarely even think about as invasive species. But the first earthworms to wiggle on North American soil did so after hitching a ride from Europe, probably in the balls of soil that tobacco plants were packed in. Isn't it amazing to think that these worms could conquer a whole continent? But they did it, and along the way they altered forever the ecology and composition of American forests.
Jamestown's colonists didn't understand how pollination worked. No one did back then. How were they to know that the their imported honey suppliers had the power to conquer the New World as well, forever changing its mix of flowers and trees?
Nostalgic rhetoric is popular among us environmentalist types. We're always blabbing about simpler times and cleaner ways from one set of good old days or another. There's no harm in it really, but it is a bit of a lie.
There is no going backward here. We simply can't find our way to a Chesapeake without earthworms and honeybees.
There is only going forward in the work of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. What we're looking for are new, respectful and, above all, effective ways of working with nature to give the Bay a fuller measure of health and a brighter, more stable future. That way, she'll be even more beautiful and productive for our grandchildren than she has been for us. It may not be easy being green, but it's still the way to go.