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The Delmarva Peninsula a model for land conservation?

In the fall of 2017 Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s annual conference pondered the future of land conservation. Called “Conservation Saves the World,” what started as an inspirational conversation about the role of land and community quickly turned into a sobering and pragmatic discussion of the critical need to accelerate land conservation to save wildlife habitat for biodiversity, the soils we need to grow food and the parks that help us stay connected to nature and the land.

The highlight of the day was a keynote by writer Tony Hiss about global “Half-Earth” efforts to save half of the planet for nature by 2050, Tony’s concept to save half of North America by 2050, and his challenge to the crowd to create a “Delmarva Oasis” — to make the Delmarva Peninsula a model for national and global efforts. Last week, more than 100 people – elected officials among them, took a two-hour cruise to discuss the topic with ESLC staff.

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I love Delmarva - maybe more than anyone — for so many reasons. But I never thought of Delmarva on par with global conservation hot spots like the places you see on the Discovery Channel. However, as time has passed, I’ve come to see Tony’s call for a Delmarva Oasis as being about about saving the land we need for people. Think about it.

Think about food. Delmarva includes the largest contiguous block of productive farmland on the East coast from Maine to the Carolinas. As with habitat, a thriving farming region depends on how much open land there is and how connected it is. The peninsula’s 1.6 million acres of farmland holds 6,500 farms — including 5,500 family-owned farms - yielding $3.5 billion in farm products a year. Even more importantly, Delmarva’s critical mass of connected, prime farmland is located in one the hungriest food-sheds in the country from a population standpoint. Surrounded by big cities like Norfolk, Richmond, D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia, the Delmarva is reputed to be within a fresh food overnight drive of roughly one-third of America’s appetites.

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Think about wildlife. Delmarva provides critical migratory and wintering habitat for vast numbers of waterfowl within the Atlantic flyway. Similarly, Delmarva provides critical migratory and summer breeding habitat for much of the east’s songbird population. The Peninsula is also hemispherically important to raptor migrations. Delmarva’s mid-latitude location provides habitat for an incredibly rich intermingling of northern and southern non-migratory plant and animal species.

Andy Teeling in the waters behind the Chesapeake Bay Foundation near Annapolis, where he camped on his boat after finishing his rowing trip around the Delmarva Peninsula - after a 35-year hiatus.
Andy Teeling in the waters behind the Chesapeake Bay Foundation near Annapolis, where he camped on his boat after finishing his rowing trip around the Delmarva Peninsula - after a 35-year hiatus.(Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

And think about fun on Delmarva. Boaters, hunters, anglers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts spend up to $3.9 billion per year on Delmarva supporting 27,900 jobs. The annual value of commercial fishing in the Chesapeake Bay alone is $300 million, and the Delmarva Peninsula fishery leads the nation in total weight of catch. Delmarva’s 1.7 million acres of wetlands, 450,000 acres of forests, and 3.2 million acres of grassland, pasture and farm fields contribute over $15 billion in ecological benefits, supporting important regional industries that rely on fisheries and tourism. In a future with limits on carbon, Delmarva is poised to be a tremendous carbon sink amidst the carbon excesses of the East Coast.

Thinking about my own family, of course the middle Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake in Maryland is our favorite place with its rich intermingling of land and water and fresh vegetables and seafood in the summer, and great hunting and sunsets in the winter. But we also love the deserted beaches around the southern tip of the Peninsula, the many local ice cream shops in the quaint small towns throughout the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and I have fond memories of trips to the Delaware Bay shore for the horseshoe crab spawn and shorebird migrations every spring.

Congressman Wayne Gilchrest once described Delmarva as “Carpeted with farms, stitched with forests, and buttoned with rural fishing villages...” For me, this place is home and a permanent “oasis” sounds just right. I hope you will join me in supporting ESLC and our many partners as we strive to save the world – by starting right here in our own little corner of it.

Rob Etgen is president (retgen@eslc.org) of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.

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