The ecological thriller, based upon the television series of the same name, explores the deep philosophical questions about how does life on the mainland impact coastal islands. Do we take for granted the environment we live in? Should our actions be taken with a thought to those who live offshore? Should we make the effort to include them in policy development? Will they kill us for trying to sleep on their island?
VALOR last met to visit the Northern Neck of Virginia. I had to drive through Maryland to get there, instantly setting a tone for the weeks excursions, a tone that suggested the Northern Neck isn’t like the rest of the state. We began with an introduction to the more traditional agricultural industry found on the peninsula, namely corn and soybeans. I knew the impact the Chesapeake Bay had on the state at large, necessitating nutrient management plans and limiting the size and scope of concentrated feeding operations, so of course I assumed that there would be significant pressure felt by grain producers so close to the Bay itself. I was surprised to hear that the farmers who had grown up there were used to, even supportive of the measures that improved environmentally sound farming practices. No one said a single unkind word regarding the Bay or the policies put in place to protect it. In fact, many said it was just good business.
The next sector we witnessed in action was the oyster/aquaculture industry. We got to see how commercial oysters are “conceived”, attached to shells and planted. We saw oysters processed, and packaged, and even how they are delivered. We were introduced to menhaden, and got an explanation of their commercial uses and economic importance, as well as a description of how they are caught. Again I asked, “has your industry, which is so dependent on access to the Bay and use of it’s tributaries, been impacted by strict water use policies and legislation?” Everyone continued to comment on the collaborative nature of the government and industry, including any special interest groups, in promoting positive relationships and a healthy Bay. The sound economic benefits of continued access to the Bay was also mentioned, highlighting what the row croppers had said,”it’s just good business.”
The final sector we would meet was the environmental conservation group. I had heard about the collaborative nature of the work between the agriculture industry and the conservationists. I had heard about the improving health of the Bay and the successful harvests that come from it. I expected to hear hearty self congratulating and descriptions of the staunch education that took place to convert reckless over-applicators and negligent animal caregivers into the Bay friendly farmers I had met. Instead I was surprised to meet like minded farm-friendly agriculturalists who readily supported agriculture and the process in which it is pursued. Their endeavors were explicitly targeted at find the common ground between successful farming and ranching, and protecting the Bay. I was embarrassed to have painted such a broad brushstroke when thinking of the conservationist groups and their activist brethren. That, as is the nature of any good story, changed when we heard from the administration.
The administration’s opinions of agriculture, and the sector’s efforts in the name of conservation, smacked of judgment and disdain. After the obligatory “my grandfather had a farm” story we hear all too often, we were witness to a staggering amount for statistics and figures meant to paint a picture that agriculture, specifically modern commercial agriculture, were to blame for the ever worsening state of the Bay and the crushing implications that the Bay health had on local industry, including the state of Tangier Island’s crab industry. As the group asked for clarification regarding specific “facts”, we were browbeaten by anecdotal comparisons of how organic or “natural” operations are doing things “better”. Even a few of the field reps present questioned the validity of the statements and figures, often referencing the nearly 30 year gap in reports.
I do not begrudge a groups efforts to protect the environment or the life that inhabits it. I do not question the scientific rational for policy change regarding the environment or the life that inhabits it. I was surprised by the stark difference in opinion between the people “on the ground” and the administration. I am frustrated by the over reliance of leadership that maintains organizational direction based solely on “them versus us” mentalities. I am concerned that as a country we have put ourselves into cliques wherein we allow ourselves to purposefully ignore the bigger picture, missing the forest for the trees.
A wise man once said “Enthusiasm is not an excuse for misdirection, and being close minded does not make you dedicated.”