On a picture perfect afternoon in mid-May on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I was reminded of the importance of what a small group of committed citizens can accomplish.

The Queen Anne's Conservation Association marked its 50th anniversary, making it the oldest conservation group on the Eastern Shore. Its event drew dozens of supporters and dignitaries.

Former U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest stopped by. “I’m here to tell all of you that what you’re doing is important, it’s vital, it makes a difference,” he said.

The event took place on the lavender farm operated by the group’s leader, Jay Falstad and his wife, Christa. Falstad got involved after purchasing the 14-acre farm in February 2000. Shortly thereafter, he was talking to neighbors while walking along the small lake that abuts the property.

“Hey, you heard about the landfill, right?” one of them asked.

“No” Falstad responded. He was told about plans to build a landfill along the lake. What really got his attention was being informed, “you’re the first house downstream.”

That started Falstad’s involvement with the group, which was originally formed to battle a planned nuclear power plant. Since 2009, he’s been its executive director (and staff) fighting harmful projects like the landfill.

The group has been involved in a host of activities over the years, warding off developments that would fundamentally alter Queen Anne County’s character; protecting natural areas; educating the public; joining litigation when necessary; and watchdogging development — recently it’s been using a drone to document violations of environmental regulations, some of which have resulted in fines. 

Lately, the group’s been fighting plans for a new Bay Bridge. Former Gov. Parris Glendening, who is now president of the organization Smart Growth America, cheered that effort, saying the new bridge would just lead to loss of forests, disruption of local communities — and likely even more traffic congestion over the long term.

“Sometimes people get discouraged because the decisions and problems and challenges seem so big, and you wonder if there is anything you can do,” he said. 

He recounted the tale of a boy who watched a man return a starfish to the water from a beach filled with stranded starfish. “What are you doing?” the boy asked. “There are so many here, you can’t possibly make a difference.” The man picked up another starfish and tossed it back. “It made a difference to that one,” he said.

After reading all of the state watershed implementation plans aimed at achieving Bay cleanup goals, as well as many of the comments submitted about them, I’m far from convinced that the plans will be fully implemented, and almost certainly 
not by 2025. 

But if enough people take action on their own local waterways and communities, it can make a difference for those streams and localities. At a time when movement on big issues often seems slow, it is encouraging to see the enthusiasm that can surround a small group — and the big difference it can make.