The New Year arrived with promise as well as loss, as one of the York River's best and oldest guardians permanently disbanded its organization.
The York Chapter, Chesapeake Bay Foundation-not directly related to the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation-gifted its remaining funds to several Virginia public schools and filed papers to dissolve the organization in January.
"There is a little bit of sadness, but also a pride in the legacy," said Peter Gnoffo, who served as the final board president.
For 42 years, the York Chapter, Chesapeake Bay Foundation racked up local-level accomplishments that other groups of modest size and resources might envy. Its legacy includes lasting protection for the Goodwin Islands, an expanse of undisturbed wetlands at the mouth of the York River. It also blew the whistle on fly ash contamination at the headwaters of Chisman Creek, a York tributary, which became one of the first EPA Superfund sites in Virginia.
In the early 1970s, it worked closely with legislators to pass Virginia's first wetlands regulations.
In more recent years, the group stocked school shelves with books on marine science and the Chesapeake Bay, and took students on in-the-field adventures. The last of its funds were dispersed grants to local school systems to support marine science education that emphasizes the Bay.
From start to finish, it was a volunteer effort. Now, volunteers-a lack of them willing and able to serve on the group's board-is the reason for folding.
"It is pretty incredible that this organization lasted 42 years as an all-volunteer group," said Mary Ellen Olcese of the River Network, which provides training and support for watershed groups across the nation.
Olcese said that most all-volunteer watershed groups are struggling. Of the groups she's worked with, the longest any has operated without seeking staff is 15 years. "The fact that they were able to start this organization at a time when grass roots citizen action groups were a bit of a novelty, and then look after the concerns of the York River for 42 years as a volunteer organization is pretty incredible."
The York Chapter, Chesapeake Bay Foundation emerged in 1967. Like many grass roots groups, it was launched from a kitchen table, fired up by a specific cause. But the people who gathered in Mayer Levy's kitchen were pioneers in a world where the environmental movement had not yet blossomed.
"Environmental awareness back then? There was none. It was a void," Levy said.
Dr. Maurice Lynch, a past board president and retired researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said the appearance of this group got his attention. Through his Baywide work, Lynch knew that advocacy groups were forming along Maryland waterways. "That didn't exist in Virginia, in part because our rivers are so much bigger and the population pressure wasn't as high," Lynch said. "So this was something new."
A road brought them together. The state had proposed an extension to Big Bethel Road that would have run from Hampton to York County, dry-filling creeks along the way and imposing causeways that would block the movement of fish and boaters.
"We didn't have a name. We were just citizens who called each other," Levy said.
The eclectic group, including a dentist, a local county supervisor, an aerospace engineer and farmers, took their cause to Richmond. Authorities there said the road would never be built.
"So we said, OK, how about taking the line off the map?" Levy said. "But they wouldn't do that."
Instead, they shifted the route toward a low-income area. Levy's group fought this, too, until the proposal was dropped entirely.
Along the way, they discovered a new worry: development plans for the Goodwin Islands, at the mouth of the York River.
The Goodwin Islands are a 777-acre wetlands preserve that is today a prized research site in the National Estuarine Research Reserve system. At the time, developers were laying plans for a golf course, homes and causeway from the mainland across a narrow stretch of water called the Sand Box Thoroughfare.
The project would require filling wetlands and destroying habitat. The causeway would obstruct water travel by watermen and recreational boaters. "They kept putting up proposals, and we kept fighting them," Levy said.
Eventually, the owners donated the islands to the College of William and Mary, where the Virginia Institute of Marine Science was embarking on more aggressive shoreline research.
Lynch said the islands' pristine condition placed them high on several conservation wish lists and the gift to the college was invaluable.
"The donation was a real boost that enabled us to do much more, more rapidly," Lynch said. "It provided a base to support long-term research on coastal zone management and it also gave us a place to set baselines, to find out if changes are happening."
For more than four decades, the York Chapter, Chesapeake Bay Foundation roused members and recruited volunteers. Originally incorporated as the "Chesapeake Bay Foundation, York Chapter," the group agreed to reverse the phrases with the intention of reducing confusion with the regional Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They also partnered with their namesake.
"The York Chapter has been a long and active partner with CBF over the decades, providing leadership, volunteers and good counsel on local watershed issues," said Ann Jennings, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "While we are sorry to see the organization close, we understand the decision and welcome the more than 200 members of the York Chapter as full-fledged members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation."
Board president Peter Gnoffo said the York Chapter agreed to disband because the core group is aging and unable to recruit younger volunteers to take their place-a casualty, in part, of the modern lifestyle. Civic organizations across the country are struggling to recruit and retain a new generation of volunteers.
"I'm 56, and I'm the baby of the organization," Gnoff said. "Maybe we could have done a better job with newspaper ads, or the Internet, but we failed to attract a critical mass of people. People just seem to be too busy."
Gnoff said he also believes that the presence of larger conservation organizations distracts from the value of a local level watchdog.
"People feel that the larger Bay Foundation is doing a good job, and I do too," Gnoff said. "But there is also a need for a grass roots organization, and I'm sorry to see that go."
At 76, Levy is the last remaining founder of the group. He worries about the loss of local attentiveness that helped them address the fly ash pollution on Chisman Creek.
"Big groups see problems from a statewide viewpoint, a national viewpoint, or a Baywide viewpoint," Levy said. "This kind of work takes someone with a backyard. Otherwise, we lose the initiative-not the ability-but the initiative to become involved in environmental problems.
Their combined advice for grass roots groups? Call on those who have already been there. Be willing to persevere. Appeal to a sense of service.
"We did things no one else was willing to do and perhaps no one else was capable of doing," Levy said. "I feel good about what we've done."