Ryan Schuessler nosed his kayak into the marsh, looking up as a snowy egret soared overhead. He inhaled the smell of salt and inched closer to the grassy plants as his guide told how Harriet Tubman smuggled people through these same waters.
Schuessler, a reporter from the St. Louis area, was taking it all in — the history, the scenery and the notion that this lush landscape was a Midwest commuter’s distance from Annapolis and even Washington, DC.
“I didn’t think this is what Maryland would look like,” he said.
Many of the 14 other journalists on the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources tour had much of the same reaction as the group embarked on the IJNR’s first Chesapeake Bay Institute in more than a decade. The prevailing perception in the rest of the country is that Maryland and Virginia are suburban — places with townhouses and two-car garages and inhabitants who work in Washington, DC, Baltimore or Richmond.
But just as Schuessler’s Midwest is about more than cornfields, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is about more than sprawl. In a packed, four-day trip, IJNR’s leaders introduced the group to a cross section of problems facing the Chesapeake as well as to the leaders working on solutions. The group toured a chicken farm with industry leaders and heard from activists who oppose the expansion of poultry houses in Princess Anne. They saw the Baltimore trash wheel in action and examined stormwater success stories, but also meandered into the Gwynns Falls in Carroll Park to see the sewage outfall and the trash littering the waterways.
IJNR’s leaders also organized a “TMDL day” to discuss the Chesapeake Bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet. For a clear picture on sea-level rise, the group visited Tangier Island. Brenda Davis, crab manager for the Department of Natural Resources, explained the intricacies of the crab fishery in the two states. Casey Todd, owner of Metompkin Seafood, showed the group how high the waters reached in Superstorm Sandy and how he has succeeded in the seafood business where others have not. The scenery helped with the picture, too — the group spent two days at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Karen Noonan Memorial Environmental Education Center in low-lying Bishop’s Head, much to the chagrin of IJNR’s good-natured bus driver. Navigating the flood-prone road, barely raised above the surrounding marsh, is harrowing in a passenger car during the day; it is even more so in a motor coach at dark.
Tristan Baurick, who covers the environment beat for the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, WA, said he applied to the institute because he wanted to see the parallels between the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound. The sound struggles with some of the same issues as the Bay: algae blooms, sewage spills and a combined stormwater and sewage system in Seattle and King County that often overflows. And yet, Baurick said, he was surprised to learn about swim advisories after rainfalls and about riverkeepers and counties that put out fecal coliform warnings.
“Nobody ever says ‘you can’t swim.’ That was amazing to me,’” Baurick said.
As a resident of Bainbridge Island, Baurick was particularly taken with Tangier. Though Bainbridge is now a wealthy community with many Seattle commuters, it was once a small fishing village.
“We’re dealing with some of these same problems,” Baurick said of the Puget Sound and the Bay. “I don’t think either of us have the solutions to those problems.”
The IJNR receives many applications but chooses about 15 participants for each of these institutes. Participating journalists work in television, radio, print and online media. The Chesapeake Institute included Daniella Cheslow, who came from Tel Aviv, Israel, as well as local reporters Rachel Pacella of the Delmarva Daily Times and Pamela D’Angelo of Virginia Public Radio.
The institure has been taking journalists into the field for 20 years. Recent institutes have focused on energy in New Mexico; the sage grouse in the West; wolves and other endangered species in Michigan; fracking in Ohio and Pennsylvania; and climate change near Lake Superior.
Dave Spratt, the IJNR’s executive director, said the Chesapeake Bay fulfilled many of the characteristics he looks for in an institute.
“We look for places where we can find sort of an acute nexus of environmental science, culture and economics. When we can find those places, we also find a lot of stories that haven’t necessarily been told that we think provide a good training ground for journalists,” he said. “The Chesapeake Bay also happens to be a place that’s spectacularly beautiful, with a rich heritage and a lot of people who are deeply invested in its future. It didn’t take long for us to see it was a great choice.”
Reporters also heard perspectives they didn’t expect. On Tangier, Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge shared the same sentiments that he and many other Shore residents told the Bay Journal last year for our series Come High Water: That the sea isn’t rising any more than it did, and the problems with land loss are from erosion.
Sharon Oosthoek, a Canadian journalist, said though she disagreed with his perspective, she thought it was still one that needed to be heard.
“That’s not a point of view that should be sunk,” she said. “I didn’t find it disturbing so much as something worth giving ink to. People are going to be forced to leave their homes because of rising sea levels. This is where it’s starting. And it is not going to be easy.”