March 01, 2018

Interview: Will Baker

Milo Mason

Will Baker began his career at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) as an intern, a few weeks out of college in 1976. Since 1982, he has served as CBF’s president, leading the largest nonprofit conservation organization dedicated solely to preserving, protecting, and restoring the Chesapeake Bay. He is a widely published author and frequent guest on major television and radio networks whose many accolades include an Honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from Washington College, an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Baltimore, and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from St. Mary’s College. Baker is a trustee of Johns Hopkins Medicine (Hospitals and Medical School), a director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a founding director of Brown Advisory & Trust Company, the Greater Washington Board of Trade Green Committee, and the Living Classrooms Foundation, among many other service positions. Under Baker’s leadership, CBF has received numerous awards, including the nation’s highest environmental honor—the 1992 Presidential Medal for Environmental Excellence—in recognition of its environmental education program.

NR&E: Will, on behalf of the editorial board of Natural Resources and Environment magazine, I want to thank you for this interview.

BAKER: Honored, Milo. Thank you.

NR&E: Tell me about the Chesapeake Bay.

BAKER: First, you need to know that the Chesapeake Bay is the largest coastal plain estuary in the world. It’s really the crown jewel of the world’s estuaries in the most traditional definition of estuaries. There are many big bodies of waters that are estuaries—the Gulf of Mexico is technically an estuary. But a coastal plain estuary is the most productive. It is very shallow, a narrow mouth, open to the ocean, lots of freshwater coming in from a vast watershed. The Chesapeake Bay has 18 million people in its watershed. If anyone had said 15 years ago it would be doing as well today as it is, you would have been laughed out of the room. The trajectory for decades had been decline. Yet 10 years ago—although we didn’t recognize it then—things started to change. Now, many metrics are going in the right direction. At first, we thought it was a blip, a variable, something that wouldn’t be sustained. Now even the most cynical scientists are saying this is a trend. And it’s really unlike any other body of water in the world of this size and complexity. So, we’re very excited, very grateful for all the work that’s been done across public and private sectors, but we know that it’s a fragile recovery and it could go south in an instant. We must keep our foot on the gas pedal.

NR&E: There’s still more to be done.

BAKER: Much more to be done. It has stopped declining, and it is starting to improve, but it is absolutely not saved. Our Bay report card is still only a C–.

NR&E: Tell me about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and your time there.

BAKER: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was started in 1967. We just enjoyed our 50th anniversary. But we’re not looking backward, we’re looking forward.

NR&E: Congratulations.

BAKER: Thank you. That’s not just rhetoric. That’s really the way we operate. I came in 1976 as an intern. I’ve been running CBF since 1982. And it’s a labor of love. For me it is second only to family. There are trustees and staff who have been here longer than I have. We do five basic things. We have a large advocacy program that is lobbying and working at the federal, state, and local levels. They are working on solutions. Trying to build partnerships. Everything related to policy from executive orders to legislation. We’re the advocates for the Chesapeake Bay and all the rivers that flow into it. Second, we have a very large environmental education program, the largest in the country—30,000 to 40,000 students, teachers, and principals a year. We literally have principals of schools, public and private, who will spend three days in the summer going all over the Bay, learning science, learning about natural resources and ecology. When you get a principal, you’ve got the school. So that’s the second big program. The third is restoration. We’re doing restoration of habitat on mostly private land, some public, from the scale of families out planting trees along a stream on a Sunday afternoon all the way to bulldozer-scale restoration. Restoration efforts to get more of the natural filters in place. From forested buffers along streams way up in the Appalachians to wetlands down on the coast. We have a litigation program that we use as a last resort, but it’s a very important tool in our toolbox. We have four full-time lawyers working nonstop on litigation. Finally, we have a strategic communications department that uses all tools possible to communicate with all sectors to educate, inspire, and engage.

NR&E: How has the Chesapeake Bay Foundation changed over the last 50 years?

