Conservation Corner: How much will we pay for convenience?

Published 8:00 am Friday, June 1, 2018

Last week, I took the dogs for a walk in the woods behind our house.

There are walking trails through our property and adjoining properties, which means that I can walk for an hour without seeing anyone. It’s pretty darn nice, to put it mildly.

On that particular sunny day, I was aware of the fact that there were only a few moments when I could not hear the noise of Interstate 26. I got to wondering — when folks were planning the construction of I-26, did it ever occur to them that the peace and serenity of land within a mile of the interstate, in all directions, would be lost to the sounds of “progress?”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

When President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, did anyone really think about how much America’s rural landscape would change? All folks were thinking about was faster transportation for citizens (including military forces) and the ability to move merchandise more efficiently, all so that consumers could consume more, right here in our small towns. Engineers and politicians were not thinking about the noise of those trucks; that’s an externality, not worthy of consideration.

They probably did not consider the fact that each year there would be more traffic, and thus more noise. The consequence of our ‘improved’ transportation system is that the quality of life for humans and wildlife within the 2-mile wide I-26 sound corridor is greatly impacted, and it is not “improved.”

I wonder if anyone was thinking back in 1956 about where the water would go when it leaves the pavement. Were they thinking that there would be more and more roads built to access I-26?

Are you ready for some startling facts? Runoff from an acre of pavement is up to 20 times greater than runoff from a vegetated acre, which can lead to flash floods. All of this water immediately goes directly into our rivers and streams, without going into the ground and becoming part of the natural groundwater system to feed out streams.

Also, when 10 percent of our earth is covered with impermeable surfaces, our entire ecosystem will be changed forever. If we’re not there yet, we’re pretty darn close.

My mother grew up in western Pennsylvania. Her cousins lived in a town 30 miles away, which was a half-day road trip in the 1920s.

My grandparents had a car, so they drove to Aunt Anna’s house in Saltsburg every month or so, and they stayed overnight or for the weekend if they could. No, they did not visit their cousins as regularly as we would nowadays, but they stayed longer — they cooked together and went hiking together, and went to school dances together.

I wonder if their relationship was lessened because they could not drive to each other’s house in 30 minutes rather than three hours. I’m wondering if fast transit has really improved our quality of life like we thought it would.

Or, are we simply moving faster, just like the water running off the roads?

We are a part of a culture that wants instant gratification, and we’re not thinking much about the long-term consequences of our actions. The “improvements” that we think are so necessary now may cause unimaginable damage for our planet’s future.

Yes, we hire engineers to design our roads and bridges, but even they can only look so far ahead. We’re developing so rapidly that there is no data to show us what will happen after we’ve paved more roads and parking lots.

What used to be called the 100-year flood is now a 50-year flood: in Polk County we had the floods of 1917, 1977 and 2018. Those are what we historically called 100 year floods, but they are coming every 50 years.

In short, what I’m trying to say is that we need to start thinking in terms of the long run, or there will not be a long run.

It’s just like the Rolling Stones told us years ago: “You can’t always get what you want”. Let’s slow down and be happy with what we have now.

As I walk through the woods, with the noise of the cars and trucks in the background, I can still hear the birds and see the wildflowers and the mushrooms growing, and it is good. Let’s slow down to appreciate what we have now, and be grateful.