The Chesapeake watershed’s countryside is being replaced by ‘mallside’
Whitetail deer in Myersville, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
By John WennerstenJanuary 6 at 5:00 PM
Sprawl in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, despite efforts at “smart growth,” continues at an unprecedented rate. Growth occurs principally along transportation corridors; the main culprit is the federal highway system, which has been the silent ally of real estate development and urban sprawl.
Interstate 81 in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania has seen the growth of exurban developments, often with populations far larger than the town or village with which they share a Zip code. Increasingly, “countryside” is being replaced by “mallside,” with homogenized stores from coast to coast.
In Virginia and West Virginia, sheep and cattle farms have given way to burgeoning neighborhoods of commuters who clog country roads and drive two hours each way to their workplaces.
The orchard belt of the Chesapeake that once included hundreds of peach and apple farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia is being swallowed by development, noticeably on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Land is worth far more than the fruit it produces. As the suburbs spread outward in all directions from Washington and Baltimore, farmland is increasingly in demand for development.
But our countryside is not alone in being transformed out of existence. The U.S. Geological Survey says our rivers and seascapes are being changed by pollution and deforestation. The connectivity of wetlands, forest and wildlife habitat is being ruined through loss of vegetation and open space. Small wonder that suburbanites are surprised at finding hungry black bears foraging in their garbage and deer eating their flowers.
The once-sleepy docks lined with oyster-packing houses in Crisfield, Md., give way to fancy, expensive high-rise condominiums owned by people who neither care about nor understand the local maritime culture and what is being lost.
Throughout the Chesapeake watershed, collectors are scooping up the remnants of Maryland’s oyster industry: packing cans, dredges, photographs, shucking tools. What was once a vibrant industry on the Chesapeake has succumbed to disease, pollution, overharvesting and development. Hundreds of packing houses from Kent Island, Md., to Oyster, Va., have disappeared. Oysters, which sold for $1.50 a gallon in 1974, now sell for more than that each in D.C. restaurants. Soon, people will have difficulty trying to understand why a town in Maryland was named Bivalve.
Economic change also adds to the ongoing transformation of our land. With tobacco fast fading from the Chesapeake landscape, the old tobacco-curing barns become relics. Tobacco reigned for four centuries asSouthern Maryland’s cash crop. Now with that staple’s disappearance, the tobacco barns have become an endangered species. Since the state bought out Maryland’s tobacco farmers, their number has diminished from 1,000 to about 100.
In the middle of the Shenandoah Valley or up the Susquehanna River, one can get into traffic jams that resemble urban gridlock.
It is neither change nor technology that threatens our lifestyle. It is political power, the force of domination. When a Chesapeake waterman finds his crabs or oysters overwhelmed by toxins and effluents unleashed by corporations, he feels the rough hand of lobbyists who have worked behind the scenes to rewrite the sanitation laws. When orchard owners discover that their aquifer is being hijacked by new zoning regulations and developments so that they can’t irrigate their trees in summer during drought, they feel the blunt instrument of real estate interests that want to grow money rather than crops.
Not everything that is disappearing is just quaint or archaic. In the process of changing our landscape and seascape, we risk losing the essence of what defines us as a culture. As social critic James Conaway wrote in his book “Vanishing America,” “We have to protest against our seeming national willingness to wreck nature and neighborhoods.”