Advocates say the Chesapeake Bay would not be where it is today without the influence of former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who pushed for pivotal Bay policies in the late 1980s. He died Oct. 29 at his home in Charlottesville, VA, at the age of 79.
During his tenure as Virginia’s governor from 1986 to 1990, Baliles helped craft a multistate Chesapeake Bay Agreement that was the first to detail numeric goals for reducing nutrient pollution. He thought early and often about how states would fund the cleanup measures necessary to improve water quality — a question that plagues state leaders today. He also created state agencies and supported key bills that still guide the cleanup effort.
“Gov. Baliles, I think, is credited for laying the foundation for a lot of the environmental improvements that Virginia has seen over the last 30 years,” said Joe Maroon, executive director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, where the former governor’s wife, Robin Baliles, serves on the board.
Maroon became the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director a month before Baliles was elected as governor in 1985 and worked closely with his administration to further Bay priorities. He and others say that Baliles was a key architect of the 1987 Bay agreement, which was a turning point for Bay policy.
A first agreement in 1983 included generic statements about the estuary’s decline and the need for states to work together to address it. But, in a private meeting with then-Maryland Gov. William Schaefer leading up to the new agreement, Baliles reportedly pushed for more specifics.
Under his direction, the 1987 agreement went from a couple paragraphs to about 30 time-sensitive commitments — including a landmark goal of a 40% reduction in nutrient pollution by the year 2000. The leaders also set up the Chesapeake Executive Council as it exists today, bringing top officials — governors, mayors and federal agencies — to the table and setting regular meetings into motion.
“The structure that we all take for granted was really of his making,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Swanson, who moved from the Bay Foundation to the Bay Commission in 1988, had a front seat to Baliles’ leadership on Bay issues, a mantle that was in some ways unexpected for the governor.
“He did not grow up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, but he came to environmental issues with a practical savvy and an academic understanding of the relationship between science and policy,” she said.
Baliles became governor after serving as the state’s attorney general and in the House of Delegates. An eye for strategic planning and interest in dealing with population growth also helped Baliles push through a 10-year, $10 billion transportation initiative in his first year as governor.
During his four-year governorship, Baliles also created the Secretary of Natural Resources as a new cabinet position and originated the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department, Maroon said. Baliles also “put the weight of his administration” behind then-Del. Tayloe Murphy’s landmark Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, which made the connection between land use decisions and their impact on regional water quality.
“I think it’s fair to say [Baliles] was the first Virginia governor to really emphasize the Bay restoration,” Maroon said.
After leaving office, Baliles chaired the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Finance Panel and wrote a book about leadership and Bay restoration.
Swanson said Baliles’ death is a particular loss for the Bay community alongside others; Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and Helen Murphy, wife of former Virginia Del. Tayloe Murphy — both leaders on Chesapeake issues — also died in October.
“The bottom line is Gov. Baliles was a real asset to the Bay, and we would not be where we are today had he not been governor when he was,” Swanson said. “We are losing champions, and we need to make sure that they’re coming up in the next generations.”