Annapolis July 2003
Maryland. The name alone conjures images of good times in memorable surroundings… quiet moments fishing from a dock… weekends camping in a state park… breathtaking sails on the Chesapeake… lazy Sunday afternoons with family, friends and our renowned blue crab.
Whatever vision comes to mind, chances are that Maryland’s public lands, waterways and the myriad creatures that inhabit them are somewhere in the picture. But just beyond the frame stands a seldom-celebrated but essential group of people who spend their days, nights and weekends protecting these riches, and helping millions of people each year discover what makes Maryland a treasure for its citizens and a destination point for visitors from around the world.
Much of what we do here at the Department of Natural Resources brings us into daily contact with our customers as we issue fishing licenses, teach hunter safety, staff our parks and patrol our waterways. But it is the other component of our mission that I’d like to talk about here: Protecting Maryland’s landscapes, waterways and living resources -- a simple description of an enormously complicated charge.
Complicated because our natural world is always changing – in response to both natural and manmade events -- and not always for the better.
The two biggest problems facing us today illustrate our evolutionary reality -- a rapidly declining Chesapeake Bay, and more than 400,000 acres in need of better management. Without immediate action, our vision of a restored Bay and revitalized public lands will never become a reality.
While many still take for granted that Maryland’s crown jewel –- the Chesapeake Bay -- will be around forever, this productive source of jobs, recreational opportunity and beauty, is seriously at risk.
Think of Bay restoration as a three-legged stool. Each leg is equally important for support, therefore, achieving a restored Chesapeake Bay will stand or fall along with our ability to reach all three objectives.
The first is oyster restoration. In 1870, our oyster population could filter the entire Bay in three days. It takes today’s population more than three years to remove the same amount of pollutants (which is, incidentally now beyond the oyster’s average life span). We’ve gone from an annual harvest of 15 million bushels to 53,000, which in today’s dollars translates into an economic impact of $66 million (then) compared to $2 million (now).
Since 1996, more than $8 million state and federal dollars have been spent in fruitless efforts to restore our native population. Building oyster bars and oyster reefs, growing and planting disease free spat, and continuing to research the devastating diseases, MSX and Dermo, are not doing the job.
Still there is hope. In a bold move last month, Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. initiated a study of the Asian oyster, a larger, hardier, longer-lived, more disease resistant species. And while we will not abandon our native species, if the science determines it is safe to do so -- for the Bay’s ecosystem and for humans – we will introduce this new species into the Bay.
The second leg (remember the stool) of Bay restoration is Bay grass restoration. This versatile underwater vegetation provides a nursery and habitat for crabs and finfish, prevents erosion by reducing wave action, and produces oxygen key to the survival of underwater life.
But the Bay grasses are in trouble too. They are being devoured by mute swans. The current population (around 4,000 birds) was established when five captive swans escaped in 1962. These prolific, aggressive, territorial birds attack wildlife, pets and people, consume about 10.5 million pounds of Bay grasses annually, and drive off native and transient species. The bottom line, no matter how unpleasant, is this: Bay grasses are critical to Bay survival. For the grasses to thrive, the swans must go.
The final leg of the stool that supports Bay restoration is nutrient reduction. While in moderation nutrients are a good thing, in excess they cause algae blooms that cut off the oxygen the Bay’s residents need to survive.
Although nutrients come from everywhere – lawns, gardens, highways and even the air –two major sources are sewage treatment plants and agricultural runoff. The former are becoming increasingly efficient (some reduce nitrogen content by nearly 80 percent) and Governor Ehrlich continues to seek federal dollars to fund upgrades. Meanwhile, farmers are receiving state and federal assistance to establish buffers that filter nitrogen-heavy fertilizer from run-off before it reaches Bay tributaries.
Finally, just as a garden requires tending to remain lush and productive, our forests need care to remain healthy and strong. This means protecting them from too many people, overly abundant wildlife populations and invasive plant species. It also means cutting some trees to generate growth and removing dead trees that feed devastating wildfires. Harvesting forests in a manner compatible with recreational and environmental objectives creates healthier forests overall, and strengthens our economy and our timber industry.
The problems our natural resources face are serious, their solutions not without controversy. Still, Governor Ehrlich and I believe that decision-making based on sound science is our best hope if we expect future generations to enjoy the same memorable experiences as those who have gone before. And we do.
C. Ronald Franks