The year was 1983, and the EPA had recently wrapped up a seven-year study which found the Chesapeake to be in an alarming condition.
Its report spelled out in detail what was wrong with the Bay. It said very little about what was going to be done about it.
With its work completed, the agency — and the federal government as a whole — was ready to walk away from the nation’s largest estuary.
Worried that the cleanup would end before it started, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a relatively new organization representing the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland, hired Fran Flanigan and her organization to host a conference to plan the road ahead.
About 700 people showed up, from U.S. senators and state legislators, to agency heads and interested citizens. The conference brought the governors and the EPA administrator together. With attention riveted on the Bay, there was a need for something to happen.
That something was the signing of the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement on the last day of the conference, which pledged the states, the District of Columbia and the federal government to work together to restore the Chesapeake. It was the beginning of the Bay Program. And Flanigan’s work drew a standing ovation at the end of the conference.
“She ran the whole show,” recalled Joe Gartlan, then a Virginia state delegate and chairman of the Commission. “Fran’s effort at that Chesapeake Bay conference was the lynchpin for this thing in the beginning. She got everyone going together.”
For almost a quarter century, Flanigan and her organization, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, have worked to bring people together to help the Bay. From marshaling public input on Bay Agreements, to efforts promoting forest buffers, to the development of policies that help curb runoff, Flanigan’s work has often been crucial to crafting policies everyone could agree to.
During informal lunchtime conversations at countless meetings, workshops, seminars and conferences, Flanigan — her hair always pulled into her trademark bun — would be weighing the views from different states or interest groups. Whether the subject was agriculture, toxic pollution or land use, Flanigan would find the common ground and, along with it, a way to move forward together.
“It’s not just about all the conferences that Fran has sponsored,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “It’s about all the little conversations that she had which, when added up cumulatively, had enormous impact. She was always there to talk about a diverse array of issues, and move the information so that it landed on the right ears.”
Over the years, the Bay Program repeatedly turned to Flanigan to convene stakeholder roundtables on key issues, and to heighten public involvement. That involvement took many forms: from helping to organize small watershed groups, to organizing the 1983 conference to coordinating huge public outreach efforts before the 1987 and 2000 Bay Agreements.
“She really has an instinct for when is the right time to involve the public, and who should get involved,” said Bill Matuszeski, former director of the Bay Program Office. “And because of the nature of the Alliance, and the way she had built the organization, it was a non-threatening institution that could act as a convener, unlike anyone else, because it didn’t appear to have an agenda. Its agenda was to bring people together.”
Flanigan retired this summer as the Alliance’s executive director. This fall, the group created by the 1983 agreement to oversee the Bay cleanup, the Chesapeake Executive Council — the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission — will come together to recognize her years of work for the Bay.
Flanigan never set out to work on Chesapeake Bay issues. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as something of a hobby, she was a volunteer with the League of Women Voters in the Baltimore area. After a few years, she was asked to become more active and serve on one its committees. The advice she was given: “You should do this environmental thing. That’s the next big issue.”
Soon, she was working on clean air, developing educational programs to get people out of their cars and promoting mass transit. Before long, she was working on solid waste and landfill issues as well.
It was a time of major federal environmental initiatives, and among the flurry of laws passed in the early 1970s was the Coastal Zone Management Act, which was aimed at restoring the nation’s coastal areas. Flanigan joined the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, helping to coordinate public meetings and involvement related to implementing the act.
Meanwhile, growing concern about the Chesapeake led to the launching of the EPA’s Bay study in the mid-1970s. To involve the public in the project, the agency issued a $250,000 grant to the Citizens Program for the Chesapeake Bay (soon to be renamed the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay). The small group’s headquarters was in Virginia, which seemed to pose a problem because the Bay study was based in Annapolis. So the organization hired Flanigan as its presence in Maryland. She set up shop at a desk in space rented from the Maryland Waterman’s Association. “We hardly knew she was there,” recalled Larry Simns, president of the waterman’s group. “She’s a worker. She was always busy working.”
Flanigan was soon racking up miles driving around the state, conducting public meetings, assembling mailing lists and creating slide shows to build communication between the public and EPA’s Bay study team. She organized an advisory panel to provide feedback to the EPA, that eventually became the Citizens Advisory Committee — today a formal part of the Bay Program.
Before long, Flanigan was named executive director of the Alliance, and her travels took her to even more parts of the watershed.
In the early 1980s, some of those roads wound up in Pennsylvania, whose farmlands, early Bay studies suggested, were a major source of nutrients. Pennsylvania’s help would be needed to clean up the Bay, but the situation was delicate: While Pennsylvania controlled the Susquehanna River that supplied half the water to the Bay, it didn’t border the Chesapeake.
