PA DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn’s calling began when as a teen she campaigned to keep a landfill out of the state’s Fishing Creek Valley. 

It was 1983, and a top Pennsylvania environmental official was preparing to address a press conference in Annapolis on the new, cooperative effort to restore the Chesapeake. Holding an oyster, he remarked how amazing it was that they shed their shells to grow, even as an aide whispered frantically: “no, no, it’s crabs that do that.”

At about that time, another Pennsylvanian, and future state environmental official, was helping ensure such a gaffe wouldn’t happen again. Cindy Adams Dunn was growing more intimate with the Bay, canoeing rivers with schoolchildren and managing education programs from Virginia’s Fox Island to Baltimore Harbor for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In January 2016, the girl who campaigned as a teen to keep a landfill from Pennsylvania’s Fishing Creek Valley, where she grew up, became head of her state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In that first fight for the valley, she spoke to any group that might donate to the cause, including a nudist colony. “I’ll never forget them bending over to get their wallets out of their clothes lockers. And we won!”

Dunn has been fighting for the Chesapeake and Pennsylvania environment ever since. The overlap is considerable, as Pennsylvania includes 40 percent of the 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed. The DCNR alone manages close to 4 percent of the watershed in its parks and forests.

After leaving the Bay Foundation, Dunn ran the Harrisburg office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, beginning the annual sojourns that still draw paddlers from all over to rivers feeding the Bay.

She served on the national board of the Audubon Society and founded its first Pennsylvania state office. She braved the hunting lobby to wage a three-year campaign to reduce the state’s deer herds, which she calls “the greatest threat to forests, our most important habitats.”

She went to work for the DCNR, rising to deputy secretary, a success blunted by the 2011 election of Republican Tom Corbett as governor. His antipathy to environmental causes went as far as ordering everything relating to climate change expunged from the DCNR’s files.

Dunn left to head the environmental group, PennFuture, returning as secretary after the election of Democrat Tom Wolf as governor last year.

Recently, I followed her through a fairly typical day. Items packing her agenda included bed bugs in state park cabins, “elk-based tourism” in wilder areas of the state and better dog access to state lands. (“People want to take them everywhere.”)

But her larger agenda is to connect more Pennsylvanians to the outdoors and to build constituencies within and outside government that can insulate the state’s natural resources against the inevitable political see-sawing of environmental agendas.

She printed out for me a remarkable section of Pennsylvania’s constitution: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the natural scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment.” It’s often been marginalized by lawmakers, but recent court rulings have upheld it.

“How can we help you?” Dunn asked after listening to an impassioned pitch by citizens and officials from Williamsport and Lycoming County, which drain into the Susquehanna’s West Branch. They had 45 minutes.

They needed “money and leadership” to preserve a choice piece of land along the river, close to the historic site of the Little League World Series. The immediate benefits are buffering stormwater pollution; paddling and camping access; and completing a local river walk.

It would also close one of the “top 10 gaps” the DCNR has identified to putting every Pennsylvanian within 15 minutes of a biking/hiking trail. The trail in question will stretch 400 miles from Lake Ontario to the Chesapeake. New York is 80 percent finished establishing their part down the Genessee River Valley.

Pennsylvania, Dunn says, is No. 1 or 2 the nation in trail miles. Trails connect people to nature; they can also be corridors allowing wildlife to migrate. More than that, she said, they bring together enduring constituencies for the environment.

Her next meeting would underscore why “we’re doing trails like there’s no tomorrow.” It was with an established organization, the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, built around a 165-mile trail using old rail and canal routes. Soon it will connect Philadelphia to Wilkes Barre, bridging the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. That trail will become a link in an East Coast Greenway of trails connecting Key West, FL, to Calais, ME.

Executive Director Elissa Garofalo got to the point: “we’re not getting funded.” There’s a budget impasse between Gov. Wolf and the legislature. Dunn urged them: “Lobby your legislators…tell them to come up with a budget” (one has passed since that meeting).

That evening, she told a local League of Women Voters group that Pennsylvania will be a minority white state by 2050. “Building diversity within DCNR and adapting our parks to more diverse communities are critical.” An equally big change, the climate, means protecting enough of large landscapes so plants and animals can migrate to survive.

Back at the house in Camp Hill that she and husband, Craig, have shared for 24 years, I checked the garage to see how the secretary’s well-known addiction is coming along. Inside are a half-dozen canoes, including a new ultralight. More reside on racks in the side yard. And there’s maybe seven more at their cabin. And yes, she might have a few at her Deputy Secretary John Norbeck’s place.

Her four-year term — perhaps even eight years, she said — “are going to go by so fast. The goal is to create a resilience, in our landscapes, in our communities, that will way outlast that.”

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.

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