Out and About (Sort of): Delmarva on the Cusp by Howard Freedlander

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With the looming possibility of serious consideration in the corridors of power in Annapolis of a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span, the future of the Delmarva Peninsula as a precious slice of geography becomes an urgent subject. It requires a vision, while seemingly improbable, to take shape and grab hold of the minds and hearts of all of us living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia and most of Delaware.

Though not widely known at this point, Delmarva Oasis is a concept discussed most recently in The Spy and other venues by author Tony Hiss to describe a huge conservation effort to protect 50-80 percent of the land of Delmarva. The intent behind protecting this mass of land is to preserve not just the human quality of life but also the millions of species that go unrecognized in our daily comings and goings.

This expansive concept encompasses total conservation, including food production, public access and habitat lands to sustain the basic life conditions of Delmarva. Into this massive transformation of Delmarva, we must include deterrence of the destructive effects of global warming and climate change, appropriate economic and real estate development, the impact of increasing vehicular traffic, the hospitality of the region to waterfowl—and the list can on and on.

At this point, before readers consider this subject as pie-in-the-sky meanderings, I suggest attention be paid to the New Jersey Pine Barrens as an example of conservation of a prized piece of geography. Known as the New Jersey Pinelands National Preserve, it comprises historic villages and berry farms amid vast oak-pine forest, extensive wetlands and a wide range of plants and animals of the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecoregion. It is protected by state and federal legislation and managed by local, state and federal agencies, as well as the private sector.

Established in November 1978, the Pinelands consists of 1,164,025 acres, all but 24,000 acres of which contain pin-oak forest. The area crosses seven counties and includes all or parts of 56,000 municipalities; the population as of the 2010 census totaled 870,000 people.

The ecological diversity encompasses 580 native species of plants—54 are threatened or endangered. The Pinelands Reserve is home to 299 species of birds, nine fish, 59 reptiles and amphibians and 39 mammals.

Agriculture defines the Delmarva Peninsula. According to a document produced by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), Delmarva “is the largest contiguous block of productive farmland on the East Coast from Maine to the Carolinas.” This fertile terrain lies within an overnight drive of 60 million or one-third of America’s consumers.

For full disclosure, I am a member of the ESLC board. ESLC has been a catalyst in the preservation of nearly 60,000 acres since 1990.
As Tony Hiss said in his Spy interview, the Delmarva Oasis is an audacious initiative. If it happens, it will bring towns and cities, farmland, marshlands and wilderness under one umbrella of sustained preservation. It will ensure that the Delmarva Peninsula will not be over-developed, as has happened in Middletown, DE, where land use has gone sadly and messily astray.

The question now is how does this alluring concept become a hard reality? Not easily, for sure. At least at this embryonic stage, ESLC will lead the charge in determining its feasibility. It will coordinate a slew of partners and funders to determine whether the public and private will exists to undertake such a complex initiative.

As I get older, I focus more and more on the value of legacy. Simply, I constantly think about how to preserve and conserve a quality of life that my family and I have been privileged to enjoy on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for nearly 42 years. I realize that we have a regional citizenship in Delmarva.

Delmarva Oasis will become common nomenclature in the near future. I hope it will capture the imagination and buy-in from government and private funders and partners. I hope it will succeed, realizing that the effort will be long and intricate.

The Delmarva Peninsula is a special place to live, play and pray. It can become a protected region. The Pinelands Reserve exemplifies what’s possible.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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Letters to Editor

  1. For generations, Marylanders on the Eastern Shore and throughout the state have gotten behind large projects that were audacious for their times. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge grew out of opposition to a proposal for thousands of homes to be built within that island’s view of the Bay Bridge, Tuckahoe State Park was once slated to become a giant lake, and Wye Island is now a state wildlife management management area instead of a major waterfront community. Those are but a few of the many jewels on the Eastern Shore that have been protected forever, out of imaginative efforts to save what was regarded then as the best of the Delmarva Peninsula in Maryland. Nearby efforts in Virginia and Delaware tell the same tales. Today, however, we understand this ecosystem far better. We have preserved only tiny parts of the whole through those efforts. Preservation through Maryland’s superb conservation easement programs (ESLC’s director Rob Etgen was a leader in the successful effort to create Maryland’s signature Rural Legacy program) expanded our awareness that we could do more by keeping owners on the land. It’s now time to step forward to ask how to preserve the entire peninsula in a way that makes sense for the people who live and work here, in harmony with those key building blocks for such preservation created by those who passed this legacy on and others who have long been hard at work through land trusts like the ESLC, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF), and the Maryland Environmental Trust. In light of the threat of a new bridge to the Eastern Shore, it is a huge public service of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy to foster a positive vision for the future and ask how we can create a new way of protecting this place, and the people, communities, and traditions that make up the whole of this wonderful place.

    How can we farm for wildlife? How can we invite visitors to enjoy our heritage and continue to grow our modern neighborhoods and economies? How can we protect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore even more? I believe an all-encompassing initiative like the Delmarva Oasis is a great new way to think about these questions and find answers.

  2. Emmett Duke says:

    We cannot travel to the mainland – whether north, west, or south – without going over a bridge, so we literally live on an island. While I’ve always called it Delmarva Island, I believe Delmarva Oasis more closely describes the “sense of place” that Mr. Freedlander proposes.
    As we are currently focused on a possible assault from the west, an even more realistic possibility is a tremendous development assault from the north. The Rt. 301 expansion from Middletown is about to produce development pressure like Cecil and Kent Counties have never experienced. All the more reason to give serious consideration to the creation of Delmarva Oasis.

  3. The Delmarva Oasis is a huge challenge – and a huge opportunity for Delmarva. In 2003 Congressman Wayne Gilchrest and ESLC partnered on a similar effort that resulted in a three state commitment and a request of the Federal Government for over 100 million in supplemental Delmarva conservation funding. While the 2003 effort ultimately went unfunded, key partnerships and shared understandings were built. Given the grave challenges that we currently face with climate change and expanding roads and bridges, it is more important than ever for a similar initiative to succeed today.

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