I love the phrase, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Peter Levine, who wrote a book of the same name on civic renewal, cites the origin of this phrase in the poetry of June Jordan. It has been used in discussion of both the civil rights and environmental movements. There are some parallels.

It is no secret that the Chesapeake needs our help. After 30 years of amazing science, new funding and incentive programs, regulations meant to affect all manner of land use, and just plain hard work to tackle lingering problems facing our rivers– we still have a ways to go to reach our goal of a healthy Bay ecosystem.

But unlike 30 years ago, the challenges facing the Bay today are not rooted in a lack of understanding or a need for new computer models, or regulatory policies. Rather they rest on whether we can learn to live in harmony with the natural systems that sustain this national treasure. For the most part, we have known for some time what needs to be done. Expanding the use of better management practices and new treatment technology, reducing waste, building sustainably, living with less impact, are all part of the equation.

The truth is that progress in the next few decades will rely less on top-down, government mandates, and more on each of us! “We are the ones we have been waiting for”!

Living Classrooms native planting in Baltimore (Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program).

Beyond a need for funding and political leadership, resolving the most pressing issues facing the Chesapeake Bay requires local action and citizen stewardship – action that comes from a strong sense that people care. This kind of citizen stewardship does not arise from science or regulation; instead it comes from a personal connection to nature– a sense of responsibility for the environment.

Kayaking is the best way to connect people with the bay and it’s rivers. In this case, I was paddling Duvall Creek off the South River in Annapolis just before an evening storm blew in.

Webster’s dictionary defines stewardship as “an individual’s responsibility to manage his life and property with proper regard to the rights of others.” Who are the others we would be concerned about if we wish to practice good stewardship of the natural environment? Our family, neighbors, community, region, state, nation? All of the above, and more. Our future success depends on a broader, more diverse, and truly engaged citizenry with a commitment to stewardship.

Can we make this sense of stewardship more commonplace?

Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable to smoke in restaurants, offices, buses, trains. There was no stigma attached. It was common to dispose of used motor oil by pouring it in a hole in the back yard, or dumping it down the drain. Once upon a time, it was a sign of strength or success to drive a big muscle car or large SUV with an 8 cylinder engine.

Slowly social and cultural expectations changed, public will shifted, and laws changed to reflect it. Our attitudes about what was right and wrong evolved. Ultimately, both smoking and drinking and driving, were seen not as personal acts protected by the right of self-determination, but as threats to others that should be changed on behalf of the public welfare. “No dumping” stencils placed by local volunteers and organizations on thousands of storm drains turned out to be as good as building physical barriers to prevent it.

So it must be with stewardship.

In addition to working on big stormwater projects, sewage treatment plant upgrades and manure storage, we need to work on changing social norms. It needs to become taboo, socially unacceptable and publicly embarrassing to over-consume, waste, destroy or pollute nature or harm our watershed. And it must be really cool to have the most energy efficient or stormwater-free house on the block rather than the biggest and greenest lawn.

Volunteers cleaning Church Creek in Annapolis for Project Clean Stream 2011 (Photo courtesy of South River Federation).

In an article in the Baltimore Sun called ‘speaking up for the environment’, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin wrote: “We need to learn how to shift cultural attitudes toward a deeper expectation of what brings personal “satisfaction” and “success” and generates social reward. We need to make a pact with each other that we will make this work important and valued and that we will work on this together.” Stewardship means each one of us reducing our pollution –a sense of individual responsibility equally applicable to farmers, businesses, communities, and individuals. There are no shortages of problems that need fixing. Fortunately, there are thousands of people and organizations working to fix them. From implementing everyday actions that reduce one’s ecological footprint to organizing citizens to revitalize their local community, the power of engaged citizens is immense.

Just recently, I have found stewardship on display when 300 people attended a county meeting to voice support for reducing stormwater, or 50 volunteers from a Church showed up for two days to plant 200 trees in a stream buffer, or when a community adopted the challenge of restoring a small wetland in their neighborhood, or when in response to a Facebook post, 25 local homeowners showed up to spend their day off pulling out invasive vines to help restore a forest, or a business who encouraged time off for employees to participate in a stream cleanup project in their local community. In each case, they were rewarded only by the sense that they have done something good for the environment and the Bay.

As the Chesapeake Bay Program considers a new Bay Agreement to guide the restoration effort, I hope our leaders take the time to think differently about the future. Government can’t do all that is needed but can create incentives that enhance the degree of citizen stewardship that is practiced in our watershed. The truth is that an informed, involved local community can do a better job of environmental protection than a distant bureaucracy and often at a much lower cost. Understanding what is important to your community is the place to start.

Aldo Leopold, in his seminal work “A Sand County Almanac,” wrote “The conservation movement… viewed in its entirety… is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and the land.” The Alliance believes that success can’t only be measured in pounds of pollutants reduced. It must also be measured by the number of new local champions inspired, the barriers to action removed, the commitment of an informed public, the education of a next generation of leaders, volunteers engaged, and in a broader, more diverse environmental movement. Community by community, we see the results of citizen stewardship. Together, we can get the job done!

Be a citizen steward…

  • Get to know your local watershed group.
  • Stay in touch with nature, visit conservation projects.
  • Volunteer and participate in activities offered by local environmental groups.
  • Strive to understand the issues and voice your concerns to local leaders.
  • Shop responsibly; choose products produced locally and with less impact on nature.
  • Share your passion for stewardship with friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family.
  • Be a member of a stewardship organization and support their work through donations.