This article is part of a series produced in partnership with Maryland Public Television (MPT) for the Chesapeake Bay Summit, broadcast during Chesapeake Bay Week.


“A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.” — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Some may say the future of the Chesapeake Bay, and its watershed, hinges on new laws, regulations and stepped-up enforcement. Joel Dunn thinks it needs something more fundamental.

It needs, he said during an appearance on Maryland Public Television’s Chesapeake Bay Summit last year, a new environmental ethic.

In a recent interview, the president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy expanded on that point as he laid on the table of his Annapolis office a tattered copy of Aldo Leopold’s 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac, its binding broken, pages detached.

“I brought it with me when I hitchhiked across the country when I was 17,” he said, explaining its condition. The much-used book has been “a guiding concept,” Dunn said, particularly the essay in which Leopold established his land ethic.

Ethics guide people’s actions and establish what is important to them. Leopold’s essay — which has been a guiding principle for many environmentalists for more than 60 years — called for a new land ethic that would change the relationship between humans and nature.

In Leopold’s view, people rely on communities to provide mutual support, but he broadened the definition of community to include the land and ecosystem that support them:

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.”

It is that connection, Dunn said, that many people lack. “I feel it is something that our society as a whole is not in tune with, unfortunately. And it’s a problem. It’s a big problem. Because what is happening outside these doors is ultimately affected by people’s ethics.”

In the Bay context, that lack of ethic has produced a top-down program that relies on regulations to protect the estuary’s water quality. That approach, in many instances, has fostered resentment and sometimes resistance among local governments and citizens — even among those who live closest to the land.

The regulations are necessary, Dunn acknowledged, because too many people and too many governmental leaders lack an ethic that compels them to conserve the Bay and its landscape. Protection has become something they have to do, rather than something they want to do.

“Regulations are important,” he said, “but if society at large doesn’t support the idea of cleaning up the Bay, and that desire is just some federal edict, and it doesn’t translate down to the local level and the individual property owner, I don’t know if we will ever get to where we need to go.”

It’s not just the Bay that has suffered.

The eastern gray wolf, wolverine, wapiti, moose and bison are gone from its watershed. Some species, like the passenger pigeon, are found only in museums, because they are extinct. Many others are on a growing list of threatened and endangered species. In Pennsylvania alone, more than a third of the native fish species are extirpated.

The vast old-growth forests that dominated the region when those species reigned are largely gone as well. So are the chestnut trees that once towered in those woodlands. Hemlock and ash are rapidly disappearing.

One of principles of Leopold’s land ethic is that nature be allowed a place to thrive in the future.

“A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state,” Leopold wrote.

But with 18 million people living in the watershed and more on the way, protecting landscapes and habitats only becomes more difficult. Just last November, for instance, the elected leaders of Richmond County, VA, approved a development atop Fones Cliffs overlooking the Rappahannock River. It was a tract known for its eagle nests and sweeping views of a largely unspoiled section of the river. Dunn and other conservationists had hoped to add it to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

On a river trip below the cliffs last fall, Dunn saw 50 bald eagles over the course of an hour. “I can’t imagine Harper not having that opportunity when she grows up because it is a big golf course with massive homes and stuff on it,” he said, referring to his infant daughter. “But it plays out over and over again.”

Unfortunately, funds that would protect those lands, at both the federal and state level, are often on the budget chopping block.

Leopold did not believe that land should not be used. He recognized that land is needed to support human communities, but he did not define that support solely as sustenance and shelter. Connections to the land, he argued, support the human spirit, too. When those connections are felt, and lived, Leopold believed that a land ethic follows: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Land, to Leopold, was something to be experienced. Land conservancies focus on protecting important places for that same reason.

“I think that future generations deserve to have a place to thrive and enjoy, and woods to explore, and playgrounds to climb, and streams to run around in and fish,” Dunn said.

The idea of planning for future generations did not originate with Leopold, of course.  Dunn points to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, with which he has worked over the years on Susquehanna River issues. Their tradition is to think seven generations — roughly 140 years — into the future when considering the impact of their decisions.

“It’s a way of pulling everything back, and not moving hastily on any issue,” said Sid Jamieson, a Haudenosaunee involved with conservation issues along the Susquehanna. “If we enact this policy, what does the future look like seven generations from now? When you look at issues that way, it is more deliberative, there is probably more discussion, and there is probably more thought.”

