Chesapeake Bay National Sanctuary — It Has a Nice Ring to It

Fifteen or 20 years ago I wrote a column urging William Donald Schaefer, then governor of Maryland, to do something bold if he wanted to leave a mark. Schaefer should climb to the top of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, that column said, and forever protect the troubled waterway by declaring it a “sanctuary.”

That was written in jest, but the more I’ve thought about it over the years the more sense it makes. Particularly now, when I’m still mulling the memory of a weeklong midsummer excursion to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, which really is a sanctuary — and blessed are all of us beyond measure for that wise and historic decision, made nearly 135 years ago.

Those who have not been there cannot imagine the glory of Yellowstone, where 2.2 million acres of hillsides, rivers, valleys and plains have been left to do what nature intended them to do. Buffaloes, wolves, antelopes, bears, coyotes, prairie dogs, mule deer, bighorn sheep and elk roam the countryside, feeding on abundant vegetation and each other as the spirit moves them. Eagles, ospreys, hawks and owls soar high in a clear blue sky and wild cutthroat, rainbow, brown and brook trout prowl the gin-clear creeks and rivers, hunting insects that hatch by the billions.

It’s a peaceable kingdom notable for one thing above all — the absence of man as consumer or defiler.

Oh, there are plenty of people around — 3 million visitors a year, on average. And for a few weeks every summer many of them clog the roads and make fools of themselves shooting videos and digital pictures of wild animals out the windows of their slow-rolling sport-utility vehicles. Sometimes they don’t even roll down the windows!

But aside from a few roads, trails and tourist complexes, the hand of man on Yellowstone is largely absent. You won’t see his footprints, candy wrappers or beer cans on a climb up boulder-strewn Pebble Creek or on a trek across the grasslands to the juncture of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River.

You won’t see gut-piles from slain elk in the backcountry or four-wheeler tracks to hunting camps because there is no hunting in the park. You won’t see castoff worm packets on the stream banks, because for the most part you can’t keep trout caught in Yellowstone, and everyone who fishes uses flies or artificials and puts what he catches back.

You won’t see people lined up at whitewater rafting or canoeing concessions because there are none. You won’t see billboards, airplanes trailing ad banners, TV dishes, microwave towers or any other video-age junk marring the landscape.

There’s a simple reason.

Almost all of Yellowstone is designated a “natural zone,” where the objective of man’s involvement is to protect natural resources and values. Under the strategy, “all components and processes of park ecosystems, including the natural abundance, diversity and ecological integrity of the plants and animals, should be maintained.”

The few exceptions are for cultural or historic zones and development zones, such as the tourist complex around the famous geyser Old Faithful. Even then, according to the 2005 edition of “Yellowstone Resources and Issues,” the handbook that guides park officials, “if a park manager determines that a resource is or would become impaired by public use or development, the manager may limit public use or close a specific area.”

And there it is — everything you need to know to understand why Yellowstone today is a magical, beautiful, rich, amazing place: Man, in his wisdom, has elected to take a rare step back and put natural resources first. The policy extends beyond park borders, affecting private land use and management issues wherever the outcomes would affect the integrity of the park.

Imagine if we could turn back the clock to 1872 and do the same for Chesapeake Bay. The nation’s largest and once most-productive estuary would still boast mounds of plump oysters, hordes of spawning fish, bright, clear water to swim in, rafts of ducks and geese in the winter and tourists by the millions, come from near and far to savor the pristine abundance.

What do we have instead? Last month, word emerged that over one-third of the Chesapeake was now a summertime “dead zone,” where oxygen is so scarce, higher life forms can’t survive. Oysters are all but gone, crabs are being gobbled up for profit, fish species like sturgeon, white shad and yellow perch have disappeared or grown shockingly scarce, and up and down the watershed farmers, industries and communities continue to use the water as a dumping ground for sewage effluent, agricultural runoff and other forms of pollution.

In Virginia, 80 percent of smallmouth bass and sunfish in the Shenandoah River (which feeds the Potomac, which feeds the bay) died in a fish kill this spring. In Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna, which provides half the bay’s fresh water, many more bass are dead or diseased, as are striped bass in the bay itself.

In Annapolis, Mike Higgins, a boat yard manager who supplements his income in summer by cleaning the bottoms of racing sailboats, has set aside his diving gear this year, probably for good, because, “The water is so dirty, I don’t like going in any more.”

Meanwhile, in the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, where policies that frame the bay’s grim future are set, the halls ring with the squawks and plaints of user groups — farmers, developers, industrialists, commercial fishermen, road builders, electric power companies and the like, all of whom want their piece.

Who speaks for the bay? Well, just about nobody, unless you count the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which after a 30-year campaign to “Save the Bay” issued its report card for 2005, giving the estuary a pathetic grade of 27 on a scale of 100. Well, I’ve got a grade for CBF after three decades and the CBF won’t even have to buy a new letter to post it on its Web site. They can take it right out of the title: “F.”

The remarkable thing is, you wouldn’t have to turn back the clock to 1872 to save the bay. A federal commitment to reviving waterways back in the 1960s proved it could be done, and quickly, when sewage treatment on the Potomac was upgraded and the river bounced back within a decade from an algae-choked, polluted, unswimmable mess to one of the finest urban fisheries in the world.

The same could happen in the Chesapeake. But as long as its far-flung managers and would-be protectors hang onto the outmoded notion that you can sustain a natural resource and still cater to all the clamoring human user groups that want to wreck it, the bay is doomed.

And now the torch is passed. Schaefer is gone from the hot seat, but maybe the current governor of Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, will make that risky climb up the Bay Bridge ramparts to hang his banner, like Quasimodo, and declare the place a sanctuary.

Ehrlich? Ha! Fat chance.