FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL
By. Neil Williamson, President
A headline in the Washington Post caught my eye over the weekend (5/20/12) Potomac ‘most endangered’? Just hype. Post columnist Robert McCartney highlighted the lack of scientific data behind an environmental groups declaration that the Potomac as “America’s most endangered river”. McCartney writes:
The top ranking wasn’t based on pollution levels or other scientific data. It wasn’t warranted by trends or policy changes that threaten our river more than any other. It isn’t as if the Potomac has been gradually creeping up the roster and finally reached the peak. This was its first appearance since the annual list began in 1986.
No, the advocacy group American Rivers highlighted the Potomac this year primarily for slick political and public relations motives. The group picked what it called “the nation’s river” in order to rouse citizens to fight efforts in Congress to weaken the Clean Water Act on the law’s 40th anniversary. It helped that it’s an election year, when Washington is in the news.
I thought that I had seen an Albemarle County project highlighted in a similar list recently. A quick web search found that the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) had listed Charlottesville as one of the Top Ten Endangered Places 2012 (www.stopthebypass.org)
In reviewing the supporting material placing Charlottesville on this list, it was clear, like the American Rivers designation, there is not significant scientific ordering to the ranking. The “threat” as described by SELC is as follows:
A wasteful, destructive bypass would mar landscapes, cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, endanger public health, and fail to solve traffic problems.
Interestingly another environmental group, who is also opposed to the bypass, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), issued a media release in January highlighting the number of acres that have been permanently placed on conservation easement in Albemarle County:
In Albemarle County, 2,283 acres were protected by conservation easements in 2011, adding to a total of over 85,700 acres, or 18% of the total land. . . . In total, conservation easements in Albemarle County now protect 372 miles of streams and rivers, 32,000 acres of prime farmland, 57,000 acres of forests, 23,000 acres along Scenic Byways, and 36,000 acres in historic districts. These resources make Albemarle and Charlottesville great places to live and are fundamental to the local and state economies. [Emphasis Added – NW]
PEC’s trumpeting the large volume of land under permanent conservation easement seems to be in conflict with the idea that Charlottesville is “endangered”.
Both the American Rivers and SELC “endangered” top ten lists lack clear methodology. The Washington Post article discussed the American Rivers communications strategy:
Public relations experts faulted both American Rivers for hyping the story and the media for being too ready to bite.
“The number one ranking implies that the Potomac is worse than everything else. How is that not a lie?” said Paul Argenti, a corporate communication professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
“You have to have some sort of measurable justification when you do a ranking,” he said.
Just as Mark Twain once wrote, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”, The Free Enterprise Forum takes the SELC (and American Rivers) top ten listings with a grain of salt.
We do not believe Charlottesville is one of the most endangered places due to the construction of the US 29 Bypass. Conversely, we believe when constructed the Bypass will not only improve the safety of our areas roadways but also both provide efficient and effective traffic/freight movement.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org