Joel Dunn is president and chief executive of the Chesapeake Conservancy and lead convener of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership.
“They’ll get it all eventually, it’s just a matter of time,” said my ornithology professor in college. This haunting statement came during a discussion about the hundreds of new houses that had sprung up around his beautiful farm near campus. He may have been referring to his farm or the planet, but my subsequent career in conservation has given me a more optimistic outlook focused on building a new path forward and tangible action to protect land.
After 15 years of living and working in the Washington metropolitan area, I am confident that our Chesapeake Bay watershed contains some of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere in the country, and they are rapidly disappearing. The Chesapeake, and the Earth itself, faces challenges unlike any we have seen before. Loss of natural areas, accelerated climate change, excessive pollution and dramatic reductions of wildlife and plant species threaten the foundation of what makes the Chesapeake special. While its easy to despair, I see an opportunity to usher in a new era of data-driven, results-oriented conservation focused on protecting the ecosystems and landscapes that are critical for maintaining our diverse cultures, local economies and health.
Land conservation, the process of protecting natural land or restoring land to a more natural state, is a crucial part of the Chesapeake protection and restoration effort. With the largest land-to-water ratio of any coastal water body in the world, our natural lands filter out nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution, the major causes of the Chesapeake Bay’s poor water quality. Conserved land also benefits everything from our fisheries, tourism and outdoor recreation industry, real estate values and our overall public health.
Many scientists and philanthropists are calling to permanently protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030 through efforts such as the Global Deal for Nature and the Campaign for Nature. These goals are ambitious at any scale, but thanks to decades of bipartisan, multi-jurisdictional and collaborative conservation efforts in the Chesapeake, we are farther along than most and have protected 22 percent of the 64,000-square-mile landscape. In addition, we are 68 percent of the way toward the most recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement goal of protecting an additional 2 million acres by 2025.
Today, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, a coalition of more than 50 organizations, released Marking Milestones: Progress in Conserving Land in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the most comprehensive report on land conservation and funding in the region in a decade. The report provides very convincing evidence that if we sustain and enhance current public funding and attract new private capital investments, then it will be possible for us to meet our 2025 goal and more ambitious goals in the future. The report also highlights conservation success stories that can be celebrated and replicated throughout the watershed.
On Sept. 5, the Chesapeake Executive Council, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, Chesapeake Bay Commission chair Tawanna Gaines and others will meet in Oxon Hill to evaluate our progress in the Chesapeake restoration effort. The Marking Milestones report makes it clear that we are making progress toward our land conservation goals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Their continued leadership in support of this work is essential.
Conserving large or contiguous parcels of ecologically valuable land is often challenging and takes years of sustained effort and multiple sources of public and private capital. Protecting millions of acres is a much more daunting challenge that will require a multigenerational commitment from a well coordinated network of conservation minded landowners, citizens, organizations and government agencies that are leveraging the latest technology, from geographic information systems to artificial intelligence, to identify the landscapes that provide the greatest mix of conservation values.
The full story of the Chesapeake’s restoration is not written yet, but we are working toward the greatest conservation success story ever told. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to 18 million people, and by 2050, we expect 4 million more. It will take all of us working together to meet the challenges of the future. By leveraging technology, science, partnerships and finance to achieve these and future conservation goals, our work to restore the Chesapeake will continue to be an international example of how communities can achieve ambitious conservation goals, even in a time of rapid change.