I saw an old map recently that showed that parts of the National Mall here in Washington were once a tidal marsh attached to the Potomac River. I like to imagine places as they were before people plowed them up, filled them in, built cities on them. That marsh must have been beautiful, with great blue herons stalking its perimeter, ducks and geese in the open water in the autumn, striped bass spawning in the river nearby. And it was, of course, connected through the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay and through the bay to the ocean — whole, all of a piece, incomparably filled with life.
Sadly, the river, the Chesapeake and our near-shore waters have been badly damaged since the marsh was covered over to make the Washington we know today. We continue to search for ways to fix the damage we’ve done to the bay, to our rivers and oceans, and we’ve made some notable progress in reducing the worst of pollution and over-exploitation of resources. We should be proud of that, but the overall results are unsatisfactory. The Chesapeake Bay, for example, is a shadow of its former self, its iconic oyster and crab populations almost gone.
In looking for solutions it seems to me we’ve overlooked the most important thing — the whole and interconnected quality of healthy large natural systems. Maybe even worse than “overlooked.”
In a peculiar irony, the Mall-that-was-once-a-marsh is now literally surrounded by buildings that house Federal agencies and Congressional committees that have, over time, carved up the natural world to suit their particular legal jurisdictions. So the Department of Agriculture on one side of the Mall doesn’t talk enough to the Department of Interior on the other side, and the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA can’t seem to quite overcome their separation by a half-mile wide strip of grass and trees and a few rows of buildings.
Sure, there are committees and working groups that are supposed to accomplish cooperation among agencies, but at least until now, not a single ecosystem in the country is being managed across organizational boundaries in a way that respects and reflects its natural character and integrity.
I say “until now,” because we are seeing encouraging signs of change. Last week, President Obama’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force released its Interim Report pursuant to the President’s request that they draft “a United States framework for policy coordination of efforts to improve stewardship of the oceans, our coasts and the Great Lakes.” The report does, in fact make a number of important recommendations to both coordinate federal activities and allow federal agencies to work constructively with states and user groups to restore and sustain coastal resources for, as the President said in establishing the task force, “the benefit of this and future generations.”
The issue of benefits is important not just for management of coastal systems, but for all efforts to conserve large landscapes and watersheds. There are no such places that don’t include and affect people. The restoration and management of natural systems must take into account the needs and views of the people who depend upon them — all the more reason that Federal agencies should speak with a clear and coordinated voice.
I have long been a fan of an eccentric artist and writer named Walter Anderson who lived on the Mississippi Coast in the middle of the last century. Anderson would row his little boat 10 miles offshore to deserted Horn Island where he camped out for weeks at a time painting wildlife and writing in his journal. He was particularly tuned in to the relationships among the things he saw. He wrote often about sitting by the shore as it was “approaching the magic hour before sunset when all things are related.”
I, too, have seen that peculiar merging of land, sea and sky at twilight on the Gulf of Mexico which, while many times the size of the Chesapeake, is still connected by currents and the migrations of birds and fish, and which, like the Chesapeake, is terribly threatened.
If the report of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is an early step in an overall effort by this administration to get Federal environmental agencies to work effectively together, then maybe the National Mall can, in time, take on a new symbolism — rather than dividing agencies and authorities, the Mall can represent the green and blue places that unite federal departments in shared responsibility for the natural systems that are of common benefit to us all.