Maryland is selling its 350,000th Chesapeake Bay license plate today, a watershed event for what officials claim is the most successful environmental program of its kind in the nation.
Since January 1991, the Motor Vehicle Administration has marketed the Chesapeake Bay commemorative tags for $20 each. Limited edition plates, which feature the letters "BAY" or use popular numbers like "001," cost more.
The tags have raised $3.5 million for the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a non-profit, state-managed organization that awards grants for environmental cleanup, research and educational programs in Maryland.
The plates have proved so popular that about 12.5 percent or one in eight eligible vehicles -- commercial vehicles and heavy trucks are exempted -- now bear Chesapeake Bay tags.
MVA officials said four other states have commemorative license plates that benefit environmental projects, but none can claim a higher rate of participation from motorists.
California comes the closest with a 7.3 percent participation rate for a plate benefiting environmental causes ranging from condor recovery to bighorn sheep management. The other states with environmental tags are Florida, South Carolina and Virginia.
"It's given us a tremendous opportunity to expand our base of support," said Thomas L. Burden, the Chesapeake Bay Trust's executive director. "I think it reflects the strong attachment of the people of Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay. We're unique because of that."
Most of the grants are for small-scale, community-based projects. Recent examples include a tree planting at Rocky Point Park in Baltimore County ($1,000), an Earth Day EcoFair in Baltimore ($1,000), and production of a conservation video at Elkton High School ($1,400).
The 350,000th customer was being chosen at random today from those buying bay tags at the MVA's Glen Burnie headquarters.
That person receives a free guided tour of a great blue heron nesting ground in Prince George's County and a gift bag, which includes educational materials, Old Bay seasoning, a cookbook and Chesapeake Bay folk music.
Similar gift bags will be distributed randomly to customers at all MVA branch offices today, officials said.
Police agencies have complained that the blue-tinted bay tags are not as visible as standard Maryland plates, which have black lettering on an off-white background.
On the other hand, the commemorative plates, which feature a great blue heron and dark-green lettering, are decidedly more attractive.
The General Assembly approved a bill this year that extends the two-year bay license program until the end of 1994.