Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Role of Rules

I spent the past week vacationing with my family on a lovely lake in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, a rental won in a silent auction benefiting the work of the Philadelphia Project.

We were still unpacking cars when our youngest daughter, just starting a master’s program with Longwood Gardens, pointed out that the wooden boardwalk leading to the lake passed through a sphagnum bog complete with pitcher plants, still blooming swamp azalea, and seedling tamarack larches.

From the dock, we could look across the north end of the lake to acres of low-growing wetlands. Eastern kingbirds chattered as they swooped from the tops of stunted trees; willow flycatchers called a gentle “whit!” from branches overlooking the water. Common yellowthroats hopped in and out of dense cover.

For a birdwatcher, as I am, it was wonderful.

For a naturalist interested in public policy, it was just a little troubling.

Aren’t there rules about building in sphagnum bogs?

The next morning, I headed off on a short walk down the lakeside road, and found an abandoned lane leading in toward the wetland. Aging pavement ended in heaps of gravel and weed-covered piles of drainage culverts.

Puzzled, I went back to the road circling the lake and walked on, pausing to enjoy red-eyed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatchers, the bright flurry of yellow warblers.

Then, a strange man-made channel, and a sign pronouncing “Fawn Lake.”


Back at the house, I googled the neighborhood.

The man-made ditch described as “Fawn Lake” looked like a hieroglyph carved in the face of the earth.

So I googled a bit more, and found this headline, dating back to 1989: “Developer Told To Restore Swamp -  Pike Violation Called One Of State's Largest.” 

As early as 1964, a local developer and his sons were dredging wetlands, building dams, and moving dirt to create vacation lakes. Since they apparently never filed plans for any of the work, it’s hard to know what the full intention was, but it looks like the goal was to create multiple interconnecting lakes, with waterfront lots to sell all along the way.

Apparently, it was their land.

And they were following the example of countless developers before them.

So when the EPA asked them to stop, in 1986, they ignored the request and went on with their work. 
Ramagosa ignored a July 3, 1986, EPA order and continued work on a 24-acre wetland along Poison Creek, authorities said. The site - after being drained, excavated, dammed and flooded - is now called Spruce Lake. . . .
The Ramagosas built similar lakes or ponds in six more areas near Poison Brook, Rattlesnake and Dark Dwarfs Kill creeks, affecting an estimated 55 acres of wetlands, authorities said. . . .
Steve Burd, district manager for the Pike County Conservation District, checked the Ramagosa property early last year as a follow-up to work done by a predecessor and federal authorities.
"I have no real authority over wetlands so I called the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers," Burd said. "We checked what we knew about and we came across another site, and then another site, and then another. We did aerial work and found the real big problems."
As head of the county authority involved with erosion problems and waterways work, Burd is no stranger to wetlands violations. But he said the Ramagosa project left him dumbfounded.
"In Pike County we've got wetlands violations going on all over the place," Burd said. "This is a big one. It's the biggest one I've seen. We're talking here about acres and acres."
Authorities stopped Ramagosa's machinery during the preparation of a wetlands area for subdivision and development. 
After years of hearings and appeals, the dredged lakes were left as they were; the contractors were fined $25,000, instructed to donate $176,000 to the Pennsylvania Wetland Replacement Fund, and required to deed 22 acres of pristine wetland to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

A group called PA Landowners points to cases like this as demonstration of governmental overreach, of unfair rules, and of outright theft of private property. A description of the case was included in a 1991 PA Landowners newsletter as one of many “Tales from the Trenches”:   
It was interesting to see firsthand the ponds and wetlands in question, and to consider the place of rules in our life together on this planet.

It was also interesting to see the discrepancy between the outraged letter, offered as evidence for EPA overreach, and the visible reality: muddy drainage ditches presented as lakes; rich, irreplaceable bog that narrowly escaped destruction.

Several weeks ago I set myself the task of exploring the underlying values that frame our conversation about political issues of the day.

At first, I thought I’d just list and write about the issues that concern me, but realized that how we see the issues is shaped by what we believe about the world around us.

Are we free to pursue our own good with no regard for the good of others?

Is liberty best defined as freedom from rules, or ability to pursue service to something greater than ourselves?

Are we in some inescapable way responsible for those weakerand less privileged?

Is advocacy for others an essential part of a moral life?

Paddling the edge of the bog in the morning mist, I found myself wondering about the role of rules in preserving the beauty and balance our sanity and sustenance depends on.

Rules will never take the place of wisdom.

But in a world intent on folly, I’m happy to have rules.

Ideally, we’d all understand the purpose of wetlands: cleaning water and air, soaking up excess rainfall to help manage flooding downriver, processing biochemical nutrients, providing habitat for creatures large and small whose roles we only faintly comprehend.

We tend to destroy what we don’t understand. 

We calculate cost and profit in simple, immediate terms, leaving externalized costs for others to manage. Sediment, flooding, erosion, dead-zones:? Those happen downriver, so why should we be worried?

One evening, as my son and I were talking on the dock, a bald eagle soared past us, disappearing beyond the trees.

Rules have kept our national bird from extinction: rules about hunting, destruction of nests, use of DDT. Does it matter?

Arguments for small government inevitably get around to objections to regulation.

Rules infringe on our freedoms, trample our property rights, cost money and jobs.

Except when they don’t: when they help maintain our freedoms (to enjoy clean air and water, to experience the beauty of wetlands, to escape disastrous flooding), hold property rights in balance (upstream vs. downstream, producer vs. consumer), ensure the economic stability of industries and communities.

Practical applications are many, but here are some underlying things I’m planning to consider, think through, and remember:

In a perfect world, rules wouldn’t be needed. But we are imperfect people, often thoughtless, selfish, and not really interested in the outcome of our actions.

Well-conceived, well-executed rules are a way to balance rights and responsibilities between impacted parties, and to keep thoughtless individuals from doing harm to themselves and others.

Rules –in themselves – aren’t bad or good. Most rules are created to address a concern, so it’s worth understanding the concern before condemning the rule.

Wisdom doesn’t look for ways to give less than rules require. Instead, it allows us to go beyond the rules in protecting the interests of others. (I posted about this, from a slightly different angle, in Law - Grace- Giving. 

Who benefits when a rule is rejected or repealed? Who benefits when agencies tasked with applying rules are underfunded? Who – or what – suffers? What privilege is preserved when rules are set and discarded? 

This is the fifth in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while renewing a web of compassionate engagement. Earlier posts:  
Wisdom, July 6, 2014
Liberty and Constraint, July 13, 2014
Justice for All, July 20, 2014  
Appalling Silence, August 3, 2014
 As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.