Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2109th Meeting


Speaker: Kent Mountford, Senior Scientist, USEPA, Chesapeake Bay Program, Annapolis, MD
Topic: “Buildout: an Examination of Environmental Carrying Capacity around Chesapeake Bay from 1607 to the Present”

President Garavelli called the 2109th meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on October 29, 1999. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2108th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2109th meeting was Kent Mountford, a Senior Scientist, at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Chesapeake Bay Program, Annapolis, MD. The title of his presentation was “Buildout: an Examination of Environmental Carrying Capacity around Chesapeake Bay from 1607 to the Present.”


The term, “buildout” is used by planners to describe saturation development, and is usually viewed as a recipe for environmental decline. The speaker described the historical roots of buildout in the Chesapeake Bay region. From the first European contacts, a succession of pressures was placed on landscape and living resources by technology and population. Each wave of pressure such as from agriculture, forest removal and population has resulted in increasingly damaged ecological conditions. The prospects for sustainable development and restoration are called into question.

European exploration of the Chesapeake may date from as far back as the 12th Century, but certainly from the 16th Century onward. However, until the early 17th Century, the environmental impact was primarily from Native American agriculture and burning. Here, the Chesapeake Basin landscape was 95% forested, with some open grassland and the impact was sustainable. However, from 1600 to 1700 the land was gradually but completely captured in European-style surveyed land ownership with fixed boundaries. The land was sequentially captured by forest clearing for firewood, charcoal and tobacco. An examination of Chesapeake Bay sediments shows an agricultural horizon emerging as indicated by changes in the ratio of oak to ragweed pollen.

During the late Colonial period, the shift to grain crops for consumption and export created problems. Repeated and deeper soil tillage using the moldboard plow created a strong erosion signal in Bay sediments. Spatial saturation on the coastal plain drove further development up onto the piedmont, where contemporary agricultural practices exacerbated erosion, and filled in the smaller seaports. Each level of occupation saturated the landscape for one suite of uses and functions and then was replaced by others. This process, from the earliest Colonial times, was sustained by the input of external capital, personnel and energy sources. This process exploited indigenous natural resources and destroyed previous levels of organization. However, the Chesapeake and its basin were able to resist productivity decreases until the end of the 19th Century. Here, the pressures began to exceed the carrying capacity of the landscape and were no longer sustainable. This process continues today with modern development, expansion of mobility with motorized vehicles, such as cars and trucks, proliferating impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots, and population increasing at 11 new people every hour. It is unlikely that these trends will reverse, and improbable that lifestyle changes can be made to reverse their effects. Consequently, the implications for a viable Chesapeake Bay are not encouraging.



Mr. Mountford then closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Mountford for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2109th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:15 p.m.

Attendance:31
Temperature:12.9°C
Weather:clear

Respectfully submitted,
 
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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