This ‘half measure’ might be enough to save Bay for next generation

“A man knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” Although the author of this quote is under debate, there is no debate over the truth it contains. 

Eighteen million people call the Bay watershed home. That means we have 18 million reasons to protect this landscape and, incidentally, we will have an additional 4 million reasons by 2050. If we don’t increase our focus on protecting and restoring the Chesapeake, our children and grandchildren won’t experience the same Bay that we do today — full of wildlife, history and wonder.

The World Wildlife Fund recently released a startling report that said, on average, we have seen a 60 percent decline in the world’s mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations since 1970. That means over the course of two generations, we have seen more than half the world’s wildlife disappear.

If I am honest with myself, I am not surprised that the numbers are as high as they are. I have witnessed firsthand the impact that deforestation has in all of the various places I have lived throughout my 41 years — New England, the Pacific Northwest, Central and South America, and most recently, the Chesapeake. The WWF’s findings simply add up all of the habitat loss and land use changes into one solid statistic.

Globally, it is clear that our natural assets can no longer be taken for granted. Closer to home, we must take action to make sure that the Chesapeake remains a thriving ecosystem for generations. We would want Rachel Carson to confirm to our grandchildren that spring is just as boisterous as we remember it being as children.

We would want Aldo Leopold to confirm that the “fierce green fire” has not died out. We would want Teddy Roosevelt to tell us that we have been fierce stewards of the most glorious heritage a people ever received.

We need to adopt the Native American philosophy of thinking seven generations into the future — and plan and act for them. In the face of global catastrophe, it’s time to do things wildly differently and to think and plan at previously unimaginable spatial scales.

Noted conservationist E. O. Wilson, author of Half-Earth, proposes a bold plan to save our imperiled biosphere: Conserve half the surface of the Earth, both land and ocean, to maintain nature.

It’s time to put serious consideration into setting a goal of maintaining half of the Chesapeake Bay watershed by conserving and restoring working lands and natural lands and the places that matter for the future of our region. Something like this can and should only be done with willing landowners and using precision conservation techniques, so that it is done at the direction of communities and in the right places on the landscape.

In November, the Wyss Foundation launched an unprecedented $1 billion campaign to help nations conserve 30 percent of the planet by the year 2030. “From the forests that supply our drinking water to the rugged backcountry that inspires the imagination of our children, everyone on Earth has a stake in conserving our planet’s wild places before they are gone,” said Hansjörg Wyss, the philanthropist who launched the Wyss Foundation. Both Wilson and Wyss are thinking big, and we need to take the same approach in the Chesapeake.

Currently, approximately 22 percent of the land area in the Chesapeake watershed is conserved. This includes important working lands, rich farmlands and productive forests, as well as our natural lands, including national and state parks and wildlife areas.

In comparison, approximately 11 percent of the watershed is developed. A distant goal of protecting 50 percent of the watershed’s working lands and natural lands would still leave around 39 percent available for future growth and development and other needs of society.

The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement committed to protecting 2 million acres of additional land by 2025, along with 300 new public access sites. It’s now almost 2019, and we’re halfway to both the 2-million-acre goal and the access goal, which is certainly something to celebrate.

But we need to begin to identify goals beyond 2025. We’ve gotten this far with an “all of the above” strategy, bringing together federal, state and local officials; private landowners; philanthropists; non-profit advocates; ecosystem investors; Native American tribes; and many others to share knowledge, financial resources and innovative solutions. Importantly, we have also begun to move from viewing conservation as individual acts to conserving and connecting larger ecosystems.

We all want a vibrant economy, strong communities with places to work and live, working farms and forests, vital habitat for native wildlife and clean water. We also want to preserve our shared heritage, recreational opportunities and quality of life. And, we should consider all of the interests, needs and desires that come to bear on our beloved Chesapeake in forums where all may feel free to learn, be open and transparent, and listen to others.

Let’s take Wilson’s and Wyss’ ideas to our own backyard and, with those insights as a beacon, seriously think through how these ideas apply to our Chesapeake Bay and watershed.

For us all, it is time to think big, because our Chesapeake is the biggest asset we all share, and with careful stewardship, we can pass on something we are proud of to our children and grandchildren. This is the goal of a lifetime.

Joel Dunn is the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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