‘Why so much?’
It appears as if the next national marine sanctuary is going right here in Southern Maryland. And it’s a big deal.
There are only 13 sanctuaries and two marine monuments, and many hope this designation and the much-hoped-for visitor’s center and science labs will bring jobs and tourism to the western part of Charles County.
Over the past three years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and various partners in the public and private sector have been working closely together to come up with a mutually-agreeable plan since the original nomination was submitted in 2014.
I attended NOAA’s public scoping meeting held earlier this month in La Plata to hear what people had to say about the newest developments in the quest to turn Mallows Bay along the Potomac into a national marine sanctuary.
It’s an undertaking that aims to synthesize the opinions of a diverse group of people into one coherent plan, and understandably the evening was lively and at times a bit rowdy as people spoke and the crowd reacted to comments.
When the meeting was over, many people remained in the aisles of the auditorium, continuing to discuss the issues and persuade one another.
When the sanctuary status was originally proposed, the community was overwhelmingly supportive.
The nomination included three parks — Mallows Bay, Purse State Park along the Potomac and Widewater State Park in Virginia. Known now as “Alternative B,” it covered 18 square miles with six miles of shoreline.
Sammy Orlando, an official from NOAA’s Chesapeake office in Annapolis, said that during the comment period from December 2015 to January 2016, many Marylanders recommended expanding the area to include all the known shipwrecks and adding more access points for kayak launches.
And therein is where the problem lies.
Now NOAA’s preferred option has almost tripled in size, to 52 square miles and 14 miles of shoreline, referred to as “Alternative C,” which does contain all the known shipwrecks in the Potomac and adds Caledon State Park in Virginia.
There’s even a super-sized version, “Alternative D,” which contains 100 square miles and 68 miles of shoreline. It is this option that elicited the most outcry at the meeting.
Indeed, many people expressed that they had supported the original plan and felt like they were now the victims of a “bait and switch.”
Bonnie Morris, representing the more than 600 businesses of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, stated that the Chamber supported the original 18 square mile nomination, but now had “grave concerns” about the “unprecedented expansion of the boundaries.”
This sentiment was expressed many times during
the evening, with people saying that, originally, nearly all parties seemed to support Alternative B. Somewhere in the process, the plan had been hijacked and was becoming a “boondoggle” they could no longer support.
A popular theme of the evening was “why so much?”
Fiscally, conservative commenters questioned why taxpayer dollars should be spent on this endeavor when our country is already in deep debt. To really improve the Potomac River, many suggested investing money to modernize and expand wastewater treatment facilities which dump millions of gallons of sewage into the Potomac annually.
Dolores Curry, who identified herself as a grandmother of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, said she had changed her mind about the project.
“I haven’t seen a cotton-pickin’ thing those ships could do for anyone,” Curry said.
Also in opposition was the watermen’s lobby, including the newly formed Potomac River Waterman’s Association.
The watermen support “Alternative A,” no sanctuary at all. It’s the word sanctuary that is the source of their apprehension.
Oyster sanctuaries are a hot-button issue these days, and the watermen aren’t looking to cede any more of their turf over to federal or state regulations or take any chances on losing access to valuable fishing areas, either now or due to some future regulatory outcome.
Orlando did try to quell those fears and stated that NOAA heard loud and clear the mandate from Southern Marylanders to “not mess with” recreational and commercial fishing, local land-use planning and zoning and recreational fossil-hunting.
In a short presentation before opening up the floor to comments, Orlando assured attendees that natural resources management decisions will remain with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Potomac Fisheries River Commission.
Bill Kilinski, president of the Charles County Watermen’s Association, called the bait and switch “totally unacceptable” and asked, “How can commercial fishermen trust NOAA? You say commercial fisheries won’t be impacted. Well, sir, we have been burned before.”
Among the supporters who showed up that evening were the Mattawoman Watershed Society, the Port Tobacco River Conservancy, and several recreational kayaking, archeology and history organizations. Quite a few teachers came out to show their support for the sanctuary as an opportunity to further connect students to the environment.
“We only have one world, one ocean, one Potomac River, one Chesapeake Bay,” said Lolita Kiorpes, a teacher at North Point High School in Waldorf.
People understandably want to protect the remains of the ghost fleet, clean up the shorelines and water, have better roads and access points for boaters and kayakers, create more shoreline fishing areas, partner with schools to further educational opportunities for area youth and preserve our area’s rich heritage. But this designation doesn’t actually do much at all because it doesn’t add additional protections for the shipwrecks or natural resources within the sanctuary.
What this designation is likely to do is bring tourists and their money to the region. And once this happens, we may end up with fewer rural areas in Charles County, a sad fate indeed.
The 301 traffic, housing tracts and polluted waterways are now becoming the hallmarks of a county once known for its countryside and rustic charm.
For certain, the little town of Indian Head could use a boost to their economy. The mayor has been trying to attract development and defense contractors to set up shop outside the base, and a visitor’s center could spur economic development, but increased development in the western part of the county might be the tipping point for one of the last rural strongholds in Charles County: Nanjemoy.
Designating a sanctuary will be like creating a national brand with marketing campaigns and bumper stickers that bear the catchy phrase “Get Wrecked.” And if NOAA gets what it wants, Orlando promised the designation would bring tourists by the droves, from all over the globe, to our little corner of the world.
The Potomac River-Mallows Bay sanctuary will be modeled after the Thunder Bay sanctuary in Michigan, which touts resorts, glass-bottom boat tours and even a week-long film festival every year.
Which brings me back to the theme of the evening, “Why so much?” Those who feel like they’ve been hoodwinked have good reason to be concerned about the expansion. When Thunder Bay was designated a sanctuary in 2000, it encompassed 488 square miles. In 2014, the sanctuary was formally expanded nearly ten times its original size, to 4,330 square miles.
If you want to weigh in, you can still comment online or mail a letter. Go to http:// sanctuaries.noaa.gov/mallows-bay/ for instructions located near the bottom of the webpage.