Random thoughts from a train trip to Williamsburg in March:
The good news for those of you up north is that spring is really on the way. The maples are red with blossoms, the buds are breaking on the pears and the magnolias are trying to put forth what is left of their blooms after being hit by the late snows and frosts. Even my allergies are beginning to act up, a sure sign.
Everyone always tells me how much they like taking the train, but nobody ever seems to actually do it. I am clearly the only person attending this conference of environmentalists who has chosen this mode: “What, there’s train service to Williamsburg? Where’s the station?” It never occurs to people to ask, even though it is the overnight train from Boston, so you can quite conveniently take it down in the morning and back in the afternoon. It’s an easy walk from the station to the Conference Center.
And there’s plenty of room; only two others disembarked with me in Williamsburg, and maybe a half dozen got on for the trip home. They were mostly European tourists, who haven’t heard that only weirdos ride trains in America. Who would want to sit and look at the scenery for three and a half hours when you can drive it on the interstates in three, or take a plane for six times the fare? Of course, this isn’t exactly the TGV; I wonder if the tourists will report home to their friends how it took half an hour to creep and rock over eight miles of decrepit roadbed through the Richmond railyards.
The pervasive beauty of the Virginia countryside always amazes me. The ponds and creeks and embayments along the Potomac begin to pass by one after another soon after you cross the Washington beltway, each one a little wilder than the last as you work your way to Quantico, the first stop. Then comes mile after mile of tall pine forests, with occasional farms and villages, and lots of grade crossings, each approached with the wailing train whistle. It is the day after the tragic AMTRAK wreck in Illinois, and everyone seems a bit anxious as they wait in their cars and trucks.
After Richmond, there is a long stretch on trestles through magnificent cypress swamps. While we usually think of these as still and mysterious places, at this time of year the waters are flowing quickly around the trunks, and many streams are out of their banks. Occasionally, you see deer along the edges and in one field, a flock of pheasant were having a friendly confab. It is difficult to return to your reading when you are passing through such places.
What is most impressive all along the route is how extensive the forests are, and how much of the ground there is covered with water. These are the famed “winter wet woods” in their full glory at this time of the year. At present, they are absorbing and holding the snowmelt and the early spring rains until later in the year, when these are released through the groundwater. These woods are an essential part of our Chesapeake ecosystem and have performed this conservation function for eons.
But they are resources under threat, in part because they are often unprotected by state and federal wetlands laws. Because they are seasonal and their soils could be dry by summer, they are often treated not as wetlands, but as low-value land that needs to be filled. And, because they are so extensive, a little loss here or there has been considered acceptable.
The problem is that lots of little losses quickly add up to big losses. So today, the largest area of wetland losses in the Chesapeake watershed is not tidal areas, but these very important and neglected winter wet woods.
The new administration in Richmond is supposed to be studying ways to improve the protection and restoration of wetlands, but the General Assembly just finished its 1999 session and nothing got proposed. Another year of exposure to losses seems in store.
Richmond is a visual mess. The train passes acres and acres of abandoned warehouses and factories, endless junkyards and other depositories of the effluvia of our civilization. The grand old downtown passenger station remains boarded up; the train creeps past and continues to a pathetic new station stuck somewhere out in the suburbs. I am told that there are plans to restore the old station and reopen it. But it looks like it won’t be in my lifetime.
You look at all this abandoned and misused land so near the center of the city, and you have to wonder. Here is an area that could probably accommodate the next two decades of growth in the region. Instead, Metropolitan Richmond continues to spread in all directions, slopping in the north almost to Ashland, a lovely old college town where the train runs right down the main street, past rows of old Victorian homes on both sides. If ever the look of a region cried out for urban growth boundaries, it would be Richmond. Yet the most recent session of the General Assembly actually took steps to remove from local governments their powers to manage growth. Maybe they should have taken the train to work.
And the sad news is that this was the last session of the General Assembly for two of the most forceful advocates for the Chesapeake Bay. Both Delegate Tayloe Murphy of the Northern Neck and Senator Joseph Gartlan of Fairfax County have announced their retirements.
I remember working with Senator Gartlan in the mid-’70s on coastal management legislation for Virginia; he was a voice in the wilderness. While most other coastal states moved forward with programs to protect their coasts and bays under effective state laws, Virginia joined Georgia, Texas and a couple of Great Lakes states as the holdouts. Not very impressive company. But Joe Gartlan persevered, and eventually the laws were passed to make federal approval of the commonwealth’s coastal program possible more than a decade later.
Tayloe Murphy has been responsible for most of the important Chesapeake Bay legislation enacted by Virginia in the past decade, including the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Act. As strong an advocate as he was for the Bay, he did not win all the battles; his efforts to get the commonwealth to deal with issues of growth management fell on deaf ears despite his personal sponsorship of a study group for a number of years. But, he did recently lead the effort which resulted in the unanimous approval of new laws to manage poultry waste, proving to the end his ability to get people to work together for the Bay.
The view from the train makes clear that these two leaders will be missed in Virginia and beyond.