A Critical Species Disappears from the Political Scene

Commentary by Tom Horton

I won’t waste time telling you how to vote in the upcoming elections, but I will provide some history and context on politics and the environment.

The choices for environmental voters used to be harder, and that was a good thing.

I began writing about Chesapeake Bay almost 40 years ago, and for the first couple decades I don't recall that the environment was a partisan issue. A short list of leaders who were instrumental then in working to restore the Bay will make my point.

For the Democrats, there were governors Harry Hughes of Maryland, and Chuck Robb of Virginia, and state legislators Jeff Coy and Kenneth Cole of Pennsylvania, and Joe Gartlan of Virginia.

For the Republicans, there were Arthur Sherwood (who started the Chesapeake Bay Foundation), U.S. Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland, Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Directors William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train.

The list could go on, and it would be eminently bipartisan.

That didn't mean the two parties always agreed on how to do it, just that they agreed it must be done and they worked to find a compromise that did it.

It's different now.

Check the environmental voting records of recent years as compiled by the non-partisan League of Conservation Voters.

In today's Maryland Senate, Democrats score on average about 75 percent out of a possible 100. Republicans average about 25 percent. In the House of Delegates average scores run close to 90 percent for Democrats, around 40 percent for Republicans.

Virginia’s legislature in 2009 had 28 Democrats voting at 75 percent or above for the environment, and only three Republicans. Pennsylvania shows a similar divide, as does the U.S. Congress.

Democratic congressman Frank Kratovil, with a 79 percent environmental voting record in his first term representing Maryland’s Eastern Shore is in a close race with Republican Andy Harris, who has a lifetime 13 percent voting record in the Maryland Senate.

Now, I have enough Republican friends to know that people vote the way they do based on many factors, not just the environment.

But no one should have to swallow continued pollution of our waters and accelerating loss of our forests and farmlands to sprawl development as the price of supporting their party.

A less obvious casualty of the bitter political divide on environment is the Democrats, who hardly represent the gold—or should I say green—standard when it comes to saving the planet.

Because the other side has virtually conceded the issue, they are no longer pushed to be better environmentally; nor do they benefit from sensible Republican alternatives as they once did.

So it is that governor Martin O'Malley's midterm grade of A-minus from environmentalists was a "relative" A-minus.

And so it is that when former Governor Bob Ehrlich, running against O’Malley, says the environmental groups united against him are "Democratic interest groups" he's pretty much right.

But the real question we should ask is why that has come about.

It's becoming clear after three decades of missing deadline after deadline in restoring the Chesapeake that the parts of the cleanup effort that were more regulatory worked, and the parts--large parts--that were more voluntary haven't worked.

No one likes to be told to do something.

But we all like to catch and eat lots of rockfish from the Bay, and it was adopting a regulatory approach with real deadlines and real enforcement that brought 'em back from the brink of disaster.

The same thing is true with the recent upsurge in blue crabs. Governors O’Malley and Tim Kaine of Virginia laid down serious conservation measures, and with a little help from Mother Nature it seems to have worked.

Oysters harvested wild from the Bay are nearly done for as a commercial species, as is the tasty and sporty American shad.

In both cases we were afraid for too long, waited until too late, to be more restrictive. With shad, freedom to fish as people wished resulted in no one being allowed to catch them since 1978.

Recently voters kicked out two of the few Republicans in this region who championed the environment--Wayne Gilchrest from Maryland and Mike Castle from Delaware.

Nothing that swims in the Bay is so endangered as that rarest of species, Republicanus environmentalus.

Without their return, I'm not sure we can restore the Chesapeake.

Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is currently a freelance writer. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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