Volume 14, Issue 50 ~ December 14 - December 20, 2006

Where We Live

by Steve Carr

What’s a Watershed?

Environmentalists think everyone speaks their language. We don’t.

I avoid environmental conferences like the plague. To me, they’re just another excuse to whine about the health of the Bay rather than doing something to fix the problem. So, when I was instructed to attend the Chesapeake Watershed Forum, I was less than enthused. It was going to take me to the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and it was going to eat up a whole weekend.

About this one, I was wrong.

First, we all need to get out to West Virginny more often because it’s flat-out beautiful. Crossing the churning Potomac on the long, sweeping silver bridge into Harpers Ferry was like driving into another country. Could I only be two hours from Annapolis? Then came the forested mountains; fieldstone walls; animals galore … I couldn’t keep track.

The National Conservation Training Center, the magnificent legacy of West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, is used for training federal employees from land use agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the latest GIS mapping or fire suppression techniques.

On the first night of my conference, we heard from Peter Forbes, who is a writer, photographer, farmer and executive director of the Center for Whole Communities. Peter didn’t sing the rosy scenario, nor did he tell us that the sky was falling. Instead, he repeatedly thanked us for what we do. He gave examples of many different people toiling to protect their little pieces of the planet from harm. It was a message of heartfelt thanks few of us in the environmental kingdom ever hear. We felt like we had come from a pep rally, because he was right: every action undertaken by environmentalists, be they acting as individuals or in large groups, makes a difference. He framed our present predicament perfectly: “You can awaken a person who is sleeping, but you cannot awaken a person pretending to be asleep.”

Next, a marketing guru named Eric Eckl explained why we’re getting nowhere in a session I liked the name of: Water Words That Work. In every survey, the top environmental concern is clean water. Everyone genuinely cares about the problem. But they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know who to trust.

This is because environmentalists and government types do not speak a language the average person can understand. For instance, studies show that scientists and bureaucrats use words that have virtually no meaning to the average Joe: watershed, stormwater, acronyms like SAVs or TMDLs, biodiversity, habitat, sprawl.

Instead, we need to use phrases that connect to people. People truly get four environmental principles: nature protection, pollution control, clean water and wildlife. When we warn people about how bad things are for the Bay, he said, we need to talk about future generations, health, safety, and trends. When we want to make people take action, we need to ask them to make a difference by working together because it affects them and saves money. And when we want somebody to believe us and take our side, we need to talk about planning ahead, accountability, choice, fairness, balance, responsibility, investment and freedom.

Everyone wants a clean environment, but few get involved in making that happen. Meanwhile, President Bush and Congress are clear-cutting our national forests under the guise of the Healthy Forests Act and allowing power plants to pollute because they signed on to the Clear Skies Act. What’s in a word? Who could be against healthy forests or clear skies?

I liked what I heard, but as I thought it over driving home through West Virginia, where I could see how much we’re losing, I got sad.

For 25 years, we’ve listened to people say they care deeply about the Bay. Then the same people buy farmettes in the country that eat up the farmland, refuse to support any additional fees to clean up the dirty water that runs into the creeks and rivers, drive gas-guzzling SUV’s while screaming for bigger roads and elect politicians who talk out of both sides of their mouths, There’s a real disconnect at work here.

People hear the alarm bells loud and clear, but they don’t see how their actions make a difference. How do we help them understand that everything we do — good and bad — touches the health of Chesapeake Bay?

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