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FairfaxRetirement ends an era in preservation of Chesapeake Bay

Retirement ends an era in preservation of Chesapeake Bay

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by TIMOTHY B. WHEELER, Bay Journal News Service

Not long after Ann Swanson began working to restore the Chesapeake Bay, she found herself speaking about it to a group of grade school students. One youngster raised his hand and asked her, “What are you going to do when the Bay is saved? What’s your next job?”

Swanson recalls that question with a wry smile. She never got another job.

She’s been laboring for nearly four decades to clean up and revitalize the ailing estuary. On Nov. 21, she retired after almost 35 years as executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the tri-state legislative advisory body that’s been a key player in the long-running regional effort.


The Bay still hasn’t been saved and, in a sense, it never will be. But that it hasn’t been for want of trying, especially on her part.

“She’s had the spirit, the brainpower, the drive to keep pressing forward on all fronts,” said John Griffin, a former Maryland natural resources secretary and gubernatorial aide who’s known and worked with Swanson most of those years.

She’s been at it since 1983, first as a grass-roots coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, then at the Bay Commission, where she was hired five years later.

The 21-member commission, representing the legislatures of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, has been a signatory of every Bay restoration agreement – along with governors and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrators. Swanson has been an adviser to those lawmakers and an advocate for the dozens of Bay-related bills and funding measures they’ve sponsored.

“She’s been really the leader of the band for decades,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). He called her “the conductor, the maestro” who’s kept members focused on what’s needed.

Swanson characteristically deflects credit to the commission members themselves and to her staff. But Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, the commission’s current chair said, “she really guides a lot of our work,” advising them on the most critical issues and what measures are most likely to succeed.

The Bay Commission post has been her dream job, Swanson said. It meant working collaboratively across state and party lines to pass legislation and get funding to improve the health of the Bay, its rivers and streams, and its living resources. “I always wanted to work in conservation,” she said. “I wanted to work at the regional scale.”

But for some serendipitous networking, Swanson might have wound up elsewhere. She grew up on Long Island in New York and attended the University of Vermont, majoring in wildlife biology. She also earned a master’s degree in environmental studies at Yale University. Her first job was as assistant state naturalist in Vermont.

It was an internship with the National Wildlife Federation that brought her to the Bay region. She got it with a little help from her physician father, who – worried about her job prospects – talked her up to a federation executive he met on a cruise. One of her mentors at the federation later urged her to apply for a job with the Bay Foundation.

Barely a month into her job with the foundation, she was present at the 1983 conference, sponsored by the Bay Commission, where the first formal agreement was signed by federal and state leaders pledging to work together to restore the Chesapeake and created the state-federal Bay Program.

Remembering it today still moves her.

“It was 1,000 people who deeply cared. And it was an issue that had become so compelling and so politically important that everyone wanted to be in the room.”

Back then, she and many others thought that kind of spirit could save the Bay in a decade or so. Within a few years, Maryland and Virginia passed laws to curb sediment pollution from construction sites, and those two states and Pennsylvania each banned the use of phosphate detergents.

Maryland and Virginia passed laws limiting waterfront development. Pennsylvania adopted a law requiring farmers to manage fertilizer applications.

The Bay Commission, Swanson said, “has played a critical role in in the trajectory of the whole Bay program because we’ve often been the broker of either a new idea or a … solution.”

In the mid-1990s, amid tensions between Maryland and Virginia over the economically important blue crab fishery, the commission formed a bistate advisory committee that brought together legislators, watermen, scientists and fishery managers to hash out their differences. Swanson chaired a workgroup of scientists and economists that over eight years helped forge an agreement between the states to rely on science to manage crabs as a single fishery across state lines.

With Swanson organizing meetings and writing up testimony and talking points, the commission has also advocated, often successfully, for maintaining and even increasing federal funding for the Bay.

“Ann has been front and center in that effort,” Van Hollen said, “and that includes everything from the annual funding for the EPA for the Bay Program to our efforts to expand support from the agricultural conservation programs.”

“It’s probably the most bipartisan or nonpartisan organization that I’ve ever been involved with,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican commission member. “Politics doesn’t come up.”

Those who think the Bay cleanup effort has gone soft or astray are less impressed with the commission or Swanson’s leadership. Gerald Winegrad, a former Maryland state senator who served on the commission when Swanson was hired, said he hasn’t seen it take any bold or controversial stances in recent years.

Initiatives advocated by the commission haven’t always been embraced by all three states. It took Pennsylvania lawmakers 11 years to pass limits on lawn fertilizer similar to the bills that sailed through Maryland’s and Virginia’s legislatures in 2011.

In the years since Swanson started at the commission, Bay water quality has improved – just not enough. The amounts of water-fouling nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reaching it have declined over the decades, yet still only about 30 percent of the Bay and its tidal rivers meet water quality standards.

“The conservation, the protection of the Chesapeake Bay has proved far more difficult and much more of a long reach than I ever expected,” she said.
Swanson will be 65 in December. Her husband, Eric, retired five years ago and has taken a few trips without her because her work prevented her from going. Her mother is 93 and needs her care.

“I have gardens to grow, I have meals to cook, I have the world to see,” she added. “There’s got to be time in the day for friends. … And so, it’s just the right time.”

Elfreth said the commission hopes to have a new executive director by early next year. But she also hopes that Swanson will be willing to take calls to share her “treasure trove” of knowledge about Bay issues.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal’s associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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