By John R. Wennersten
Sprawl continues at an unprecedented rate in the mid-Atlantic. Despite efforts at "Smart Growth," almost everyone has seen negative changes to his or her local environment.
Growth occurs principally along transportation corridors. Real estate development and urban sprawl have a silent ally in the federal highway system. Interstates, like I-81 that traverses the mid-Atlantic, have channeled exurban development. New developments along the route often have larger populations than the town or village with which they share a zip code. And "countryside" increasingly is being replaced by "mallside," with homogenized stores from coast to coast.
As suburbs spread outward in all directions from cities, farmland is increasingly in demand for development. In Virginia and West Virginia, sheep and cattle farms have given way to burgeoning neighborhoods of commuters who clog country roads and drive hours each way to their workplace. In Maryland, the State Highway Administration recently removed more than 250 miles from its scenic roads program, thanks to sprawl.
The orchard belt of the Chesapeake region, which once included hundreds of peach and apple farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, is being swallowed. The land is worth far more than the fruit that it produces. In Adams County, Pa., the site of the Gettysburg National Battlefield, apple farmers acknowledge they are a vanishing species, and the range of agribusinesses associated with orchards and general agriculture is disappearing as well. Ironically, the citizens of Gettysburg, until recently, thought themselves too far away from urban centers to be affected by sprawl.
But it is no longer only our countryside that is being transformed out of existence. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, our rivers and seascapes are being changed forever. As sprawl destroys forests and fields, the connectivity of wetlands, forest and wildlife habitat and waterways is being ruined. Small wonder that suburbanites are surprised when hungry black bears forage in their garbage and deer eat their flowers.
You know that a way of life is vanishing when the memorabilia collectors arrive. Throughout the Chesapeake, collectors are avidly scooping up the remnants of Maryland's oyster industry: packing cans, dredges, photographs, shucking tools and packing house invoice books. What was once a vibrant industry has succumbed to disease, pollution and development. Hundreds of packing houses from Kent Island to Oyster, Virginia have disappeared. Only a few remain to process oysters trucked from Louisiana. Oysters, which sold for $1.50 a gallon in 1974, now sell for almost that much apiece in Washington, DC restaurants. Soon people will have difficulty understanding why a village was named Bivalve.
Economic change adds to the transformation. Tobacco reigned for four centuries as southern Maryland's cash crop. Since the state bought out Maryland's tobacco farmers, their numbers have diminished from 1,000 to about 150. With tobacco fast fading from the Chesapeake landscape, the old tobacco curing barns become relics.
There is more truth to the cliché, "You can't stop progress," than we care to admit. The population of the United States that demographer and social analyst Leon Bouvier argued was "sustainable at 175 million people" has nearly doubled that amount. In the midst of the Shenandoah Valley or up the Susquehanna River, one can get into traffic jams that resemble the worst urban gridlock.
What is the main force that threatens our lifestyle? It is political power, the force of domination. When a Chesapeake waterman finds his crabs or oysters overwhelmed by pollution, he feels the rough hand of lobbyists who have worked behind the scenes to keep stronger regulations at bay. When orchard owners discover that their aquifer is being hijacked by new zoning regulations and developments, meaning that they can't irrigate their trees during summer drought, they feel the blunt instrument of real estate interests that want to grow houses rather than crops. When the state forces tobacco farmers out of business, we see political decisions turning people into museum pieces. Thus, our treatment of our lands and waters raises serious questions about political power and its social uses.
Not everything that is disappearing is just quaint or archaic. Not everything that is disappearing should be thoughtlessly dismissed. In the process of changing our landscape and seascape, we risk losing the essence of what defines us as a culture. As social critic James Conaway wrote in his recent book, Vanishing America, "We have to protest against our seeming national willingness to wreck nature and neighborhoods."
John R. Wennersten is the author of numerous books on the Chesapeake Bay and regional environments in the Mid-Atlantic. His most recent work is Chesapeake Bay: An Environmental Biography.
This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.
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