How have inflection points influenced one land conservation organization over time?
What does that suggest for where we all stand now? (All photos: ESLC)

In recent weeks, many have been mulling the idea of “inflection points” and whether and how we might be in the midst of a new one, driven by the simultaneous COVID-19 pandemic, uprisings against police violence towards African Americans, and the growing recognition of inequities in our society. We are particularly interested in what this might, or should, mean for our shared work in land conservation. 

Inflections do happen. Our colleagues at the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) have been thinking about how societal inflection points have greatly influenced their work over time, never returning to “business as usual” after each point. We wanted to hear their story on this. 

Inflection 1 – 1990s Sprawl: 

Sprawling residential development on farmland and species habitat in the late 80s and 90s led to waves of land protection across Maryland, as well as the birth of ESLC. At the Conservancy’s founding in 1990, roughly 90% of new development on the Eastern Shore occurred on prime farmland and waterfront property. That pattern presented a direct challenge for an Eastern Shore way of life that valued working lands and wildlife habitat. 

One of the things Rob Etgen, ESLC’s first staff member and now President, is most proud of is the sheer volume and innovation in land protection that followed. ESLC holds over 300 easements on more than 65,000 acres, protected by communities and farm families. As a former ESLC intern described“The lands they preserved provided gathering places for people to connect with each other and the natural world. These areas provided sanctuary to countless species of plants and animals, many unique to our oasis and some on the edge of extinction.”

The 1990s inflection would influence land protection in the region for a generation; inspiring Maryland’s Rural Legacy program, for example, patterned after one of ESLC’s land protection programs. The period showed ESLC the Eastern Shore way of life was worth protecting, and there were plenty of people willing to help shape the role of conservation and agriculture in the region. Today, most of the new development is in town/growth areas on the Eastern Shore. 

Inflection 2 – 9/11: 

The attacks of September 11, 2001 didn’t change ESLC’s basic trajectory, but deepened a resolve to protect the Eastern Shore in the face of increasing global volatility. It also sensitized the Conservancy to its permanent relationships with its conservation easement farms and families. This fueled change that subsequently took full form following the next inflection. 

Inflection 3 – 2008 Great Recession: 

The 2008 recession set many communities back. But from it grew a new emphasis for ESLC focused on community reinvestment through planning and conservation. 

Prior to 2008, developers had an easier time financing sprawl and bigger houses were easier to build. With the recession, substantially tightened mortgage regulations, lessened development pressure on farmlands, and the impact on communities reoriented ESLC’s focus. By 2011, the Conservancy had initiated its new concentration and programs for enabling thriving towns on the Eastern Shore through conservation, parks, planning and redevelopment. Among the community projects — creating a new

permanent in-town ESLC home from an abandoned historic building in Easton. The Eastern Shore Conservation Center also became home to The Nature Conservancy, ShoreRivers, Ducks Unlimited, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and others committed to Eastern Shore conservation. 

Inflection 4 – Rising Climate Awareness:

Over the past decade, awareness of the increasing impacts of climate change on the Eastern Shore, plus the lack of long-term resilience planning, caused another inflection for ESLC — the development of its Coastal Resilience program. The Conservancy focuses on three themes: creating capacity and leadership, focusing public support and political will for long range planning, and building resilience to coastal

hazards. ESLC facilitates the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership (ESCAP), a network of staff from local government, state agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations, to promote learning and collaboration. In recent years, the program has produced research findings on the impacts of rising sea levels and severe rainfall on the Eastern Shore. It has been key in driving efforts to help counties prepare for immediate and long-term coastal hazards. 

A New Inflection? Looking Ahead 

The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing advocacy for food security and for safe, outdoor spaces that are close to home. People all over are reaffirming their relationships with nature, through greater use of parks, trails and other natural assets. 

All of this seems to add emphasis and urgency to the programs above and the growing momentum behind Delmarva Oasis, ESLC’s goal of protecting half the Delmarva Peninsula as the largest contiguous block of productive farmland in the mid-Atlantic region, supporting nearly $15 billion in ecological benefits, fisheries and tourism. 

It’s a heavy goal with heavy considerations; particularly around the lasting racial challenges in society and in our chosen field of work. Conservation has failed to serve all people equitably, as demonstrated by the lack of diversity in the outdoor industry and environmental justice issues that have endured from generation to generation. 

Just like other times, things won’t be business as usual, but it is more important than ever to foster stronger, deeper and safer connections with nature, for all walks of life. 

Today’s Lightning Update is co-written with Darius Johnson, ESLC Communications Manager. Darius is an Eastern Shore native and graduate of Washington College in Chestertown. He initially joined the ESLC in September 2018 to manage adaptive reuse and community projects focused on fostering vibrancy throughout Eastern Shore towns.

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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