Travel & Outdoors

Journalist Tom Pelton Pays Homage to Chesapeake Bay

The writer discusses his new book The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World.

Why did you write this book—or why now? It seems like it was a long time coming, comprising years of research and reporting.

It’s essentially the culmination of 20 years of my writing and thinking about the Chesapeake Bay. If I drop dead tomorrow, I wanted to leave something that represented what I honestly thought about something I love.

Over the decades, I’ve learned a lot through reporting—through radio shows and for the newspaper [The Baltimore Sun] and for some other publications—and I wanted to do the best I can to express the unvarnished truth about this great cultural, ecological masterpiece. I hope that this book is my contribution, in the years ahead, of what one person who has spent a lot of time researching and writing about the bay thought about what needs to be done.

Did you grow up around here?

I grew up just north of Chicago on Lake Michigan, and I loved growing up on Lake Michigan. I used to teach sailing, and my family had a summer house on Lake Michigan, so I spent a lot of my time as a kid outside on the water—fishing, swimming, sailing. I used to teach sailing. Boating has always been a huge passion of mine. I’m a big kayaker. . . . I got a job at The Sun in 1997, and I moved to this area and raised my family here.

Something that struck me in reading your book is that the Chesapeake Bay is really a historic and geographic treasure, one of the world’s “ecological masterpieces,” as you put it, and not simply a resource. You go so far as to say that its destruction is almost a religious crisis.
I think that life in the Chesapeake Bay is sacred and should be protected and honored in a way that it’s not today. For generations, the culture of the bay was to exploit the bay, and in doing so, we’ve destroyed much of this beautiful treasure that defines the state we live in. Chesapeake Bay cleanup is a social problem—yes, almost a religious crisis—because in the end, what we need, I believe, is more faith and more trust.

We’re up against not just a water pollution problem but the Trump administration and a political wave coming through our country that worships the commercial acquisition of money and power over all else and is fundamentally selfish and destructive—not only to nature and the bay but to humanity itself. So I view this as an issue far more grave than just the bay. We need to save ourselves by rebuilding a basic confidence in the ability of people to work together through our democratic government to make the world a better place.

You give some examples in your book of “ordinary” people who did amazing things to help the bay, like Bonnie Bick.

Bonnie Bick! A Southern Maryland preschool teacher, with really no money at all. Some people ridicule environmentalists as being rich people or elitist—well look at Bonnie Bick. Through a passion for forests and wild spaces, she personally saved thousands and thousands of acres that were going to be bulldozed for development. . . . Her story really shows how one person can make a difference. You really can change the world around you if you’re willing to work without much pay and with great passion for what you believe in.

The “Lorax of Baltimore” was another great example of that.

Yeah! Michael Beer was a neighbor of mine here in Evergreen. You know, a lot of people sit on the couch or move to Florida or just vacation when they retire. No. Michael Beer, after he retired, became a new man and a passionate protector of the river, Stony Run, organizing festivals and fundraising events and cleanups that really did a lot to clean up an urban stream. It’s another example of how people can each be little soldiers in this war to protect our beautiful world.

What do you see your role being in all of this?

What the bay really needs is truth telling. We’ve had a lot of murkiness, not [only] in the bay, but in the reporting on it. My conclusion is that the bay’s biggest problem is not poultry manure or even human waste but hogwash. We need to tell the truth about what’s really happening, and I think that’s my role. The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is very much like a country club where everyone knows each other and everyone gets along, but you’re never going to solve a problem if you can’t talk candidly about it. It’s not politically correct among the environmental community in Maryland to talk about some of the things that I talk about, but I think we need to address some of these failings in the bay restoration efforts if we’re ever going to improve them.

