Bay Journal

Our success depends on establishing the right measures

  • By Frances H. Flanigan on October 01, 1998
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What’s the measure of success?

In many of life’s endeavors, this deceptively simple and straightforward question proves devilishly hard to answer. If you are a student, is it an A, a 1450 on the SATs, a sports accomplishment or creative goal? As an employee, do you measure success in dollars, in the quality of a performance review or in the satisfaction you get from the job? Do governments measure success in terms of Gross National Product, jobs, crime statistics, peace objectives or all of these and more?

The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is bedeviled by similar difficulties and complexities when it comes to describing what the success criteria for the Bay are. It has been accepted pretty much as an article of faith that the Bay cannot — and will not — return to the fairly pristine condition found by John Smith in 1608. The legendary bounties recorded in Smith’s journals as he explored the system is as close to an unexploited state as possible. The watershed was almost completely forested and the land was inhabited by thousands (not millions) of people. These conditions cannot be restored.

So as we look for measures by which to gauge the success (or lack of) of all the work designed to abate and prevent pollution and protect and restore habitats and resources, we need to find appropriate success criteria.

The Chesapeake Bay Program has developed an extensive series of environmental “indicators” — measurable things like acres of grass, miles of buffers, improvement in the prevention of pollutant releases and so forth. But many of these indicators depict trends rather than goals. How much grass is enough? How many trees are necessary to protect the streams? How many pounds of phosphorus does the Bay need, and how many are too much?

Some of the success criteria for the Bay must, of course, be science-based. Others are more likely to be related to societal values that reflect our collective vision of what we hope and wish this place to be in the future. There’s a trick, of course, to figuring out which is which. The work of defining success for the Bay is ongoing. It’s a job that can’t be left to a few people.

All of us who care about the Bay need to demand good information about the current state of the Bay and engage in dialogue about what will constitute success. If we cannot have the Bay of John Smith’s day, what will the restored Bay of the future look like?

The Alliance is undertaking a review of the Bay effort that will focus principally on aspects of the work not often discussed. For example, do all key stakeholders feel that their views are adequately considered in decision- making? Are the institutional arrangements of the effort appropriate for resolving conflicts and addressing new issues? Are decisions science-based? Are goals reflective of public desires, and are they clear and measurable?

If you are interested in getting involved in this work, or simply stating your views as to what constitutes “success” for the Bay, let us hear from you.

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About Frances H. Flanigan

Frances H. Flanigan is a public affairs consultant and the former executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. This commentary was recently presented at the National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration in Orlando, FL.

Read more articles by Frances H. Flanigan


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