Published November 09, 2007
This Week's Take:

Beauty is the beast of the Chesapeake Bay

Photo — The Capital
Kurt Riegel is president of the Severn River Association, a nonprofit federation of individuals and 57 community groups devoted to protecting the river and its watershed.

Beauty is a beast that is killing the Chesapeake Bay. Sounds crazy? Maybe not — here's why. For the beauty of a uniform green lawn, the homeowner mows it, rakes and disposes its clippings, fertilizes and waters it. Rainwater, formerly absorbed by a forest of trees and native plants that were ripped out to make way for the lawn, runs off to add to stormwater surges, carrying fertilizer and other pollutants to the bay.

Only a shred of habitat remains — a sterile green desert, a grass monoculture, capable of supporting only the tiniest fraction of species that formerly called it home.

For the beauty of a view of the river, the waterfront property owner fells trees and clears vegetation between house and water. Vegetation at the shoreline margin slowed and filtered water runoff, but no longer does so, dumping silt and excess nutrients promptly into the water. The riparian buffer, as it is called, sustained life, but is habitat no longer to a multitude of species that live in, or must pass through, that zone.

For beauty, the same owner builds his house close to the water — not caring that he robs thousands of neighbors and boaters of the beauty of a natural shore scene.

To hold the beauty of his land, he builds a hard bulkhead to repel waves and hold soil. Nature recognizes no property lines, over the millennia moving water/land margins back and forth — not merely destroying old features, but also building new ones and renewing the subsurface environment with new material favorable to new generations of aquatic life.

Rare natural waves, and violent new ones from oil-fueled boats, were damped gently on naturally vegetated shorelines. They now reflect unattenuated from hard bulkhead surfaces to combine with others, increasing total wave energy and causing greater damage elsewhere.

For beauty, virtually every suburban house eradicates whatever indigenous vegetation was there before, planting monoculture expanses of grass and a few decorative exotic shrubs.

Lawns retain a fraction of rainwater held by forests, discharging the rest into the bay as nutrient-laden stormwater.

Areas of Anne Arundel County we used to call 'the country' now sport widely separated houses. For beauty, spaces separating them are turning into huge mowed lawns, a senseless use of space.

In the name of beauty, we mow thousands of acres of public property, often for no purpose except 'it looks nice that way,' or 'that's what we've always done.' Mowed grass can have purpose, for example playing fields, but without clear purpose, it makes little sense to bear continuing expense only to harm nature. Road interchanges often have acres of space mowed, less for necessity and safety, than out of purposeless tradition. Public policy should protect all trees there are no exceptionally good reasons to kill.

Of course, Beauty per se is not the enemy of the bay — our notion of what constitutes beauty is the real problem. Too many of us have a cockeyed notion that beauty cannot be in harmony with nature, sustainable and healthful for people and other inhabitants of the larger environment.

Sadly, our ideal of beauty often comes from a time and a place not our own — divorced from our wonderful bay and the tributaries it depends on. Green grass expanses make sense on the African savannah from which our prehistoric ancestors sprang, but they are out of place in our Chesapeake environment. If residents of Arizona have recently found wisdom in abandoning watered green lawns in favor of indigenous vegetation, can we Marylanders not begin sensible steps ourselves?

In our Maryland climate, grass cannot live unless indigenous species are first exterminated. Grass only lives under the continuous hand of man and his machines — for grooming, added nutrients and water that combine to damage other elements of our ecosystem.

Our devotion to a brand of beauty that hurts the Chesapeake Bay sometimes goes to ridiculous extremes. Covenants and other instruments sometimes codify a legal obligation to care for land in a certain way. When such strictures mandate grass over trees and native plants, governments, and other parties to such covenants are complicit in harming the bay.

What's to be done? First, help your friends and family to understand the relationship between nature, as it was before we began destroying native trees and vegetation, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Then do what you can, in your private and public life, to halt the removal of trees and native vegetation and to identify areas that can be reforested.

Good public policy should demand more than a small fine for removing a tree in a Critical Area, clearly inadequate to prevent a slow but certain loss of trees.

A rule that also mandates replacement of a tree killed with a live tree of similar size might stop this practice.

Support proposals and projects to control the stormwater that so damages our tributaries and bay. Standards for new developments that rely on environmental site design, or low impact development, are good for the future.

However, 100 percent of our present stormwater problem is caused by parking lots, streets and roofs that already exist. We must find a way to correct existing poor practice with retrofits that manage stormwater generated by impermeable surfaces — controlling, cleaning and conducting more of it to groundwater systems.

Stormwater is a priority for action by the Severn River Association, which has information on these subjects and encourages volunteers in its projects. A good first step would be to establish a policy of 'no net loss of forest' in Anne Arundel County, and then to mount implementing public and private programs to reforest what we can of the areas we have lost needlessly.

(Revised Nov 2007)