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February 2009

Four Star Chesapeake Staycations

Beach Bay Daily is on vacation today. Happy President’s Day! It’s almost like Christmas (well, okay, not really...more like just another cold Monday in February).

But speaking of vacations, it’s about this time of year that I always start planning my summer vacation.  This time, I’m looking for advice: What recommendations do you have for a Chesapeake staycation? It’s gotta be cheap.  A short drive (MD, VA, PA or WVA).  Outdoorsy and beautiful (no giant parking lots or strip malls nearby).

Conserving fuel and buying less is not only good for our natural world...but it also helps conserve the green in your wallet, which is probably at the forefront of your mind, with our economy in the mud.

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Green Buses and a Free Ride for the Economy

Omalleybus The magic bus ain’t yet here. But the hybrid bus is. Now all we need is a free ride on the hybrid bus. Sound radical? Follow me for a minute here. We’ve got a governor on board with buying only diesel-electric hybrid buses. And we have a Dow Jones economist who argues that free mass transit would stimulate the economy. Not exactly hippies.

But first, the hybrid part. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley at 1:30 p.m. today (Feburary 13) at the Baltimore Convention Center plans to unveil the first of 30 hybrid Maryland Transportation Authority buses that will start purring (is that what hybrid buses do?) down our roads in coming weeks.

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Key Hearings Coming Up on Anti-Sprawl Legislation

Kalbird2 Sprawl is a blight on the landscape – with endless generic-looking subdivisions mushrooming out of farm fields. And, just as important, it’s bad for our health and quality of life, if we can’t even walk to get a cup of coffee without risking a side-swipe from a Lincoln Navigator. Let’s face it. Life is just plain better if we can get outside and stroll to work and chat with neighbors, porch-to-porch.

But until now, Maryland’s law meant to discourage sprawl – the 1997 Smart Growth legislation – has lacked teeth. There’s no accountability, so many local governments and developers just ignore it.

On Wednesday February 25 at 1 p.m., the Maryland Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on a bill designed to improve the Smart Growth law by building in some accountability. Bulldozer The bill, called “Smart Growth, Visions and Performance Standards” (Senate Bill 878),  is sponsored by Senators David Harrington and Brian Frosh, with a similar bill in the House by Del. Stephen Lafferty up for a hearing soon.

These bills have been endorsed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several other environmental and advocacy groups.  And the legislation is stronger than a “Smart Growth” enhancement bill recently unveiled by Gov. Martin O’Malley.


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Drilling For Oil and Gas at the Mouth of the Chesapeake

Kalbird4 The Obama administration is sending signals that it might slow or stop the Bush era rush to allow oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast

This is good news.  Drilling  near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay would open the door to a host of environmental concerns, including catastrophic oil spills.

And there is also the bigger picture to think about. “Drill, baby, drill!” as a national energy policy will never wean the U.S. off of its dependence on inherently limited fossil fuels that cause air pollution and global warming. Nor will the amount of oil  or gas that may be present off of Virginia’s coast provide much short or long-term relief from energy prices.

The Washington Post reports this morning that new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the Bush administration’s approach to drilling "a headlong rush of the worst kind" and "a process tilted toward the usual energy players."

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Wildlife Comeback Hall of Fame

Kalbird12 What wildlife comebacks have you seen in the Chesapeake region – or in your own back yard? Send Bay Daily your stories, and photos, too, if you have them.

We often hear about the decline of oysters and blue crabs in the Bay, and the disappearance of Atlantic sturgeon and other magnificent creatures. It’s important to wrestle with these realities – because otherwise we can’t solve the problems of pollution, development and exploitation that can put wildlife in peril.

But focusing on the destruction can also bum you out.  And, more importantly, often the scientific reality is more complex than a simple downward line.

Swans I bring all this up because of an email that my colleague John Page Williams, senior naturalist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wrote to me in response to my February 4 blog on the declining number of tundra swans wintering in the Chesapeake Bay. The numbers of fallen by about a third over the past 35 years, as pollution has killed underwater grasses that the swans eat.

John Page agreed with the overall trend. But he also offered a hopeful story about how improved water quality helped a specific river – the Severn north of Annapolis, Md. – regain some of its underwater grasses and tundra swans.  He suspects improved shoreline protections (from Maryland’s so called “Critical Areas” law) helped reduce excessive development and polluted runoff.

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Collateral Damage from the Housing Bubble

Kalbird8 The New York Times yesterday featured a compelling story about the devastation wrought by the mortgage industry and the housing boom – frenetic home construction in farm fields, feverish real-estate speculation, then plummeting home values, foreclosures, layoffs, hunger, vacancy and despair.

But there is a missing element to the story: the environmental carnage wrought by the housing bubble and suburban sprawl.