Some of the things I recommend in the book are controversial. For example, I recommend a ban on all wild oyster harvesting. Only 1 percent of our oysters are left. If we only had 1 percent of our grizzly bears left, we wouldn’t keep hunting grizzly bears. We need to stop dredging for oysters in the bay entirely until the oyster population can rebuild itself. Watermen are already moving toward oyster farming, which is a terrific alternative and does not harm the bay, and it actually can be more lucrative than the harvesting of wild oysters.

The bay is a huge component of America’s history and culture, too.

Absolutely. The Chesapeake Bay is the artery into which both slavery and democracy came into America. It’s the passageway through which tobacco and our first commercial success as a nation flowed. It’s the place where factory farming was invented, with the poultry farms of Perdue on the Eastern Shore. It’s really a meeting of north and south, of saltwater and freshwater, and of all the fundamental ideas about American freedom and slavery and democracy and capitalism —they all mix in the Chesapeake Bay.

And that’s why it’s extraordinarily important for people to learn about the bay, understand the bay, and protect the bay, because the bay is at the core of what it is to be American. If we disregard it as a resource we use to make money, or dredge up oysters or dump our pollution into, essentially we are dumping on our own heritage and who we are as a people, so we need to respect ourselves by respecting the Chesapeake Bay.

Is there any one action that you encourage the layman to do to help the bay?

The blunt truth is, the one action you can take is to vote for liberal democrats who believe in environmental regulation. People like to tiptoe around that and pretend that somehow maybe by driving less or using less water or changing lightbulbs, you’re going to make a difference. That’s not what’s going to make a difference. I mean, people should, in their own lives, do what they can to limit their own footprint, but the bigger picture is, we need to vote for politicians who will put public policies in place that will regulate, on a massive scale, pollution. And that includes at the federal level.

Anyone who voted for Donald Trump put a dagger in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay. The Trump administration is trying to destroy years of progress on the bay by taking away pollution limits that have been very effective and by basically destroying the EPA, which is the only agency that can really control pollution over a multi-state area. . . . There’s been a lot of demonizing of the term environmental regulation and these false claims that it kills jobs. Economists have come to the conclusion that environmental regulations are not job killers—they create jobs just as often as they destroy them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only two-tenths of one percent of all layoffs in the United States are caused by regulations of all kinds, including environmental regulations. . . . So when you ask what can people do, people need to vote—for strong environmental regulations, strong environmental law enforcement, more government funding for environmental programs—and if you don’t think that’s necessary, you’re fooling yourself.

You make that point in your book, that through three decades of trying to “save the bay,” this is really the only thing that’s worked. What are some things that haven’t worked?

Buying a Chesapeake Bay license plate does not help the bay. I think it’s a classic example of a feel-good program. In a way, it’s a distraction, because it’s counterproductive. Oftentimes these voluntary programs are substituting for the regulations and enforcement that are really needed.

A state-led voluntary approach was a failure. In 2010, the Obama administration shifted directions, and for the first time imposed a federally led EPA pollution limit system for the whole Chesapeake Bay region. And that is working. For the first time, we’ve seen real improvements in the bay’s health.

You sprinkle so many lovely little narratives into your book, scenes from the vantage point of your kayak, describing the bay and the rivers leading into it. Was this intentional, to give the reader some passages showing the beauty of what it is you’re trying to save?

Yes. The book has a fair amount of numbers and facts and policy discussions, which can be hard to swallow and can be tedious to some people, and I really wanted to bring to life why it matters, why we care. So I wanted to have examples of the great beauty of the Chesapeake Bay, examples of people who have dedicated their lives to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, and also colorful examples of life in the bay—blue crabs, the sturgeon, the striped bass—so that we can see what’s at stake.

Those kinds of scenes—paddling out on the James River at night among the bald cypress trees—I included in the book to make people understand that the Chesapeake Bay itself is a living character. It’s like a person that we need to understand and love so that we have the heart to fight and try to protect it.  

Meet Tom Pelton at his book launch on March 21 at Peabody Library in Mount Vernon. He’ll sign books at 6 p.m. and give a talk at 7 p.m.