The messenger sent to Pennsylvania was Flanigan. She met with George Wolff, a leading member of the state’s agricultural community, who said he would read the reports Flanigan brought and, in a noncommittal way, said he would get back in touch. Two days later, he was on the phone. “We need to talk,” he said.
Soon, plans were laid for Wolff to organize a meeting in Hershey that brought all the important players together to hear about the out-of-sight, and out-of-mind, Chesapeake Bay, and what it would mean to them. Flanigan was to be the featured speaker.
The problem was to present a message that would not come across as a threat to the audience. Pennsylvania seemed to have little to gain by getting involved with the Bay. But, as Wolff pointed out, “The fastest way to a Dutchman’s heart is through his wallet.”
He, Flanigan, and the Bay Program managed rough estimates of the amount of nutrients flowing down the Susquehanna. They translated that into money out of farmers’ pockets in the form of excess fertilizer placed on the land.
“That presentation, to me, marked the start of Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Program,” said Paul Swartz, executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission who, at the time, was director of the state Department of Environmental Resources’ Bureau# of Soil and Water Conservation.
“For a lot of people there, Fran was the first face they put with this thing called the Chesapeake Bay Program that they had been hearing about,” Swartz said. “And it was a good face. She didn’t come across as some heavy-handed bureaucrat saying the federal government is here to help you. It was Fran.”
Without a border on the Bay, Pennsylvania seemed to have little to gain by joining the Chesapeake effort. “I don’t think that Pennsylvania state government would have signed onto the Bay Program as readily as it did had the groundwork not been laid with the people that were going to be affected by the program,” Swartz said. “And, of course in Pennsylvania’s case, that was the agricultural community.”
With Pennsylvania on board, the path was clear for the modern Bay Program to form. When the first Bay Agreement was signed in 1983, the Keystone State was part of the pact.
After 1983, the pace of activity picked up. Maryland passed its Critical Areas Act protecting Bayfront property. Virginia passed its Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. Phosphate detergent bans were enacted throughout the watershed. With the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, new support was available to promote conservation on agricultural lands.
“It was exciting to see these new things and seeing people buy into them,” Flanigan said. “There was a lot of energy and I think a good bit of optimism that if we do this stuff, we probably can get our arms around this Bay thing, and we can probably make a difference.”
And she was in the midst of it. To many, concern about the Bay was still new. Few people recognized that things as innocuous as fertilizer could actually be causing problems.
The Alliance opened an office in Pennsylvania, and its staffers began spreading the message to farm groups, boating groups, business groups and other targeted organizations. No one logged more miles than Flanigan — more than 200,000 by her conservative estimate. “Our job was to carry the information to them and encourage them to comment on it and provide feedback to the Bay Program,” Flanigan said. “We were kind of the go-betweens.”
In 1987, the Alliance was called upon to gather input on an expanded Bay Agreement. Flanigan headed efforts to gather public reaction to a draft agreement through meetings and written comments — a process some thought unnecessary. She proved otherwise.
“The feedback was so good from those meetings, I think the state people were kind of knocked off their feet,” she said. “Most of the comments that we got were to make the agreement more specific. The feedback, overwhelmingly, was unless you have a number, how are we going to know how you are doing?”
When the final 1987 Bay Agreement came out, it contained a pledge that wasn’t in the draft: a commitment to reduce the amount of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen entering the Bay 40 percent by 2000.
Besides setting the nutrient goal, the agreement contained a wide array of other commitments, including one to begin addressing land use — even then, many recognized that sprawl was leading to increased pollution in the Bay and the degradation of local waterways. It was becoming clear that cleaning up the Chesapeake would be an issue that affected everyone.
The message began moving closer to home in the early 1990s, as the Bay Program divided the 40 percent reduction into specific nutrient goals for each major Bay river. “Tributary strategies” were developed, with input from stakeholder groups, local governments and others to guide nutrient control efforts for each river basin. Maryland even established “tributary teams” for each waterway to oversee strategy implementation.
Flanigan thinks of that period as an “exciting time” as it began moving the Bay Program out of offices in Annapolis and state capitals and into local communities and groups. “The tributary strategy process is interesting, and pretty much positive,” she said. “It’s an evolution down to a more local level, and I think if we can pull it off, it is probably going to be responsible for the success of the Bay Program.”
For its part, while others took sides in ensuing debates, the Alliance continued to play the role of “honest broker.” It produced white papers, fact sheets, newsletters and the Bay Journal to inform the public about key Chesapeake issues.
In the 1990s, Flanigan also helped reorient the Alliance to work at a more local level. For a long time, it had coordinated a Baywide network of citizens collecting water quality data. Now it began working to organize grassroots watershed groups, and promote local restoration efforts. It began conducting annual “sojourns” leading canoeists down the Susquehanna River — and later, other waterways — to help them become better acquainted with the resource they were working to protect. Though many such activities are common today, they were pioneering efforts only a decade ago. “I think imitation is a great way to measure success,” she said. “You see underwater grass plantings and wetland restoration and buffer plantings and watershed groups and stream walks all over the place now.”
