We know what is at stake. Over 50 square miles of estuarine biodiversity buoyed with patriotic heritage unlike anything else in the world. Mallows Bay, home to hundreds of sunken steam vessels dating back to World War I, has most recently been home to rich wildlife and a recreational jungle gym of sorts for frequent kayakers, fishermen and explorers. But why should we care so much about the outcome of its pending National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) status decision from NOAA?

As what we hope will be one of the first nationally designated sanctuaries in 15 years, Mallows Bay is a living laboratory for regional universities’ ecosystem and watershed research and for the countless students who learn about biology and environmental science on school study trips. The designation will transform the site into an official attraction, inviting visitors to take advantage of its history, recreational offerings and natural beauty. Surrounding economies of Mallows Bay would see boosted income as well1.


On March 7, NOAA held a public scoping meeting in La Plata (MD) to hear constituents’ thoughts on which plan is best for the pending designation2. The evening emphasized the challenge that public policy encounters when an issue and respective solutions are not black and white. Watermen, against a larger protected area, showed up in force, voicing concern over the regulation’s impact on commercial fishing access and standing by their choice for “Alternative A” – no sanctuary status3. On the other hand, teachers, researchers and residents – worried about pollution in the Chesapeake – fear that a flashy designation would turn Mallows Bay into a brand, doing little for the actual environmental issues and natural economy4.

Mallows Bay’s federal protection, once widely seen to be approved by consensus, is now being eyed a bit more closely. I cannot tell you why you as an individual should care, or what makes Mallows Bay important to your life’s meaning or how it supports your own values. The designation of National Marine Sanctuary for Mallows Bay represents the power that we have as citizens to concentrate our voices into a force capable of influencing action. Mallows Bay became the respected place it is, not on its own, but because those who rely upon it have long understood its significance and value.


I have no perfect answers to these concerns, and wish I did. It is possible that a sanctuary designation will grant Mallows more protection than some would like, excluding certain kinds of activities and attracting others. But at the least, the process has been bottom-up, reflective of diverse stakeholders expressing their views. For all who believe the outcome is negative, it will feel as though their wishes were not heard, their opinions and concerns undervalued.

To me, in keeping with my belief in the potential of positive human balance with natural habitats, Mallows Bay defines the epitome of the beauty of environmental education. What these public meetings show us is the very diversity of individual values and the dynamic nature of debate in managing our collective natural heritage—our public resources. Whatever the outcome, we must consider the achievement of the public process, that the decision was made with open ears and with best interests in mind. The openness brought to the surface the importance, not only of Mallows Bay but of conservation of public resources more broadly – of what we gain when all voices, even nature’s and history’s, are heard.

The comment period for Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary’s NOAA proposal closes March 31. There are already over 700 comments, and more to come, including yours! Have your voice heard here.