BAKER: When I started, 10 years after CBF was founded, we had about six staff and a membership base of 15,000. Today we have some 200 full-time staff and a membership base of 230,000. They’re from all over the country with a focus on the Mid-Atlantic. With most small organizations that are very volunteer-oriented, the scope of effort is narrow. But not CBF—even at the outset, we had one lawyer, we had one scientist, we had one lobbyist, one educator, and we were doing most of what we do now, just at a much smaller scale. In 1971, we worked with partners to challenge the scope of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. The court ruled in favor of the Calvert Cliffs Coordinating Committee, of which our CEO was chairman. It really established the breadth and depth of NEPA as it is followed today. Now, as we’ve gotten bigger, we still get blood out of a turnip. We’re very lean. We still don’t pay salaries anywhere near to what people deserve, but we’ve got incredibly dedicated experts, and we’re able to take on a lot more. In our growth decades, late ’80s, ’90s, and into the 2000s, we were growing at 40 percent a year. And it was my objective to actually hold that growth down because I knew that the bane of many not-for-profits is overexpansion. We had tremendous opportunities in building membership, building partnerships, building major donors, building programs.

NR&E: So how did you tamp it down or focus?

BAKER: The management team and the Board were careful not to get too far out over our skis. Yes, we greatly increased staff, but we also built endowment. We built facilities and an environmental education fleet of Coast Guard certified vessels which could operate safely on the open Bay. We built infrastructure. We built this building 20 years ago, the first LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Certified Platinum in the world.

NR&E: How did you become the president of the Foundation?

BAKER: My start as an intern was almost by accident. I was going to go to graduate school when I was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation by a family friend. I was offered the internship. I said, “Look, to be 22 years old, live in Annapolis and intern for this organization that I’ve seen bumper stickers on since I was a kid, that’s a dream come true.” And when the founder, Arthur Sherwood, resigned as CEO after 10 years, the board did a national search. Long story short, they picked a 28-year-old who’d been working here six years, and that was me.

NR&E: (laughter) The rest is history.

BAKER: Yes. (laughter)

NR&E: You mentioned litigation. Tell me about that. Have you considered suing the states, such as Pennsylvania?

BAKER: From the beginning, CBF has used litigation when we needed to. We’ve always had attorneys on staff. In 1987, we sued a couple of companies in the Bay watershed for failure to comply with their NPDES permits. That is National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. We settled with two of the three. The third went to court. That was Gwaltney of Smithfield, the big meat packer in Virginia. They challenged us on standing. That’s always the first challenge we face. But we won in lower court, we won in appellate court. They kept appealing, and it went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (Gwaltney of Smithfield v. CBF). Although the Court remanded the case to the district court to confirm our standing, we were able to prove Gwaltney was still violating the law, our standing was upheld, and the company immediately settled.

NR&E: Right.

BAKER: Here is another example. A case against Phillip Morris, also in Virginia. We won in the lower court. They appealed. Eventually the Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously in our favor. Remarkable to think of that happening in Virginia against Philip Morris.

In 2004, we decided to elevate litigation to full departmental status with its own vice president. We hired Jon Muller, who had 17 years of experience at the Justice Department with EPA as his client. He built the current team and still leads them. All litigation is approved by a Litigation Committee of the board.

Now to your question about Pennsylvania, which is far behind in its obligation to reduce pollution flowing down the Susquehanna River, the Bay’s largest tributary. We haven’t found the right case yet. We are pursuing every possibility to increase Pennsylvania’s record in reducing pollution, but we have not litigated to this point.

NR&E: But that isn’t a law, that’s an aspiration agreement.

BAKER: Let’s back up. To comply with President Obama’s 2010 Executive Order to restore Bay water quality, the six states in the watershed and several federal agencies agreed to reduce pollution by specific amounts over 15 years. The deadline for all states to comply is 2025, and many are making good progress. But not Pennsylvania.

NR&E: Let’s talk about Conowingo [Dam].

