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Energy & Environment

After 35 years, Chesapeake Bay Commission director passes the baton

Ann Swanson delivers a presentation to the Chesapeake Executive Council at their meeting in Washington, DC, on Oct. 11, 2022. Though the restoration effort has made progress, she said, “you need to do more.” Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.

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 grassroots coordinator for the Chesapeake BayFoundation, 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.

‘Leader of the band’

“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 state Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), 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.

Broker of new ideas

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.”

Van Hollen, who’s worked with Swanson both in the Maryland legislature and in Congress, said she has a rare ability to distill and communicate the complexities of Bay issues. “She gets the science, she gets the policy and she gets the politics. That’s just an invaluable combination.”

She’s also helped the commission work without rancor. It has both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, but they’ve operated collegially. While partisan differences have grown sharper in state legislatures, they have not carried over to commission meetings.

Politics absent

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

Elfreth, a Democrat, credits Swanson with helping to maintain that culture. She also views her as a mentor. “There’s not been nearly enough women on the commission,” Elfreth said. While their numbers have grown, she noted that at times in the past, “Ann has been the only female voice in the room.” Seeing Swanson among the Bay restoration leadership, she said, has “meant a lot to me as a young woman starting off in my political career.”

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.

“Show me an organization that’s done it better,” Swanson countered. The commission “always has to consider the science, consider the appropriate policy and then consider the do-able,” she continued. “The commission has never worked on policy that’s pablum. They haven’t. They’ve always pushed for something that was meaningful.”

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.

“That had to be a high point,” Yaw said of the fertilizer vote earlier this year. “It’s something that she was really frustrated by.” He credited the bill’s ultimate passage to Swanson’s persistence, noting that she had spent “a ton of time” in the past year visiting Harrisburg to buttonhole legislators.

She wasn’t there just for the fertilizer bill, but also for bigger quarry. She was urging lawmakers to take advantage of a big influx of federal COVID relief funds and direct some of it toward cleaning up the state’s rivers and streams — and, by extension, the Bay. In June, they approved using $220 million to create a Clean Streams Fund, with most of it slated to help farmers control nutrient– and sediment-laden runoff. The vote broke a years-long stalemate over getting the legislature to financially boost the state’s lagging Bay cleanup efforts.

Elusive goals

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% 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.

Federal and state leaders recently acknowledged that many goals and outcomes pledged in the latest Bay restoration agreement, signed in 2014 by state and federal leaders, will not be met by their 2025 target date. There’s talk of extending the deadline or rethinking goals.

For Swanson, that’s no reason to let up now.

“We have more money on the table than we’ve ever had,” she said, referring to the hundreds of billions of dollars funneled to states nationwide in the federal infrastructure and inflation reduction bills. “If we can just harness that, and make sure that we spend the money smartly, and listen to our science and use our targeting tools, we actually have the ability to leapfrog in terms of progress.”

She’s leaving that for others now. Asked how she felt about that, she looked away, and her voice thickened.

“I feel like my job … I didn’t finish. However, I also feel that the time is right. Because there’s got to be a newer younger generation coming up. I’ve been at this job 35 years, and it’s done.”

She’ll 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.

In her farewell address Oct. 11 to the governors and EPA administrator on the Chesapeake Executive Council, Swanson presented a bar graph showing how nitrogen reaching the Bayhad declined about a third since the 1980s, when she began her career. Over the same time, the watershed’s population grew by half, increasing the amount of polluted runoff and decreasing forests and wildlife habitat.

“In my really low days, I would say to my husband, ‘You know what my tombstone is going to say? It’s going to say, ‘she died holding the line.’ But what I want to point out is that I came here in ’83 and the line was here,’’ she said pointing to the taller bar on the graph. “So my tombstone will not be, ‘She died holding the line,’ because you have brought [the line] down.”

“But,” she concluded, “you need to do more.”

This story was originally published by the Bay Journal and is being made available through the Bay Journal News Service. 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]bayjournal.com.