This concept does not mesh well with the modern push to maximize short-term profits or base decisions on a cost-benefit analysis.

“The native people believe that all people have a place, all things have a purpose, and all things have a meaning,” Jamieson said. “And that is why they believe so strongly in the environmental kinds of concepts.”

While thinking about the distant future may seem an abstraction, modern technology is making it less so. Scientists are producing ever-more-confident projections of the impacts of climate change and sea level rise a century or more into the future.

Dunn, whose organization has been investing in state-of-the-art technology to map land use, said people will soon be able to project the impact of development decisions on land — and habitats — a century into the future as well.

“We can think now, how is that going to affect the landscape, the waterways, the towns and cities nearby for 100 or more years into the future?” Dunn said.

Dunn believes this know-how will provide more tangible evidence that today’s actions have far-reaching consequences, some of which are unwelcome or unintended. “You have got to fundamentally change how people are approaching land management,” he said.

One can look to the past for other examples. Dunn noted this is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which was organized to manage and protect the growing number of parks and preserves being created at that time, primarily in the West.

“Conservation leaders had the vision to create a sustained system of parks that inspires our culture and society to care about the environment, and save those places for future generations,” Dunn said.

“It’s a reminder of somebody who thought 100-plus years ahead to save the things that matter,” he continued, “and ensure that future generations could see El Capitan, or climb among the Muir Woods and the redwoods and see those amazing places — things that just change the way you look at the world.”

The question for the Bay and its watershed is how to inspire the connections that make a land ethic a growing part of our culture, our civic leadership and our individual choices.

Dunn believes that land conservation — and public access to conserved lands — can help. “Experience is essential to meaningful engagement in the Bay restoration movement,” he said. “We’ve placed a lot of emphasis on schoolkids having a meaningful Bay experience, but I think adults need to have regular meaningful experiences, too.”

Land use poses a problem for that goal, too: Ninety-eight percent of the Bay’s shoreline is privately owned. “When you can’t get there, it is a major barrier,” Dunn said. “So what we want is enough money to buy the really important special places that are symbolic, and provide an important function, and use that as a way to inspire people to make systematic changes.”

But conservancies can’t buy all of the land that’s needed to save the Bay; building a land ethic in people, and within society, is essential. Individual values, which create a combined cultural outlook, matter deeply.

“If everybody in the Chesapeake were fully committed to restoring the Bay, and willing to devote the energy, time and voting for the people that reflect those values, I think we would be in a very different place,” Dunn said.


About the Chesapeake Bay Summit

After more than three decades of effort and billions of dollars spent, the Chesapeake Bay continues to suffer with poor water quality, and fisheries are a shadow of what they were in the estuary’s heyday.

In 2015, Maryland Public Television invited a panel of experts to its studio in Owings Mills to air some ideas for how to overcome obstacles to the Bay’s restoration and make it more effective. The resulting special broadcast, The Chesapeake Bay Summit: Charting a Course, was produced in partnership with the Bay Journal.

Now, on the anniversary of that pioneering summit, this issue of Bay Journal takes a closer look at a few of those ideas.

  • What if the Bay’s farmers were put on “nutrient budgets,” with all government payments they receive contingent on them sticking within strict limits of how much fertilizer they could spread on their fields? That’s had some success reducing runoff in Denmark. Read the article.
  • Instead of imposing more Bay cleanup rules and requirements, what if more effort were put into enforcing the ones we already have, holding polluters and governments alike accountable when they fail to comply? Read the article.
  • What the Bay really needs is a stronger environmental ethic among the people who live in its vast watershed. We could learn from the Haudenosaunee, native Americans whose tradition calls for basing their actions on how they’ll affect the future seven generations from now.

Much of the discussion at that first Bay Summit focused on agriculture, the leading source of the nutrient and sediment pollution impairing the Chesapeake’s waters.

In April 2016, MPT and the  Bay Journal have teamed up again to convene a new summit. It will focus on one of the knottiest problems confronting the Chesapeake — the watershed’s growing population and the impact that new development has on the estuary’s health. The hourlong discussion will be broadcast live during Chesapeake Bay Week at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27.