BAKER: The Susquehanna River drains parts of New York and half of Pennsylvania and flows into the Chesapeake. It is by far the largest source of freshwater to the Chesapeake. This one river equals the flow of all the other rivers in the watershed combined. So clearly what comes down that river is important to the health of the Bay. There are three hydroelectric dams, built 70 or 80 years ago. And, like any other dam, they trap sediment. And the sediment is itself a pollutant—one of the three systemic pollutants of the Bay: nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment. When it traps sediment, it also traps a certain amount of the phosphorous that is bound to the sediment. It doesn’t really trap any nitrogen because nitrogen is water soluble and does not adhere to sediment particles the way phosphorous does. The dams have now pretty well filled up, meaning they’re at capacity in terms of blocking the sediment. So now, all the Pennsylvania farmland that washes into the river is more likely to go straight into the Bay, making the Susquehanna like any other river that is free-flowing to the Bay. We, and others, believe the Exelon Corporation that owns and operates the dam should take part of the responsibility for addressing the problem. There are a number of interests working to find viable solutions. Creative reuse options, for instance. All would be expensive and so far, none have proved viable.

NR&E: (laughter) And you’d think the dam owners could just burn it. And do some sort of cogeneration. Elon Musk ought to put his mind to it, maybe.

BAKER: All of that has been looked at. The quantities are huge. People say dredge it out and take it away. But where is “away?”

NR&E: And I’ve seen the logs and the mattresses and the portable toilets floating by my boat.

BAKER: All of us who live here see that. The most significant event in modern history was 1972 when tropical storm Agnes, at just the wrong time, at the beginning of the underwater grass growing season, carried huge amounts of dirt down the river. And that was back when Conowingo still had a lot of sediment-blocking capacity. But the volume of flow coming down the river was so huge, it just went right on through the open spill ways That really destroyed the grasses in the upper Bay for 30 or 40 years. The good news is that they’re now back at pre-Agnes levels. That is a clear indication of the progress that is being made. In fact, Bay-wide, grasses have not been as healthy for 40 years.

NR&E: What the Chesapeake Bay Foundation started and did, is it transferrable, or can you take that paradigm and repeat it, or can people across the country who are dealing with rivers and lakes and bays match your success?

BAKER: Well, we’ll leave that to others to decide. Our interest by charter, by definition of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. So, we have resisted suggestions that we work beyond the 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay Watershed. But, having said that, there is certainly a realization that the Bay restoration effort is a model for other water bodies. The big Kahuna is the Mississippi, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has all of the problems Chesapeake Bay has, just on steroids. And the Mississippi drains one half of the United States.

NR&E: Yes.

BAKER: So, the concept of putting a similar pollution reduction strategy on that river has been chilling to some. And it was that possibility that drove a number of national associations that work on agricultural interests, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Pork Producers Council—there are about seven of them—with 21 attorneys general filing amicus briefs—all of whom sued EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. These national associations were trying to overturn the TMDL, what we call the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. They were worried that if we saved Chesapeake Bay, somebody in their watershed might take it and use it there. That litigation went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court declined to take it, and so the opposition, including the current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, then Oklahoma AG, failed. CBF was a defendant and participated fully in all the court proceedings.

NR&E: Yes. I know Illinois farmers have moved to almost no till. They’re not tilling the land, they just plant and grow as much as possible. Although that then pours insecticide and herbicides down the Mississippi. Because of no till you don’t disturb the topsoil much and thus less sediment runoff. But it’s a trade-off.

BAKER: It’s a trade-off.

NR&E: It’s tough.

BAKER: No till sometimes is viewed too much as a panacea. No till has its place with certain soil types and certain contours. It’s like anything else in life. It has to be considered as a tool, the right tool for the right job, not the only tool for every job.

NR&E: Yes. There have been more tools in the toolbox. Tell me about EPA now and before. How has EPA evolved, and what has it done in the last 11 months?

