Conservatives and conservationists find common ground on Chesapeake shores

To many Americans, conservatism and environmentalism are mutually exclusive ideologies. But to residents of Virginia's Middle Peninsula, the two go hand-in-hand.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Captain JC Hudgins stands on his dock in Mathews, Virginia. In the mornings, Captain Hudgins collects his crab pots and in the afternoons he takes visitors and locals out on "eco-tours" where he teaches them about the Chesapeake Bay. Hudgins' family has lived in Mathews for four generations.

Like his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, J.C. Hudgins has spent his entire life in Mathews, Va., making his living off the Chesapeake Bay.

In the mornings, Captain Hudgins pulls up his crab pots and sells some 10 bushels to the nearby J&W Seafood on Gwynn’s Island. His afternoons are often filled with eco-tours, where he teaches passengers what it takes to be a sustainable crabber or oysterman aboard his boat “Risky Business II,” before settling in for the night with Fox News.

“It’s a living, but you don’t get rich,” says Hudgins, looking out at the water from his dock. “I’ve worked hard all my life, nobody has ever given me anything.”

That’s a sentiment Americans are accustomed to hearing from working-class conservatives. Hudgins’ opinions on environmental policy, however, take a sharp turn from the stance that many liberals associate with people from conservative communities. But to Hudgins and many of his neighbors living on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, conservatism and conservation go hand-in-hand.

“I’m very frustrated that people think by default that Democrats are pro-environment and Republicans are not,” says Jack White, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Mathews County. “Conservation is at the heart of conservative principles. You're operating on the same root word.”

Conservatives in the Middle Peninsula – an area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island – explain their political leanings with the same rationale they use to explain their loyalty to the bay. Because manual labor, much of it tied to the Chesapeake, has defined this area’s economy for generations, locals feel equally sensitive to entitlement programs and environmental degradation. Both tax increases and pollution increases, for example, are discussed in terms of forgone bushels of crabs.

Conservative values are “fundamental” for reducing environmental degradation, says Mr. White. Humans aren’t born Republicans or environmentalists, he says – rather they become either or both of these things after witnessing waste.

Conservative conservation

The Middle Peninsula’s melding of conservative and conservationist values has brought Republican voters and politicians to the same table as environmental activists, says Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist at the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) in Annapolis, Md.

“Fortunately, when it comes to issues of the bay, we get wide support from both sides of the aisle. A lot of it is due to concerns that the legislators bring from their own districts,” says Mr. Moore. “We are in a place with bay issues where people understand the connection between the land and the water quality and they want to find ways to move forward.”

The six counties in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula – Essex, Gloucester, King and Queen, King William, Mathews, and Middlesex – have a history of voting Republican in presidential elections. President Trump won the whole peninsula in 2016, beating Hillary Clinton in three of the counties by more than 35 percent. But Mr. Trump’s favor soured in the area when he proposed cutting the $73 million Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund in the 2018 budget.

“I wasn’t real happy about that,” says Hudgins, shaking his head, on the dock next to “Risky Business II.”

Hudgins grew up hearing tales of clear water with too many crabs to catch from his great-grandfather, a skipjack who ferried watermelons across the Chesapeake. That image was hard to reconcile with the waters he saw growing up – so dirty he couldn’t see his own feet when standing in the shallows.

It’s a lot better now, says Hudgins, thanks to clean-up efforts by locals, CBF, and the government.

The oysters are coming right up, he says. “There’s a lot more underwater vegetation. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s better.” Later he adds, “Everybody needs to do their own part.”

More than 150 rivers and creeks flow into the bay, making it the largest estuary in North America and the third-largest in the world. And the bay’s vast geographical reach across six US states makes it difficult to protect. Since 1985, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from pollution have sustained an average 1.7-cubic-mile dead zone – an area of water where no life can survive. According to CBF, the bay that Captain John Smith saw in the early 1600s had 10 times more oysters, 4 times more underwater grasses, and 5 times clearer water than the bay in 2016.

