An Environment to Protect

A future alliance for rescuing some crucial aspect of the environment might dwarf the present alliance against terror, maybe even in the not-so-distant future, and maybe in the end be outwitted by nature. But it will unite more persuasions for in-common and noble causes -- such as self-preservation. These causes also include reverence for all that we do not understand about the natural world around us, and our daily challenge of learning more and adapting our lifestyles. In due course we will all become environmentalists, it has been said. . . .

How precarious is our environmental niche? How far can we change the parameters of the natural system without losing stability of the familiar conditions on which we rely?

Take for example ambient temperature. It is the greenhouse effect that maintains our familiar seasons, here at the center of the whole sky's chilly 3 degrees above absolute zero (the temperature of the cosmic background microwave radiation, roughly minus 200 C., the stars being too point-like to count) except for the small patch of sun at roughly 5,000 C. (I don't offhand know how very much colder it would be without our greenhouse-ish atmosphere, but our day-night range here is certainly better than that on the moon.) We are told that during the last ice age, roughly 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, the average annual temperature was just a few degrees cooler than now.

That represents a change of less than say 5/5000 -- 0.1 percent, a very high stability -- for which scientists have hypothesized the . . . . concept that the biology has evolved to where it produces the conditions on which it itself thrives, ever further diversifying the niches and species.. . . . Anyhow, can such 0.1 percent stability be expected to hold as we proceed to double a major greenhouse gas?

Or, consider the protection from ultraviolet rays that natural ozone high in the atmosphere provides to life forms here. We are told that the fearsome holes in that ozone over the poles are now under control, thanks to new refrigerants replacing Freon, though misgivings abound. The holes have yet to substantially diminish, and the new refrigeration fluids have their own set of effects.

How long will our worry list become? Tides of evolution are fractally shaped by changing conditions, sometimes catastrophically, often irreversibly. Are we unleashing one or more runaway locomotives? Will that future alliance succeed in stopping one in time, with change in lifestyle or more drastic efforts?

Chapman Forest should be dedicated to our recognition of possible collective emergency around the bend. We are honored that socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson has lent his support to this historic and biologic treasure on the east bank of the tidal estuary of the Potomac River below Washington, D.C., less than 100 miles above the Chesapeake Bay. He has also lent support to such cognition by his books "Consilience -- The Unity of Knowledge" and "The Future of Life." The former deals with the need to pull many bodies of knowledge together for the challenge, and the latter defines the "bottleneck" through which only some of present species will pass as the environment degrades while we hopefully learn to control ourselves.

We are the only developed country without a population policy. It is encouraging that our southern neighbor is approaching replacement levels of fertility. The test for U.S. citizenship should require awareness of environmental risks and costs, and of a relation to population size. We might decide on a maximum increase, and offset legal immigration against illegal immigration and birth rate. Do we have no stomach for that -- or official identity cards? Can we only hope the whole hemisphere wakes up, as we homogenize?

Chapman Forest should be a temple for playing God for divining how he would have wanted it to develop without the influence of mankind, so that we might treasure his creation -- besides us. In striving toward this goal, the questions for our most imminent sages are forbidding. These include dealing with the air- and water-borne effects from outside the borders of the property, as well as direct effects of our visits to the property.

For example, should all invasive "exotics" be annihilated, if practically possible, including honeysuckle and phragmites, or just some, such as English ivy and kudzu? Songbirds and bees are everywhere in decline. Is there any relevant appropriate action that might be taken at Chapman Forest?

A parallel exists with the goal of oyster sanctuaries recently established in bay estuaries, where at least that shellfish would be free to flourish until constraints arise other than harvesting by man. The hope is that these sheltered colonies might help repopulate the severely degraded, much larger harvested areas and generally improve the aquatic biology.

I hope the public might be content with limited access and use of Chapman Forest, if assured of compatibility with the goal. Can observation of what is to be seen on the property and contemplation of the goal by visitors be encouraged, even assumed? Long-term reservations for visits are an obvious method to limit access, but often inconvenient. Can some short-term access be kept available? Should some access be raffled off, some for free, and maybe some for money for supporting funds, as long as there are bidders?

We are only beginning the game of God, within this thin spherical shell we call the biosphere. It contains all life discovered so far, even much yet undiscovered. How much caution is reasonable? This could be a theme of the Chapman Forest enterprise, of significance for locals and distant visitors to the nation's capital -- a unique message to the world. Could we really have the biggest environmental footprint?

Further, I do not support equestrian use on Chapman Forest, which is too environmentally sensitive for such an environmentally insensitive activity, normally for so few. A hiker can easily view the entire property in an afternoon, for which there might eventually be a network of main and secondary observation trails. Off-trail hiking should encourage least-track skills, with well-indicated off-limits areas of interest for observation only. Kinds of limits might be defined by clever marks on trees or rocks. Nor do I support athletic fields on Chapman Forest, because it is the wrong place and that is a county responsibility.

Bill Johnston