BAKER: I personally have worked with, I think, seven different EPA administrators. Just recently, I coauthored an op-ed with Bill Ruckelshaus, who has been a longtime friend. Every EPA administrator and every president for whom that administrator has worked has been contributory to the Bay’s improvement. Every single one of them from Russell Train on. Scott Pruitt is the first EPA administrator whom I have seen that actually has taken a different stance. What we see Scott Pruitt doing is a wholesale attempt to dismantle—to the greatest extent possible—the authority and the activity of EPA through a weakening of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. It is startling, chilling, frightening, and almost unbelievable. Governor Tom Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, opined in an op-ed piece in the New York Times early in the fall [of 2017] that Scott Pruitt should be fired. This is a mainstream, well-respected, former Republican governor.

NR&E: Soon there will be no waters of the United States, let alone a definition. Take me back a bit to an effort to make the Chesapeake Bay, or parts of it, a possible national park or a national historic trail. What’s happened to that? It’s a little bit outside the box, because most people think a national park is land based—although the U.S. Virgin Islands is different.

BAKER: It was started by Pat Noonan, a national conservation hero, and Gil Grosvenor with National Geographic. They were kind enough to include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and me. But those two did the work. They had a dream to make the well-documented passage of John Smith and his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay a national water trail with Park Service designation. Long story short, they succeeded, and the John Smith National Water Trail was passed by Congress with national park designation. And in record-breaking time. It’s a virtual trail because it’s a water trail. Around that concept [are efforts] now working to promote the trail, to try to do land conservation along the edges of the trail, and to do other land conservation elements to help promote and add value to the virtual water trail.

NR&E: It doesn’t get as much advertisement or attention, and I don’t know if you want more people coming or not.

BAKER: We’re very comfortable with having more access to the Bay because we think the Bay sells itself. In fact, you know, our education program puts students and adults on the water. That’s really a great way to develop the constituency, if you will, for the Chesapeake.

NR&E: More than 20 years ago, I interviewed Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, and, when I asked him what he was proud of starting during his career in environmental matters and what was the most important thing in environmental matters, he said, “What I want is every child in America, when their mom brings home a tuna fish can, to ask the mother if it’s dolphin-safe. And only through education will we know when we end up doing good environmental stuff.” That’s the education that is key. So, your efforts at education seems wonderful for getting people more actively involved, and it’s really important.

BAKER: You know, I take pride in being a part of CBF, but I take no ownership of the structure of this organization, which is education, advocacy, restoration, litigation, and strategic communications. There aren’t many other conservation groups that have that breadth of operation.

NR&E: All five legs of the table. A five-legged table with one in the center can hold a lot.

BAKER: Good analogy. And I always say that education is the best long-term investment you can make in the future of the Chesapeake Bay. We need advocacy and litigation, we need restoration, but the education is that long-term investment.

NR&E: I guess Oklahoma didn’t provide that to Pruitt, unfortunately.

BAKER: And the sad thing is, I think he loves to fish. I don’t know why…

NR&E: Maybe you should take him out on a fishing boat.

BAKER: Any time!

NR&E: Other environmental groups are out to save the Bay. The Bay Savers is one that I went to a fundraiser for the other day, and certainly the Chesapeake Legal Alliance and other groups and all the river keeper associations. Do you intersect with them, welcome them, the more the merrier? What’s your view on that? Do they think maybe more needs to be done?

BAKER: Well, first of all, we will do the best job we can within our own organization. But we welcome every other organization from the watershed level all the way to national groups. For instance, just yesterday I had lunch with Chris Wood, who is the president of Trout Unlimited. So from the largest in the country to the smallest in the Bay watershed, we need them and many more to help. And it needs to be people not just with an environmental bent, but with a cultural bent, who are interested in the heritage of this region. And certainly interested in the economy. The Chesapeake is a brand that drives so much economic benefit for this part of the country, for this region. So we don’t have competitors, we have colleagues.

NR&E: Thank you, Will.

BAKER: Great, Milo. Thank you.

Milo Mason

Mr. Mason is an attorney in Annapolis, Maryland, and a member of the Natural Resources & Environment editorial board. He may be reached at milomason@aol.com.