It's insane to put a price on the Chesapeake Bay


Suppose the Chesapeake is allowed to die. What is lost?

Wait. Rephrase that question in light of the current thinking in Washington.

Suppose the Chesapeake is allowed to die. What is saved?

Unfortunately, that seems to be the basis on which the current round of environmental decisions are being made. Not only on issues involving the bay, but also those affecting land use, water quality and a host of other resources.

How much is a marsh worth drained and sold off for tract housing? Why deny real estate developers the right to build on barrier islands and coastal beaches? The best and highest use is the best and highest profit.

What a foolhardy exercise.

"Once the health of the land, air and water, and thus the people is impaired, the expense of restoring it is staggering - but ignoring the problem is even more costly," writes marine biologist Syliva A. Earle in her book "Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans" (G.P. Putnam's Sons. Illustrated. 368 pages. $24.95).

That's not a new observation by any means, but Ms. Earle, the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a lifelong deep-sea explorer, provides it from the Earth's last great frontier: its oceans.

Taken for granted for generations, even the seemingly boundless capacity of the sea is being tested and, in many cases, exceeded. These incursions come in obvious forms, waste disposal and population growth among them.

Some are more subtle. Depletion of fishing stocks is a looming problem, but one which has already triggered international incidents, including the recent armed seizure by Canadian officials of a Spanish trawler.

Ms. Earle notes that a 1991 plan put forth by the National Marine Fisheries Service applied the concept of "maximum sustainable yield" to fish catches.

Theoretically, that represents the greatest number of fish that can be taken from a population year after year without upsetting its ability to remain self-sustaining. In reality, however, regulatory agencies routinely set catch limits so high that populations of certain species have dropped precipitously.

Ms. Earle adds that the proposal also "is fundamentally flawed by the assumption that humankind can blindly swoop down on an ecosystem that has been building for many thousands of years, indiscriminately remove major chunks of it, and expect that it will recover to its former fine health. . . ."

Such thinking is encouraged when the value of a resource is calculated in isolation. In nature, however, nothing survives in isolation.

Nowhere is this more obvious that in the marshlands and tidal flats that rim great estuaries like the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. Home to hundreds of creatures whose lives are dependent on the uninterrupted cycle of tide, wind, daylight and each other, they are all "dual citizens in a country sometimes land, sometimes sea," writes Jennifer Ackerman, who moved to Lewes, Del., in 1989 and began exploring the natural world around her.

Ms. Ackerman, a contributing writer and editor at National Geographic, has recorded life along the waterline in a charming series of essays, "Notes from the Shore" (Viking Penguin. Illustrated. 190 pages. $21.95). Unlike Ms. Earle, who warns of an impending global crisis, Ms. Ackerman celebrates the simple life cycles on a tiny piece of the planet. There is a common theme in both books, however, and both deserve the attention of those making environmental decisions today.

These writers place a high value on the ecosystems they detail, rejecting the simplistic - and dangerous - view that everything has a price. The Chesapeake offers a ready-made test ground:

First, where can some budget reductions be achieved? The Environmental Protection Agency currently spends $20.9 million on its Chesapeake Bay Program. Eliminating that effort could make a contribution, albeit a tiny one, toward the spending cuts "of immense magnitude" promised by Senate Finance Committee after a recent weekend retreat - ironically, on the bay.

But hold on a minute. This may not be as ideologically simple as it appears. The Chesapeake Bay Program is exactly the kind of effort conservatives in Washington talk about encouraging: A cooperative agreement between states and the federal government in which the states determine how best to achieve a mutually agreed upon set of goals. The states even pick up a share of the cost along the way.

And, that $20.9 million pay-out can be (leveraged), to borrow another popular term on Capitol Hill these days. Spend a little and reap a lot.

How much?

More than $31 billion, according to a survey on the economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay, assuming such a calculation has any validity.

The survey, conducted in 1989 by the state of Maryland and based on 1987 dollars, placed a cash value on the major activities around the entire bay. Those categories were: Tourism ($8.4 billion), commercial fishing ($520 million), port activities ($5.3 billion) and marine construction and repair ($17.3 billion).

At least two of them - tourism and commercial fishing - are wholly dependent on a healthy bay.

(One category of economic activity conspicuously missing from the survey is Bay literature. Throw in Michener and Barth, and the revenues may rival crabbing and oystering!)

If real estate prices are factored in, add another $46.2 billion to the "value" of a clean and thriving Chesapeake. (After all, nobody will pay top dollar to live next to an open sewer.)

Grand total: $77.2 billion. Kind of makes all the expenditures on a healthy bay seem like pretty savvy long-term investments. Your IRA should do as well.

How troubling it is, then, to once again hear the phrase "cost/benefit analysis" tied to clean water or open spaces. Try putting a pricetag on a Severn River sunset, dawn on an Eastern Shore marsh, or a flock of canvasbacks returned to the Susquehanna Flats. Yet that is precisely the direction this policy is headed.

The United States has been down this road before. Doesn't anybody remember the public outcry over the policies of James Watt and Anne Gorsuch in the early 1980s?

Earlier this month, a House committee overwhelmingly passed a weakened version of the Clean Water Act, widely regarded as one of the great success stories of environmental legislation in this country.

If enacted, the committee's measure would relax water quality regulations, open vast areas of wetlands to development, and extend the deadline to control runoff from farms.

The Chesapeake Bay would be one of the areas hardest hit on all three counts. The nation's other fragile estuaries and coastal waters also would suffer. So, too, would a host of inland lakes and marshes.

Migratory bird habitats, shellfish beds, fish spawning grounds and fragile ecosystems would lose the protection accorded them under the Clean Water Act. Humans, who now can swim and fish in areas severely polluted just a generation ago, also would feel the impact of laxer rules.

Would life go on? Of course. Would the public even notice the gradual degradation that occurs as a result of these "savings"? Probably a lot more than they'd notice the dollars returned to the Treasury.

And to turn the equation on its head, would the environmental costs outweigh the taxpayer benefits? Absolutely.

Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Earle have reached the same conclusions by examining quite different pieces of the globe.

Unlike most people, Ms. Earle has seen nature in its most pristine state, before humans - the newcomers to this environment - have had a chance to interfere. She has seen the alarming consequences of exploitation and greed, and writes of them with a mix of scientific objectivity and naturalist's passion.

Ms. Ackerman writes enchantingly of an environment we all have experienced, but perhaps have never paused to "see." Through her eyes, and her remarkable skills of description, we share a world as complex and exciting as the unfathomable depths of the oceans.

In the name of savings, both may be lost.

Susan Q. Stranahan is the author of "Susquehanna, River of Dreams," (Johns Hopkins University Press). A staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, she has written about regional and national environmental issues for two decades. She was also on the Editorial Board. In 1979, she covered the accident at Three Mile ++ Island nuclear plant. She sails in the Chesapeake.

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