Meet the Potomac River’s ‘environmental hero’

Book gives new meaning to
the term “environmentalist.”

Just when things couldn’t get crazier, I stumbled upon a book titled Donald Trump: Environmental Hero.

That’s right. Trump, the man who is dismantling the EPA and trying to turn national monuments over to the oil companies. Trump, the embodiment of Woodie Allen’s immortal phrase, “Nature and I are two.”

Try for a moment to even imagine Donald Trump wearing a plaid shirt. Stepping into a canoe. Walking on actual dirt.

Yet this is a book worth skimming for two reasons. First, one of its protagonists is our own Potomac River. And second, in this world of alternative realities, you could make the case that, while Trump is not an environmentalist in the conventional sense, his environmental vision has a depth and timelessness that most of us can scarcely imagine.

Shoreline epiphany. The book’s Potomac River segment unfolds in 2009 on an 800-acre tract of land called Lowe’s Island, the site of a fixer-upper golf course Trump had just bought. It would need a lot of work before it could claim its title as Trump National Golf Club, Washington, D.C.

Trump and another man drove along the shoreline discussing what had to be done.  That second man was Edward Russo, the book’s author.

A self-described “passionate environmentalist,” Russo has helped Trump and his organization navigate the intricacies of local zoning and environmental regulations for the past 15 years. He has also held local planning and environmental posts in New Jersey and he presently heads the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition (FKEC.org) in Key West, where he now lives. He was also a finalist in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

“Golf, especially the way Donald does
golf,is a significant environmental
asset,” write author Russo.

“He [Trump] was very concerned about storm surges [sic] that could wash away all the improvements he’d planned for the club,” Russo writes of his conversation with the real estate mogul. Trump’s idea was to build a bulkhead along the entire shoreline. But Russo countered with a solution that would be cheaper and more natural.

Russo proposed to cut down the trees along the river and replace them with grass. He argued that the trees were ineffective for controlling erosion because their roots were undercut by the action of the river’s current. The trees also cast shade, which prevented the growth of ground cover that normally would stabilize the soil along the shoreline. Planting grass would hold the soil and prevent erosion, he said, and as an added bonus would provide habitat for birds.

“Donald loved it,” Russo writes.

‘There’s nothing like it.’ The local authorities at first were skeptical, but they ultimately gave in, continues Russo. This was a major achievement, he said, because Virginia has high environmental standards.

Trump crews ultimately cut some 465 mature elms, ashes, and black locusts along the 1.5 miles of shoreline. The trees were replaced by Russo’s grass as well as an enormous American flag with a plaque at its base commemorating a bloody Civil War battle that never took place. It was, Russo wrote, “another example of Donald using golf to improve the environment. Everyone was impressed.”

Most impressed of all was Trump himself. “Originally we had massive trees — you couldn’t see anything,” he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “And through lots of hard work, and lots of environmental impact statements and lots of everything, we were able to clear the area and now we have unobstructed views of the Potomac River. There’s nothing like it. You can go 20 miles up and down the river and there’s nothing like it.”

If you don’t want to take his word for it, you can see for yourself. From the Virginia side the view will cost you $100,000 to join the club and a monthly fee of about $700.

A view from the Maryland side is cheaper. You drive down Rileys Lock Road and stand on the remains of the C&O Canal aqueduct over Seneca Creek. From there you can see the American flag at the downstream end, the imposing clubhouse on the rise, and the grand sweep of denuded shoreline. You can just make out the tiny golf carts as they move about in fits of stopping and starting, like beetles.

Of course local environmentalists seethed at what they viewed as yet another assault on a river that has struggled against so many. They saw his claims—and those of Russo as well—as absurd and contradictory.

The beauty of golf courses. I myself seethe every time I see that shoreline. But the Potomac River and its trickster have taught me to look beyond the obvious, especially when they involve fellow tricksters such as Trump, and trickster apologists such as Russo.

As it turns out, there is indeed more to the story. Russo gives us a hint:

“Golf, especially the way Donald does golf,” he writes, “is a significant environmental asset. A golf course is irrigated open space. The next time you fly over an area during a severe drought. . . look out the window and look for green patches. They are all golf courses. Where do you think the wildlife will go to survive?”

Losing a few trees is nothing. The golf course is everything.

I thought I despised golf and golf courses. But now I’m not so sure. Through my window I see that my property looks a little like a golf course, albeit a very small and scruffy one. It has grass (sort of) and clumps of trees and shrubs. It even has pool of water in the form of a birdbath. For me and for most people, landscaping means making your property look as much like a golf course as possible.

Where did we all get this notion of an ideal landscape? Maybe from the same place as Trump and Russo. Maybe we’re all in this together.

A painting by 10th century
Chinese master Dong Yuan.

Landscape of memory. One of the recurrent themes in field of environmental psychology is that this ideal landscape is somehow embedded in our psyches. All around the world, when people are shown pictures of landscapes, they prefer open savannah with its clumps of trees and a lake or river.  So do landscape artists, from the 10th century Chinese masters to their 19th century European counterparts.

According to scholars, our affinity for this genre of landscape comes from a shared experience that dates back to mankind’s very beginnings: life on the African savannah.

God’s golf course: a view of the
African savannah.

Over many thousands of years of human evolution, our savannah-dwelling ancestors would sit on hills, their spears at the ready, looking out across the grasslands. They would follow the movements of prey animals while keeping an eye out for enemies. Very likely they could see water too, perhaps just a watering hole, but also lakes and rivers.

Fast forward to the present and we have the golf course, the theme park equivalent of our African Eden. If we are drawn to this ancestral environment, Trump is mesmerized by it.

Imagine Trump emerging from his hilltop clubhouse on Lowe’s Island and standing next to his artificial water fountain. With a furrowed brow and pursed lips he surveys the expanse of grass and clumps of trees stretched out before him. His eyes pause momentarily on the golfers and golf carts, stand-ins for the original African fauna.

He then lengthens his gaze to take in a slender ribbon of water. He recalls that drive with Ed Russo eight years ago, and how those trees along the shoreline would have obscured the river. He pulls the corners of his mouth into a grin. By chopping down the trees, he got nature out of the way of his environment.

It takes a man of powerful urges and primitive sensibilities to recreate the African savannah along the Potomac River and on 17 other sites around the world. This man is Donald Trump, environmental hero.

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