Today, the bay is the cleanest it’s been since CBF started issuing annual reports almost two decades ago. 

“It's been an all hands on deck approach,” says CBF’s Moore. “[There has been a] huge increase in people who are taking actions on their private property to help bay water quality.”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Delegate Keith Hodges represents the 98th District in the Virginia General Assembly, an area that consists of all six counties in Virginia's Middle Peninsula. Delegate Hodges is a Republican, but he has proposed innovative environmental solutions in his region on issues ranging from living shorelines to stormwater management.

For one thing, homeowners are increasingly interested in maintaining living shorelines, stabilized by grasses and other native vegetation rather than artificial retaining walls or bulkheads. Keith Hodges, the Republican delegate for all six counties on the Middle Peninsula, helped drive the surge in living shorelines.

Although the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality favors living shorelines, there had been no economic incentive for homeowners to take down existing seawalls. In fact, says Delegate Hodges, until recently there was an economic disincentive: Any renovation to remove seawalls or bulkheads was subject to home improvement taxes.

“There was no carrot, there was just a stick,” says Lewis Lawrence III, executive director for the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission.

In an effort to soften that stick, Hodges proposed and helped usher two bills through the General Assembly that were designed to remove financial hurdles to living shoreline development: one that eliminated the taxation of living shoreline-related home improvements, and a second that allotted funds for a revolving loan program for residents, the first of its kind in Virginia. Both passed with bipartisan support. Within the first two months of the loan program, four loans for living shorelines had already been approved. Mr. Lawrence expects the program’s $250,000 worth of loans will be lent out by the fall.

Hodges says he isn’t doing anything extraordinary. Instead, he says he is simply representing the interests of his constituents on the Middle Peninsula: Republicans who want jobs for their families and protection for their bay.

Threading the needle

At Diggs Seafood in Mattaponi, Va., customers pull up to the shopping center with fishing nets sliding around in the bed of their trucks. Diggs has been a local favorite in this tight-knit community since the 1930s. As the standing-room-only shop fills up with customers, owner Crystal Carter works swiftly, doling out crab muffins and deviled crabs to eight customers in a matter of minutes. One man doesn’t even have to tell Ms. Carter what he would like – she sees him walk in and rings up two crab muffins and a Mountain Dew.

“People here care about the environment because it is in your face – it’s real,” says Ms. Carter. When asked how many crab muffins she makes in a day, she laughs: “Whatever it is, it’s not enough.”

Her shop is one of just a few small businesses on the peninsula. Hodges estimates there are fewer than 800 jobs in either King and Queen or Mathews County. Of King and Queen County’s 6,945 residents, for example, more than half of the population commutes out of the county for work. All six Middle Peninsula counties have unemployment rates comparable to the state average, but they all also have longer commutes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census.

“How do you develop policy that works in an area so heavily dependent on a clean environment and [in need of] economic development at the exact same time?” asks Mr. Lawrence of the planning district. “So how do you thread the needle?”

Lawrence and Hodges see these two priorities as interconnected. 

“People have to work, and the Bay is our biggest asset,” says Hodges. “We want to protect it more than anyone. It's in our backyard. But at the same time, it creates a tremendous number of challenges and ties our hands.”

In the 21st century, the Virginia Chesapeake has experienced sea-level rise of 3 to 5 millimeters per year – a rate that exceeds the global average. The region’s gradually sinking land makes the area “more vulnerable than many other coastal regions,” says the US Geological Survey, causing this rate to likely triple in coming decades. 

The Middle Peninsula has a chance to rewrite its history, says Cathy Cameron, a host at the two-room Town of Urbanna Museum in Middlesex County, where she teaches visitors about local history. Hundreds of years ago, tobacco farming was a central market and it “ripped” the soil of everything. Now, locals see the water as their lifeline and they are reluctant to sacrifice the long-term health of the bay for immediate profits.

“There are some things you are born into understanding,” says Ms. Cameron. “Being born here, I know everything we have is limited.”

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