Two new films help identify what might be undertaken to save the Chesapeake


We are nearly a decade into the modern era of bay-saving that began with two seminal acknowledgments by state and federal government at a conference in 1983:

* The Chesapeake was in broad decline, and humans were causing much of it. (Hard to believe it took so long to say that officially.)

* The cure lay in treating the bay as part of something much larger than its 200-mile length -- as part of a 64,000-square-mile watershed with thousands of rivers and streams and a population of 14 million.

No one ever thought or claimed in 1983 that the job would be done by now, but enough time has passed for assessing progress: How are we doing? Will it be enough? What will it take?

Two major new documentary films completed this summer tackle the issue in different ways. "Watershed for the Chesapeake" was produced by the University of Maryland's Sea Grant College. "Chesapeake: Living Off the Land," comes from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a private, non-profit environmental organization with more than 80,000 members.

On the question of progress, the Bay Foundation's answers are tough and succinct.

Despite the considerable and laudable cleanup effort, begins narrator Walter Cronkite, it is clear that "business as usual will not restore the bay." What "Living Off the Land" delivers, he continues, is "a fundamentally new view" of how people must act if they want a restored Chesapeake.

Thirty minutes long, the film does not attempt to be comprehensive. But, better than any documentary to date, it creates an ecological perspective, a coherent, understandable rationale for preserving and restoring the Chesapeake's remaining natural features.

The bay is linked to its watershed lands as intimately as a tree to the soil. Life in the estuary evolved in harmony with the lands whose drainage feeds it.

But humans have "redesigned" the historic watershed -- cut nearly half its forests, filled and drained more than half its wetlands and disrupted the age-old balance between land and water. Human activity also has ravaged the bay bottom, stripping it of oysters and underwater grass beds.

The film explains that forests, wetlands, grasses and oysters all helped filter and cleanse the water supply. They were part of a system of natural resilience, helping the bay help itself.

"Learning how to live in this web without further destroying it," Walter Cronkite tells us, is what people must do if they truly want to save the bay.

They must learn to live differently, he continues. They must preserve open space and stop producing so much pollution. Change is essential, because another 3 million people are expected to move into the bay region by the year 2020.

It is a tough message, invoking as it does the specter of limits; and it presents a radical and badly needed counterpoint to conventional economics, which values billion-dollar sewage-treatment plants but scarcely credits natural systems like oysters and forests with providing the same services.

What we don't value, we tend to cut and over-harvest.

A documentary like this could have turned out sounding preachy, but the beautiful photography in "Living Off the Land" helps avoid that, as does the narration by Cronkite, Mr. Reassuring himself.

Having said we must fundamentally change our ways and limit our current behaviors, the film leaves me wanting to see more on how to do that. The solution is not a longer film, but a sequel.

I think a great deal of the success of bay restoration hinges on selling the public on alternative behaviors. An example: The evils of sprawl development are well known; but few people are convinced that more compact housing is compatible with a high quality of life.

At a full 60 minutes, the University of Maryland's "Watershed for the Chesapeake" is the more comprehensive and historical of the two documentaries. It weaves its story of environmental decline and restoration around three compelling personalities.

Jack Russell, a St. Mary's County waterman, is tracked through the decade that followed his bold decision in 1979 to build and launch the Dee of St. Mary's, which at the time was the first addition to Maryland's historic oyster skipjack fleet in a quarter century.

He talks about oystering with the Dee when catches were good, and oystering now, when: "you're working sunup to sundown for bushels . . . believe me, all the romance and nostalgia goes out of it."

Walt Boynton is a top ecosystems ecologist who came here two decades ago to study how the bay worked at a level of detail and sophistication that only other Ph.D.'s might fully appreciate; but he also just loves the bay, and isn't afraid to voice unscientific sentiments such as:

"I have this basic feeling that healthy environments tend to support healthy people . . . it's one of my strongest defenses [for cleaning up the bay]."

Bernie Fowler, now a Maryland state senator, has become a local legend in Southern Maryland for his crusade to clean up his native Patuxent River. Some of the film's nicest moments capture Bernie's annual "wade-in," where the senator and his friends try to spot their toes while shoulder-deep in the river, which was clear enough to see that far down when Bernie was a young man.

In its technical explanations of what is causing the bay's problems, the film is first rate. It features the best computer graphics displays I've seen to portray hard-to-visualize problems like low oxygen invading the estuary.

The film tackles one of the knottiest problems facing the bay, pollution from agriculture, a major industry in more than a quarter of the watershed.

But the film fails to convey the minimal progress being made with farm pollution, and barely touches on another controversial component of the bay's decline -- overfishing.

I wish the film had a bit more of an edge; perhaps that's asking too much from a part of the state bureaucracy. At 60 minutes, "Watershed" drags, and will be too long for many classroom uses. I'd urge UM to produce a shorter version soon.

Generally these films and others about the Chesapeake are available on video for home or school viewing. Check with the sponsoring organization or your local library.

Here are two oldies but goodies I'd highly recommend:

"The Twilight Estuary," from UM's Sea Grant College; 40 minutes; chronicles the scientific detective work that found the cause of the underwater grasses' mysterious decline. Excellent and fascinating.

"The Sailing Oystermen," from the 1965 CBS series "20th Century" with Walter Cronkite; 30 minutes; a classic of the days before the skipjack fleet declined. The film crew spent weeks aboard the bay's top skipjacks "and cost us right many oysters," one of the few surviving captains told me last year.

There is only one 16mm print of this around -- at the Enoch Pratt Library. The documentary is booked through October. It would be a pity if this piece of film can't be reproduced by CBS to preserve it.

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