A few days ago Mark Peck and I did a shorebird survey by boat that took us to all the nooks and crannies of NJ’s Delaware Bayshore. Leaving Smokey’s Marina at Reed’s Beach, we took our 16 ft Carolina Skiff all the way to Gandys Beach on the upper Bay. It was a stunning journey . One can’t help but admire the results of decades of conservation that led to this mostly protected and wild shoreline.
When seen from the sea the bayshore is a wilderness of marsh and forest with only a few small towns. I am always amazed that this wonderful bit of wild land lies smack in the center of the of one of the most densely populated places in the nation. From Bidwells Creek to Salem Creek, nearly all the bayshore is permanently protected. All-in-all it’s glorious achievement, a gift to our children and grandchildren.
This should not be forgotten in the battle to save this migratory shorebird stopover. The chief problem for horseshoe crabs and shorebirds is not the destruction of habitat but an incompetent fishery management system that, oddly, manages to create a poverty of fish in one of the most productive waters in the world. Thankfully, the habitat is protected so the bay’s bounty can always create a productive fishery if it was managed with wise care and judicious harvests.
But the conservation of the bay and its resources is thwarted by another serious problem, itself another form of correctable incompetence. At the end of our boat survey we decided to have breakfast at Higbee’s Lunchenette in Fortescue. Fortescue is the only town large enough to have restaurants on the bay and Higbee’s is the place to get lunch. The place is rich with the history of the bay and the owner, Betty Higbee,is a wealth of information. She has even published a book on Fortescue, Around Fortescue, that I recommend highly to truly understand how bad a blow this town has been dealt.
I asked the waitress at the restaurant why they have no bathrooms, only porta-potties. She said “we did once but we were the only public bathroom in town and the town has no sewage system, so we had to pump out our septic tank every other day. At $300 bucks a pop we couldn’t afford it. “
In one sentence this women told the long, sad story of this town. Like other towns on the Bay, Fortescue was once a thriving community. I discussed the collapse of the economy of Fortescue previously on this blog focusing on the collapse of the weakfish fishery.
But the second problem is the short-sightedness of environmental policy that failed to provide sewage treatment and water for this town. How can anyone expect to have a thriving town when the basic components of prosperity are absent?
The answer is, that was the intention. It’s a variant of “starve the beast” policy of conservative ideologues. Our current environmental policy, a reaction to 30 years of unfettered development, hopes to stop unsustainable development by stopping all development and buying as much land as possible before it can be developed. This policy led to the stunning protection of the bayshore that I so admired in our boat journey up the bay and created much good for animals, plants and the people of the state. But not for the people of Delaware Bay rural communities. These people are suffering staggering job losses and unemployment, and this “starve the beast” environmental policy is part of it. We environmentalists must take a hard look at the impact of current policy on this and other rural economies.
In this case a sewage plant in Fortescue would be wise environmental policy. Yes, there will be more development, but it would be restricted to an area defined by the sea. A good plan for development that takes advantage of the colorful history of Fortescue would help everyone, property values would increase for all, new jobs would be created with new service businesses. The town would be revitalized. In this way people from all over could explore the bayshore and stay in Fortescue instead of Wildwood or Cape May (who, incidentally, have sewer service).
It’s time to change environmental policy for the sake of the Delaware Bayshore. Done wisely a new policy initiative that creates wealth for local people would inspire conservation from the bottom up. In the end, this may be the best path toward sustainable conservation.