The story, “Florida’s Crossroads of Foreclosure and Despair,” describes how a vast swath of farmland, four times the size of Manhattan, was quickly converted to blacktop and cookie-cutter subdivisions, between 2004 and 2006, as 13,183 homes were raised in Lehigh Acres, Fla.  The human catastrophe of this overbuilding and then crash is vividly illustrated by the article. Sprawl

But what about the countryside that was ripped apart for this madness?  What about all the polluted runoff from this orgy of building? The credit pushers used our natural world as the raw material they could chew up to feed their greed.

This story has relevance for our Chesapeake Bay region, as well.  Bay Daily believes there is a connection between the housing boom of the last decade and the erosion of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

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Climate Change and Organic Farming

Kalbird5 Rain should be a blessing.  What have we done to the land that it is now often a curse?  During heavy rainfalls, great plumes of pollution gush into the Chesapeake Bay – nitrogen and phosphorus from suburban lawns and farm fields, silt from construction sites, oil and antifreeze and toxic metals from parking lots and highways.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the days when the land surrounding the Bay was wooded, rain would trickle slowly through a dense mat of leaves and roots.  But we have replaced that green filter with blacktop and plowed land.

Farm A new study, published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, predicts that the price we pay for shredding that natural filter is likely to rise as climate change brings more rainfall.  That is especially true if the trend of increased production of corn-based ethanol continues as a strategy for providing alternative fuel for cars and trucks.   More corn, without proper fertilizer runoff control techniques, can mean more nitrogen and phosphorus running off of fields into streams.  But the article also provides hope:

“The good news is that if farmers choose organic practices and reduce fertilizer use, the impact of heavy rains will lessen and nitrogen pollution levels might drop to below present-day levels,” the study concludes.

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Lower the Boom on Fishing 'Pirates'

Kalbird8 Memo to prosecutors: lower the boom on the Chesapeake Bay's fishing “pirates.” A black market in rockfish hurts not only watermen and anglers, but the whole Bay.

The Baltimore Sun’s Candus Thompson broke a disturbing story this past weekend. State and federal officials said they had broken up a multi-million dollar rockfish “piracy” scheme, the largest fish poaching operation in recent history, the paper reported. A series of charges were filed against five watermen and three fish sellers for allegedly avoiding catch limits and illegally taking scores of striped bass from the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay over a period of four years.  The ring caught an estimated 600,000 pounds of rockfish worth $3 million to $7 million, according to The Washington Post.

Rockfish The Baltimore Sun in an editorial called the group’s systematic dodging of fishing rules “stunning in its scale and greed.”

The Washington Post described the fishing conspiracy as a “dockside Donnie Brasco tale.”   The poachers allegedly caught huge numbers of fish in large nets, and avoided limits on catch by cutting the mouths of the fish to make it appear as though they had been caught on hooks (which don't have the same restrictions as fishing with nets).  Five of the watermen pleaded guilty on Feb. 19.

Professional watermen and environmentalists alike support cracking down on cheaters. Not only can a few bad apples give all honest fishermen a bad name. They also steal from the folks who play by the rules. And their selfishness could lead to more stringent regulatory limits on catches.  More importantly, illicit harvesting of the Chesapeake’s treasures could tear the Bay’s already fragile web of life.

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The Fading Call of the Tundra Swan

(To hear a radio version of this story, click here.) 

On an ice-crusted soybean field on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, under a blue sky, hundreds of huge white birds are singing in a strange chorus.

Swans3 They’re tundra swans, the largest birds native to the Chesapeake region, with five-foot wing spans, snowy  feathers and black beaks. They nest and raise their young in the frozen wastelands of Alaska and northern Canada. Then, every winter, they fly as much as 4,000 miles south – spending almost three months in the air. Their epic journey to Maryland and Virginia is one of the most beautiful things you can see and hear in the Chesapeake region's winters. But the swans are coming here less and less often, because water pollution and disease are destroying their food supply.

“They’re incredible birds,” said Larry Hindman, waterfowl manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  “For some people, to see and listen to these birds, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

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Just Say No to Boycott of Blue Crabs

Kalbird1 Debate over a proposed boycott of the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic blue crabs has been heating up on the Internet and in the media.

Friends of the Bay, don't boycott blue crabs.  That would be an unnecessary and destructive act that would put out of work thousands of crab shack owners, restaurant workers, watermen, and many others.  More importantly, a boycott would be a distraction that would do nothing to solve the water pollution crisis that is playing a key role in the decline of the Bay's blue crab populations.

Crabs Instead, focus your energies in a more productive direction.  Protest, picket, write letters, scream… and demand that our government -- for once! – start enforcing our nation’s clean water laws. Think about it: How much do you pay every year in federal income taxes?  Why does so much of your hard-earned cash go to bailing out Wall Street firms like Citigroup instead of protecting our threatened natural treasures, like the Chesapeake Bay?  It’s enough to make you lose your appetite for all food -- forget about boycotting seafood.

Discussion over the idea of a boycott bubbled up this morning on a cooking blog. The Slow Cook headlined a story: “Why We Stopped Eating Crabs.”

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