But the core of Flanigan’s own work remained pulling people together. She continued organizing conferences, workshops and roundtables that brought divergent points of view into the same room.
In the mid-1990s, evidence was growing that forested streamside buffers could play an important role in absorbing nutrients and improving stream habitat. But views clashed on such key issues as to how good they were, and even how wide they should be.
The Bay Program, as it had often in the past, turned to Flanigan to head an effort to resolve the issues. “It was the first time that we had been able to pull together a panel of experts that had backed away from coming up with a specific goal,” Matuszeski recalled. “And a couple of the states were also trying to avoid specific goals. But by continuing to point out the value, and the need for such goals, I think she played an important role in making it come about.”
In the end, the group reached an agreement clearing the way for the Chesapeake Executive Council in 1996 to set the goal of restoring 2,010 miles of forest buffers by 2010. Although the importance of forested stream buffers was becoming recognized across the nation, the Bay Program was the first place to set a specific goal for their restoration.
A few years later, a similar effort helped the Bay Program reach an agreement with water dischargers to phase out mixing zones — areas beyond the end of the pipe where chemicals are allowed to exceed water quality standards as they are diluted. The result was an agreement to phase out mixing zones that many believe will be the most comprehensive in the nation.
“It reinforced the notion that if we get smart people together, face to face, sometimes their differences shrink, and they find there are more areas of commonality than they realized,” Flanigan said. “They’re not ever going to be in 100 percent agreement, but you can reduce the areas of disagreement pretty significantly. And you can find ways to compromise, and you can find something that you can move forward on.”
Although Flanigan is stepping down as the Alliance’s executive director, she still plans to be involved in Bay efforts. She’ll be logging miles, but at a slower pace. “One of my goals now in ‘retirement’ is to get off the highway and onto the less traveled back roads and see some of the slightly more scenic places,” she said. “I know I-95 and Route 50.”
Flanigan also looks forward to the luxury of being more choosy about what she takes on. Something high on her agenda: working to establish a “visioning” process that would more fully describe not only what a “restored” Chesapeake would look like, but also the landscape that surrounds it.
She recently signed on to chair the tributary team for the Patapsco/Back River, one of the most polluted areas in Maryland.
In addition, she will watch how the Bay Program she helped bring about fares as it moves into the future — a period she acknowledges will likely be more difficult than the previous decades.
She worries, for instance, that people will weary of a seemingly never-ending cleanup effort. “You can’t be front page news day in and day out, year in and year out, so there is a challenge in keeping people interested while other things become a more hot topic,” she said. “There is also a certain sense among some politicians and some citizens that we’ve been spending a lot of money and a lot of time over the past two decades, so we must be done by now.”
Another key issue: Who will step forward to lead the Bay Program as enters its third, and potentially most challenging, decade. In the 1980s, Flanigan said, the states took the lead on cleanup efforts, while in the 1990s, the EPA did much of the pushing. It remains to be seen who will take the initiative in the future. The EPA is under new leadership, and new governors will be elected in Virginia this year and Pennsylvania and Maryland the next, so the Bay Program will soon be under entirely new management.
That may not be bad. In recent years, Flanigan believes that political leadership has been lacking, and — perhaps even worse — become more partisan. “In the 1980s, the Bay Program was a pretty incredible bipartisan effort. In the ’90s, I’ve seen that deteriorate some, and I think right now, in 2001, that is a big worry. It doesn’t work as a partisan issue. If it becomes partisan, I think our ability to sustain the momentum that we need over a long period of time just erodes.”
“In a lot of ways, the Bay is the canary in the mine shaft,” she said. “If the Bay goes south, that is going to mean that a whole lot of other things within the watershed will be in terrible shape from an environmental point of view, and that is not a partisan issues, that is a quality of life issue.”
The new leadership will be immediately challenged by daunting new cleanup goals. More than a decade after the Bay Program set its first nutrient reduction goals, it is getting ready to set new, and probably more ambitious, targets next year. Unlike the goal of the past, the new goal is backed with the threat of enforceable action if it’s missed.
That will test the cooperative efforts of the past, and create more tension as state and federal governments seek the right balance between voluntary and regulatory measures.
“But I’m ever the optimist,” she said. “It seems doable to me. Even if we don’t do it 100 percent, it is worth the effort to get most of the way there. And I think we’ve got enough evidence that we can move forward, that we certainly should not be giving up now. But we have a tough road ahead of us.”
If everyone keeps moving forward together, though, the road may not be nearly so difficult.
Fran Flanigan will be a featured guest at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s annual “Taste of the Chesapeake” gala, which will take place Oct. 13 at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. For information about tickets, contact the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, 410-377-6270 and ask for Susan Boyd.