By Tim Wheeler
Will Baker never intended to become an environmental activist. He studied art in college and planned to become an architect, like his older brother. Then, one hot summer day in 1976, while he was up in a tree pruning it for a little cash, the homeowner walked outside with an iced tea in hand, looked up and asked, “Will, would you like to save the Bay?”
“And I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Semans, that would be fine,’” Baker recalled. “And he said, ‘Come into the house and talk to me when you’re finished.’”
Truman Semans, a Baltimore investment executive, was on the board of trustees of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, then a small environmental nonprofit with a catchy slogan, “Save the Bay.” It was founded in 1967 by a group of well-heeled Maryland businessmen worried that pollution from industry, development and population growth would ruin the sailing, hunting and fishing they enjoyed in their spare time.
Semans sent Baker to Annapolis to see the foundation’s executive director for a job. He started as an office assistant whose duties included running out at lunchtime to pick up sandwiches.
Now, 45 years later, Baker, who recently turned 68, is retiring from CBF at the end of December after four decades as its leader, a tenure virtually unmatched in the nonprofit world. Over that time, the organization has grown into a regional environmental powerhouse, with a staff of 210 and about 300,000 members.
“It’s become a huge, impactful enterprise, and it was really built by Will Baker,” said Brian Frosh, Maryland’s attorney general who earlier served 28 years as a state lawmaker and was one of the legislature’s leading environmental advocates.
“Everything that I worked on, and everything that was accomplished in the area of the environment while I was in the General Assembly,” Frosh said, “had the fingerprints of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on it.”
Over the decades, CBF has helped to push through a series of laws — mainly in Maryland and Virginia — to protect wetlands and forests, require farmers to limit fertilizer use and curb waterfront development. It has advocated for tighter catch limits on the Bay’s striped bass, oysters, crabs and menhaden, while pressing for increased state and federal funding to upgrade sewage treatment plants and pay farmers to limit runoff from their fields. It has sued polluting industries and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act, and it has taught legions of youngsters and adults about the Bay.
Through it all, Will Baker has been there, insisting with seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm that the Bay can be saved and, lately, that this is its best and maybe last chance, if only political leaders can muster the will.
Yet after all this time, the Bay is still not saved. In some important ways, it’s in better shape than it was 45 years ago. But it’s not back to anything like the natural bounty that English explorer John Smith found in the early 1600s.
The Bay restoration effort is at a crossroads, some say. The Bay watershed states, District of Columbia and federal government have failed three times to achieve cleanup goals they set for themselves, and they’re falling short as the 2025 deadline looms for their latest effort. An internal review by the state-federal Bay Program earlier this year warned that the region will likely fail to achieve seven restoration outcomes by the 2025 deadline. Among the efforts in deep trouble is CBF’s main focus, reducing nutrient pollution.
CBF, too, is at a crossroads, facing a generational change in its leadership at a time when environmental groups are reckoning with a legacy of White privilege and the need to diversify their makeup and broaden their mission to address the disparate impacts of pollution.
That CBF would even survive, much less grow, was by no means assured when Baker took the helm in 1981. He’d been on staff barely five years when the board made him interim executive director while it searched for a new leader. After a few months, Baker decided to make a bid for the job himself. He got the nod, though some on the board wanted someone with more experience. At the time, Baker said, he had no particular environmental awareness or training for taking over a nonprofit like CBF.
“I learned on the job,” he said.
He had to learn quickly. When he took the reins, CBF was in dire straits, he said, with “a huge deficit.” Over the years, both Baker and CBF have become prolific fundraisers. Its 2020 annual report lists $38 million in revenues, more than 80% from membership contributions, gifts and grants. It boasts endowments totaling $46 million and net assets of around $120 million, according to its financial statements.
Such fundraising prowess has allowed CBF to expand its activities and establish a presence in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. It’s also underwritten construction of its LEED platinum headquarters overlooking the Bay in Annapolis and a similarly green education center near the Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach.
Education has been a big part of CBF’s work since its early days, when Arthur Sherwood bought a workboat, then a fleet of canoes to get schoolchildren out on the Bay so they could learn to love it. By CBF’s count, more than 1.5 million students, teachers and other adults have passed through the 15 education centers the group established in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
He said he’s been told by many people now in government, business and academia that their interest in the environment was first sparked by going on a CBF field trip.
Baker calls CBF’s education program its “best long-term investment in the future of the Bay.”
Choosing its battles
CBF’s other core activities have been lobbying for environmental protections and litigating to punish polluters or stop harmful projects.
In the early 1970s, it successfully argued that the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland shouldn’t get licensed without a federally mandated review of the facility’s environmental impacts. The foundation also sued to block an oil refinery in Hampton Roads VA, and it went after big industrial corporations like Bethlehem Steel, Gwaltney of Smithfield and Phillip Morris for violating federal and state pollution laws.
CBF has also deployed staff to lobby state legislators and members of Congress for more funding for Bay restoration, and it has pressed the case for imposing enforceable pollution reduction targets on the states through the EPA-imposed cleanup plan CBF now dubs the Clean Water Blueprint. More recently, CBF has branched out into restoring vital Bay resources that have been lost, including streamside forests, wetlands and oysters.
