I took a few hours last night to participate in my local government by attending an input session for the Prince George’s County, Maryland, master plan for environmental, rural and agricultural conservation. There are of course many ways to get involved in the future of the little spot of Earth I occupy, but I think there is something especially encouraging and meaningful in understanding and trying to effect the land planning process.
These are plans that will affect the next decades of my county which spans the ultra-urban Anacostia River watershed, my great love, to the rural Patuxent River watershed, and south to the Potomac River. Some of my most favorite friends live in these lands, from the great blue heron and marbled salamander to spring peepers and northern brown snakes. For watershed health, wildlife habitat and ecosystem restoration, these plans could have a greater effect than anything else going on in my county, either for good or ill. Bad planning in the past has effected heartbreaking consequences, everything from the further devastation of the Anacostia River through the paving of the watershed, to clear-cut forests in the Patuxent watershed that make way for developments with names that drip with acrid irony like Forest Haven or Heron Bend (I made those up, but you all know what I’m talking about).
This forest was cleared to build a Whole Foods.
Last night’s input session was geared toward environmentalists and there will be others focused on hearing the thoughts of agricultural interests and developers. Some of the haggard enviros who attended last night looked as if they had been trudging to these same meetings for 40 years, and some probably had. And some of those expressed a tired anger, for being ignored for 40 years and having to go to another meeting and express the same thoughts about how the term “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and how the best way to halt rural development and destruction of ecosystems is to stop incentivizing it by having taxpayers fund the extension of sewers and maintenance of new roads.
I can understand their frustration. This was my first planning meeting but I’ve seen things, ohhhh I’ve seen things, nonsensical things happening around the county that just make you think, whose in charge here and how is it possible they are still making all the same bad decisions we made 50 years ago? More parking lots in parks that never have full parking lots, rather than more trees and meadows. New roads that are not built with permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens and bike lanes. We know how to do this people. We know how to be better citizens of earth, how not to pollute our rivers and air, how to create green spaces that provide homes for birds and cute little critters trying to make their way in the world, and for people whose lives and hearts are elevated by being able to see said cute critters and pretty winged things. Why aren’t we just doing it!!
I know, I know, things take time. This is true. Many of the incomprehensible developments we see have been in the planning stages for decades. There’s a particular Whole Foods development on a former forest that raises my blood pressure every time I see it, its been at lease a decade in the works (when finished it will have a big sign that says Whole Foods of Forest Haven – I made that up) .
This time delay means we won’t see the fruits of our current conservation-planning efforts for perhaps decades more. I have some hope about what those decades may bring. Some of that comes from seeing the spread of good ideas throughout the Washington DC metro area, in government, nonprofits, residents. Specifically last night it came from watching the residents and government planners engage, and continue to try to effect good outcomes, and perhaps specifically from the opening words of Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince Georges Department of the Environment. If he had been a random bureaucrat, I may have considered the possibility that he was blowing smoke up our asses (sorry Adam, I know some of the more haggard enviros thought that). But Adam is a friend, a much respected friend with a keen heart and mind. And he said something that resonated with me, something that inspired me to write all this down.
I’m paraphrasing…and embellishing, but he expressed the idea that along with a responsibility to protect our Earth this conservation planning effort was an exercise in connection. Connection to our space on this planet, our home, yes, but also connection to others who share or have shared or will share this space. What we see around us, what many of us lament as bad decisions and loss of something valuable, that was the work of those who came before us. They gathered in rooms like the one we were in last night, they talked about their vision for the future, and yes it was a shitty vision in many ways. But they put much of themselves into planning how to live in this land, and did the best they could with the information and knowledge they had at the time.
Now is our time. Our part in the story of this landscape, this ecosystem of people and rivers and wild creatures and loveliest flowers. We get to make different decisions, hopefully more thoughtful ones informed by all we have learned since those centuries of planners before us. And in the future, 30, 50, 100 years from now, there may be a room full of people cursing our name for making such pathetic decisions, but hopefully they will know we worked together and we tried our best.
And just in case none of my ideas make it into the plan, I’m setting them down here. (So that the future people in that conservation planning room don’t blame me.)
Net gain of forest canopy and native wildlife habitat.
Highest best use of government park land – turf, unless it is a ball field, is not the highest best use. All excess turf and any parking facilities that are not consistently filled to max should be converted to native meadows and forests.
All utility corridors should be native pollinator meadows, this will help struggling native pollinators, AND help the county agriculture system by providing little worker bees.
An incentive program that provides a mechanism for all new developments to contribute a meaningful amount of money to a land conservation and restoration fund.
Green infrastructure should be a mandate for new roads, development and anything that creates an impermeable surface, and a preference should be given to techniques that have the multiple benefits of providing stormwater retention, native habitat and beauty.
An end to taxpayer-funded incentives for development in rural, forested or other lands that provide important ecosystem services, wildlife habitat and green space. We should be incentivizing redevelopment only. There’s so many boarded up, broken down, paved places in this county, we could redevelop for a century and not run out of crappy dilapidated spaces to fix up.
We know how to do this people. Let’s not invite the scorn of our future selves.
Thank you to those who had the stamina to read this to the end.