Prince William Conservation Alliance

Environmentalists: Left, Right, or Out in Front?

(NOTE: from the November, 2003 Prince William Community Report)

Environmentalists are often in the news, and references to these activists range from Earth First! tree-sitters to Environmental Protection Agency scientists. Locally, much of Prince William's land use dialogue includes comments from and about the environmentalists. Environmentalists are identified as everyone from "no growth activists" to volunteers cleaning up trash and many of us are left wondering, "Just who are these people?"

A plethora of labels adds to the confusion. Environmentalists are labeled as "anti-business," a negative term for proponents of ecologically benign development. Individuals or groups that disagree with environmental degradation too effectively are regularly tagged as "extremists," although finding someone who is not concerned with clean water and clean air is increasingly difficult. In reality, these are mainstream issues that concern us all.

NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is another common term. Although the connotation is generally negative, NIMBYs are mainly interested in protecting their home investments and securing good quality of life for their families. These goals are worthwhile and, from coast to coast, people concerned with protecting their homes and families are the backbone of high quality neighborhoods.

Throughout history, NIMBYs have played a key role in sustaining healthy communities. Yesteryear community residents gathered in support to build churches and courthouses. When a neighbor's barn burned to the ground, community residents rallied together to raise the barn again.

Those days are long gone and there are not many barns left in Prince William, yet the need for community action remains. Today's fragmented communities and modern conveniences such as automobiles have expanded our territories. NIMBYs must move forward and consider a broader area to be effective.

In Prince William, our fifty-year long pattern of rapid development appears to be approaching the final stretch. Citizen interest in environmental and land use issues is steadily growing countywide. Good media coverage on the growing regional population plus increasing numbers of real estate refugees (people who move into the suburbs to purchase a bigger home on a bigger lot) have not left much room for BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).

Instead, people are talking about where to develop . . . and when. People are considering impacts to traffic, taxes and schools. We are talking about conservation, open space and water issues.

The Prince William land use debate does include a thriving population of NIMBYs who are rapidly growing up into NOTEs (Not Over There Either). These people are concerned with LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses), which have countywide effects including rising taxes, congested roads, crowded schools and degraded ecosystems.

All of Prince William lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which stretches from New York to Virginia. Every locality in this 64,000 square mile watershed must equally share the burden of cleaning up America's largest estuary. Currently the cost to clean up the Chesapeake Bay is estimated at $10 - 20 billion, more than the $7.8 billion needed to restore the Everglades but less than the $30 billion spent on the space station so far.

Land use changes are the primary cause of degradation of the Chesapeake Bay. The biggest problems are sedimentation and excess nutrients. In December 2002, Virginia estimated it would cost the state between $1.7 billion and $2.7 billion to meet the minimum requirements for nutrient and sediment reductions. Whether it is one way or another, sooner or later, we (or our children) are going to have to pay this bill. Unless localities can match this large expenditure of taxpayer dollars with constructive changes to business-as-usual practices, the costs will continue to rise. Continuing to add to the problem just doesn't make sense.

The most important thing Prince William can do to help is to take care of the land within our jurisdiction. If we are not willing to set priorities and make investments to protect our natural assets, we can hardly expect commitments from others.

It's likely that environmentalists will lead the way, but who are the environmentalists that will make the difference?

Pollution doesn't discriminate; we all need clean air and water. Does this make us all environmentalists? Environmentalists are ordinary people who want to improve the places they live. You don't need to tie yourself to a tree to be an environmentalist. People whose everyday actions serve as models for us all do much of the really important environmental work quietly, without fanfare or media coverage.

Prince William Conservation Alliance