Baker acknowledged that he is frustrated that the Bay isn’t closer to recovery. Some Bay advocates are suggesting that it’s time to publicly acknowledge the restoration effort is going to come up short again and begin discussing a new agreement to carry on beyond 2025.
“We’ve got to look at new tools and ways of doing things,” said Roy Hoagland, who spent 22 years on CBF’s staff, seven of it as vice president for environmental protection and restoration. He and others suggest the restoration effort needs to “broaden back out” from its focus on nutrient pollution to attack other largely unaddressed problems, like climate change, growth and toxic contaminants.
But Baker contends that admitting failure now would be a “huge mistake, because to say that takes all the pressure off.”
Instead, CBF has again gone to court, joining with three Bay states and the District of Columbia last year in suing the EPA for not taking more aggressive action to make Pennsylvania do its part to clean up the Bay.
“We’re not giving up,” he said. “Every month, [meeting the 2025 goal is] less likely, but there’s no reason to give up and to say, ‘Let’s just start thinking about moving the goalposts again.’ I’m so sick of that, you know?”
The biggest challenge to fulfilling the Bay cleanup, Baker contends, has been Pennsylvania. The state House of Representatives has repeatedly balked at proposals for raising revenues to pay farmers to install runoff-limiting practices on their fields and feedlots. Baker calls the Pennsylvania House “as fiscally conservative as any legislative body I’ve ever worked with.”
CBF also has scrapped with commercial fishing interests as it pressed for tighter controls on harvests of striped bass, blue crabs, oysters and menhaden. Its advocacy in the 1990s for tighter limits on crabbing angered watermen, who erected a billboard on Smith Island criticizing CBF. A storage building CBF owned there was torched amid the controversy.
Conflicts with watermen have continued, at least in Maryland, where CBF successfully lobbied state lawmakers against reopening some of the state’s oyster sanctuaries for commercial harvest. CBF also pressed for legislation requiring scientific and consensus-based management of oysters to identify and curb overharvesting. That earned the group a public rebuke from Gov. Larry Hogan, who promised to look out for watermen when he was first elected in 2014.
Yet some environmentalists, particularly in Maryland, contend that CBF has gone easy on the agricultural industry, even though farm runoff is the leading source of nutrients fouling the Bay.
“What we have tried to do that some of our colleague organizations haven’t always bought in on is we have tried to get funding for agriculture,” Baker countered. CBF has “raised millions of dollars to put best management practices on farmland. And to do that you have to gain the trust of the farmer to go in and start working with him.”
Rethink and retool?
A growing number of Bay advocates say CBF, like many organizations of its kind, needs to address the lack of diversity within its ranks and focus more on environmental inequities. Communities of color will continue to disproportionally suffer from environmental health hazards if advocacy groups fail to call attention to it, they say.
Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, a vocal CBF critic, contends the foundation’s size and reliance on corporate financial support keep it from pursuing the social justice needed to address environmental inequities.
“I think it has its heart in the right place,” he said, “but no concept of the stakes on the ground … If you want to clean up the Bay, you have to right some wrongs.”
Baker counters such criticism by pointing out that CBF has hired an attorney to focus on environmental justice cases. But CBF’s top management is all White, and its staff is nearly 90% White. Only 4% of the staff identify as Black. The board of trustees is more diverse, with 19% of its members identifying as Black.
“Our numbers are not where we want them to be,” Baker acknowledged. “We’re working like crazy,” he added, to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
Andres Jimenez, executive director of Green 2.0, a group that monitors diversity at nonprofit organizations, said that CBF is at least acknowledging it has a problem.
“Could they be doing better? Yes,” Jimenez said. “Could they be working faster? Yes.” But he credited CBF and Baker with being up front about the problem and seeking his advice and help in addressing it.
Change of command
On Jan. 2, CBF will have a new leader. Hillary Harp Falk, announced as Baker’s successor in late October, interned at CBF and after college worked for three years teaching students about the Bay at CBF’s Port Isabel Island center. Her budding career in conservation then took her to the National Wildlife Federation, where she advanced to become chief program officer. (She is the daughter of Bay Journal staff photographer Dave Harp.)
Many say she’s a good choice to build on what Baker accomplished and take it in new directions.
“She’s a coalition builder, a very strong communicator,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and a former CBF staffer. “In hiring Hillary, they’ve reached another generation that was really raised understanding more about diversity, equity and inclusion … and the strength of power sharing.” Whether she can woo the big donors Baker did remains to be seen, Swanson said.
Baker said that he’s doing more fundraising in his final weeks to ensure his successor can start out on a firm financial footing.
After New Year’s Day, Baker said, he plans to “sleep, read a book, you know, smell the roses.” He said his wife once told him he’s a workaholic, which he acknowledges with some chagrin. “I’ve got a couple of things on the drawing board,” he said, but he wasn’t ready to share them just yet.
Looking back, the only regret he was willing to share is that the job he signed up for is not finished. He recalled running into former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer in downtown Annapolis shortly after the governor left office in 1995. After exchanging pleasantries, Baker said he was walking away when Schaefer called out to him. “‘I thought it would be easier,’” Baker heard him say. ‘I said, ‘Governor, what was that?’ He said, ‘Saving the Bay.’”
Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal’s associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or [email protected]