State loses as DNR chief leaves

ON THE BAY

Secretary: Given the environmental challenges facing Maryland, the loss of John R. Griffin's experience and abilities may be keenly felt in the next few years.

July 16, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

SOMETHING'S OUT of kilter when the most environmentally astute governor Maryland has had fires the Cabinet secretary who won the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's top environmental award.

"Differences in style." Officially that's about all anyone's going to get from either Gov. Parris N. Glendening or John R. Griffin, his banished secretary of natural resources.

Through an aide, Glendening told Griffin last Friday to clear out by July 26.

"A governor has to have a certain comfort zone with his Cabinet officers, and I regret I never seemed to achieve that with him during the last four years," Griffin told me this week.

Let's concede that the governor on a few occasions genuinely felt frustrated with the way Griffin handled his job.

Overriding this is that philosophically, the two were compatible, and together were accomplishing a lot for Maryland's environment.

No reason to knock incoming DNR Secretary Sarah J. Taylor-Rogers. A longtime Glendening loyalist, she's been an assistant secretary at DNR for a year, and was director of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, overseeing shoreline development.

But you don't lightly dump a leader with John Griffin's unique experience and exemplary track record; especially when his agency is so key to Glendening's ambitious Smart Growth agenda to rein in sprawl and protect farmland and green space.

A second key agency in Smart Growth -- and in protecting the Chesapeake Bay from polluted farm runoff -- is the Department of Agriculture. Glendening seems content to stick with a relative lightweight here, too, in Secretary Henry A. Virts.

It's a precariously untested lineup, given the challenges facing Maryland's environment.

Among the many people steamed at Griffin's firing was former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, on whose staff Griffin worked for five years in the early 1980s.

Hughes reportedly was considering reneging on a special assignment he recently agreed to undertake for Glendening.

It was classic Griffin that his immediate impulse was to call Hughes and tell him, for the good of the state, he should do whatever the current governor needed.

Griffin is the only leader left in Maryland government from the Hughes team who put together, in 1983, the ambitious program that still guides restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

They met for a year at a retreat center on Wye Island, laying the groundwork to bring in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and for building public support and crafting legislation to make 1984 the "Year of the Bay" in the General Assembly.

Such context and perspective are often crucial. An example is the courageous stand Griffin, with Glendening's backing, took a few years ago to restrict crabbing.

It drew a firestorm from watermen and seafood packers, because crabs were not in crisis -- which was precisely the point, to finally manage a species before a crash occurred.

What sustained Griffin was in large part his experience watching the rockfish decline almost beyond recovery during 11 years as deputy DNR secretary. Only a moratorium brought them back.

Griffin as secretary has done a lot to lend context and vision to an agency with 365,000 acres that it must manage for everything from turkey hunting and timber cutting to wilderness recreation and coal mining.

"It's foolish to think you control a department as its secretary," he says.

"What you can do is try to pick good people, give them a sense of the larger picture, and try to keep the [distractions] off them so they can do their jobs."

He thinks the Maryland landscape is changing so rapidly in the face of suburban sprawl that "we've got maybe another 20 years to make significant changes with Smart Growth, with [protecting] forests and ag lands, or we're dead."

He has championed land preservation efforts such as the state's Rural Legacy program because "rural beauty is what will sustain Marylanders' passions for the changes necessary for smarter growth. You won't sell it just on fear of the negatives, like traffic jams."

Griffin has gotten out and around Maryland's natural landscapes more than any leader in state government, from fly fishing in Garrett County, to paddling Tangier Sound. (I am told there's a blackmail-quality picture of him in a kayak, big cigar clenched in his teeth, beer balanced on deck.)

But his agenda is serious -- to get his own staff and leaders, from business to the legislature, to fully and physically appreciate the range of Maryland's public lands.

"Everything we're doing, at the core is the idea of interconnectedness, to get people to see their role as a part of the natural world, not compartmentalized away from it," he says.

"Ultimately whether we sustain the [bay restoration goals] in the face of population growth is going to depend on the lifestyle decisions of every Marylander, so agencies like DNR have to use our lands to inculcate a stewardship ethic," he says.

Griffin gets it. So does Glendening. It's a darn shame such a team couldn't mesh.

Wishing Secretary Taylor-Rogers all the best, I offer a place she and the governor can make a quick, new start. Replace Stan Arthur, current deputy secretary of DNR, with a strong, experienced natural resources expert of statewide stature.

Arthur, a Glendening political operative, was appointed by the governor last year, apparently to watch Griffin. He's taking up space and salary that should be doing more for the environment.

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