The Chesapeake Bay region is filled with environmental groups and government entities that have worked to stop pollution, preserve forests and farmland, and save endangered places from rampant development. These groups tend to put out press releases that tout their accomplishments and work hard to raise money so they can do more.
But there is one body that has, for more than 35 years, been instrumental in passing some of the most important legislation affecting the troubled estuary: the Chesapeake Bay Commission. And many people have never heard of it.
Created in 1980, the 21-member commission advises legislatures in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia on issues of Baywide concern. And it has been a signatory, along with the states and federal government, on every one of the Bay restoration agreements drawn up since 1983.
With a staff of five and a budget of $675,000 from three states, it doesn’t have the funds to hire a marketing department. But those who work closely on Bay issues know that it has had a hand in nearly every important policy decision in those states.
Its accomplishments include the passage of a phosphate detergent ban in the three watershed states in the 1980s, which later went nationwide; securing millions of dollars in funding for farm runoff control measures and costly sewage treatment plant improvements; the conservation of forests; a ban on a toxic chemical in boat paint; and the adoption of a more environmentally friendly animal feed for poultry flocks.
It added its voice to the successful push in the early 1980s for a rockfish moratorium to save the popular and commercially valuable species from collapse. In the 1990s, it helped establish a bi-state commission where Maryland and Virginia could collaborate on blue crab management. More recently, it pushed for more and larger oyster restoration projects. It’s also encouraged manure-to-energy efforts and nutrient trading to use the power of markets to help reduce pollution.
A big part of its success, commissioners say, is its longtime executive director, Ann P. Swanson. She has been with the commission since 1988, when she left the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. A graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and the University of Vermont, Swanson has come to know the key decision-makers in the three states and the District of Columbia. She can pick up her cellphone and call Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a former commission member, or the natural resources secretaries in Virginia and Pennsylvania, who are also members.
“We’re a long ways from the grand slam we want, but I credit Ann immensely for her leadership,” said Bernie Fowler, a former Maryland senator who has championed the Bay cleanup for 50 years. “She has a sincere affection for the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. She knows how to work with people. All of that hasn’t saved the Bay yet, but she has her heart in it, and she’s trying desperately.”
Five lawmakers from the three main states sit on the commission, along with a cabinet-level secretary and a citizen representative. (Delaware, West Virginia and New York send representatives to the commission but are not voting members.)
Unlike other commissions, where senators send their aides, most of the elected officials attend in person. The quarterly meetings rotate around the watershed, though one is always in Washington, DC, so members can confer with members of Congress and other federal officials.
Last year, the commission pushed for a regional ban on microbeads in personal care products, similar to one recently adopted in Illinois. Maryland lawmakers were the only ones to pass it, but pressure from commission members in all three states added to the political momentum for a nationwide phase-out approved by Congress at the end of 2015.
This year, in Maryland, the commission backed successful legislation to protect dedicated state funding for park acquisition and farmland preservation. Governors and lawmakers had repeatedly raided the Program Open Space fund of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to help balance the budget.
In Virginia, following up on another commission priority, the governor and legislature put $140 million in the state budget to help farmers fence their livestock out of streams. A commission report last year documented how livestock drinking and cooling themselves in streams not only caused harmful bank erosion and nutrient pollution, but led to more stress and illness for the animals.
Not all environmentalists support every commission stance. Several riverkeepers have opposed nutrient trading — even with verification — on the grounds that it can promote environmental injustice. Some also don’t like manure to energy because combusting poultry waste can create air-quality problems.
And commission staff found themselves on the other side of the table from some natural allies when they embraced “agricultural certainty,” a program that allows farmers who are following all of the rules to be granted amnesty from new regulations for a decade.
For Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, the commission is emblematic of the two styles of environmental advocacy in the Chesapeake Bay: the pragmatists working from within and the activists working from outside. Tutman has filed lawsuits over air pollution and stormwater discharges. He pointed out that it was Fowler who helped to get the Bay cleanup movement started — with a lawsuit against the state of Maryland and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I think we need to take groups like this and rethink them,” Tutman said of the commission. “Either we’re winning or we’re losing, and I don’t think anyone can argue that we’re winning. If it’s just incremental gains that fall short of what’s truly needed, we won’t have a Bay.”
But a large part of the commission’s success, say its supporters, is its ability to turn conservative, pro-farm legislators into environmental advocates.
“I think anytime we get together and try to reason together, it’s helpful,” said Lowell Stoltzfus, a former commission member and longtime farmer who represented the Eastern Shore for two decades in the Maryland Senate.
Stoltzfus received a 13 percent score from the state chapter of the League of Conservation Voters for opposing legislation on renewable energy and penalties for violating water-quality laws. He lobbied to join the commission after Maryland Senate Minority Leader John Cade died and a spot opened up. Stoltzfus said he wanted to serve to protect the economic viability of the poultry industry. Without it, he said, the Shore “would be like Appalachia.”
And yet, Stoltzfus worked with Swanson to help shepherd the “flush tax” through the Maryland legislature in 2004, providing funding for upgrades to sewage treatment plants and household septic systems. It remains one of the most significant pieces of Bay legislation. Though environmentalists supported the fee, it was then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who proposed it — like Stoltzfus, a Republican.
Besides funding sewage plant upgrades, the fee helps pay for planting cover crops in the fall, which helps to keep nutrients from washing off farm fields into the Bay. As a result, Stoltzfus said, it’s hard to find a bare field in the winter.
“It’s been a good marriage, as far as helping to enlighten and inform both sides,” Stoltzfus said of the commission. “Ann has been incredibly successful at getting people to work together, to sit down together. She’s very strong on the environmental side, but she also worked well with the conservative side.”
Virginia and Pennsylvania have also sent conservative Republicans to the commission’s table. Often, they become Bay advocates. Some come from farming and fishing communities and work to pass laws that will preserve farmland and punish those who attempt to steal natural resources.
In 2015, Scott Lingamfelter, a Virginia delegate serving that year as commission chairman, championed a Virginia law that established harsher penalties for those who steal oysters from leased or public oyster grounds
Similarly, the commission backed Maryland’s Phosphorus Management Tool regulation, which over the next several years will gradually curtail the amount of phosphorus-rich manure that can be applied on some farm fields.
The commission’s work is important, members say, because the series of Bay restoration agreements hammered out over the last three decades do not compel the states to act. Even though the EPA-imposed Total Maximum Daily Load does require states to reduce nutrient pollution, it leaves it largely up to the states to decide how to do that. And so, the policy work amounts to cajoling and nudging, using facts and, in some cases, field trips throughout the watershed to persuade legislators in the states to enact certain regulations.
In one memorable trip, Swanson arranged for scientists and policy makers to accompany Smith Island watermen on their boats as they went crabbing.
“The relationship building that went on that day was incredible, and long-lasting,” said Pat Stuntz, the commission’s former Maryland director who now works for the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment. “Ann is just really good at figuring out those settings where people can talk and collaborate.”