She's `everybody's environmental conscience'

April 22, 2001

THE ENVIRONMENTAL movement in the United States was in its infancy, searching for a way to link diverse, seemingly disconnected interests. The first Earth Day was yet to dawn.

The civic-minded Junior League held a national conference on environmental issues. Alice "Ajax" Eastman, already active in charity projects for the Baltimore chapter, attended the Chicago meeting with friend Virginia Mock.

They returned to survey Maryland's environmental needs and determined to revive an old idea: the returnable, mandatory-deposit beverage container.

They organized "Return to the Returnables" to lobby Annapolis for a statewide bottle bill in 1971, beginning a dogged crusade of more than a dozen years for Ms. Eastman.

That campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. But it helped to lay the foundation for a much broader statewide recycling law -- and for many other environmental campaigns and causes that engaged the infectious zeal and tireless leadership of Ajax Eastman.

From the coal mines of Western Maryland to the barrier islands of the Atlantic, she found myriad environmental challenges to be met in the General Assembly, the county zoning boards and the bureaucratic labyrinths of state agencies.

For more than three decades, Ms. Eastman has been "everybody's environmental conscience," as she was dubbed two years ago when she was commissioned an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Hers is a full-time career of volunteer service on behalf of all things environmental. As fledgling conservation groups have grown up, with professional staffs and big budgets, Ms. Eastman has remained the consummate unpaid citizen volunteer.

Not a quiet tree-planter or neighborhood cleanup organizer, she readily found her niche in the political arena: doggedly lobbying for legislation and policy, working to elect favored candidates, raising public awareness.

"Ajax was the steady rock of the environmental movement when I was in Annapolis," recalls Gerald W. Winegrad, a longtime environmental champion in the General Assembly. "You could always count on her, even when there were few others to speak out on an issue or organize support."

Victory was not a constant companion in her legislative sorties, despite an assured and insistent manner. The campaign for returnable bottles and cans, finally conceded in 1984, demonstrated that the most persistent effort, even with strong public support, can still fail within the complex politics of the General Assembly.

Expanding the state's inventory of protected wildlands -- "the libraries and museums of our natural world," she lovingly calls them -- was a happier story of triumph.

In 1988, she joined with Beth Hartline, founder of the Maryland Wildlands Committee, to accelerate the campaign to keep more of these natural areas free from development, vehicles and active "resources management."

Eight years later, the governor and legislature agreed to set aside nearly 23,000 acres of state lands from human disturbance. With over 9,000 more acres designated the next year, the wildlands system nearly tripled in size. In tribute to the efforts of the two women, 1,100 acres along the Gunpowder River near Hereford were renamed the Hartline-Eastman Wildland.

"Wildlands hold the tapestries and mosaics of our rich natural heritage," she explained. "They are vital to our understanding of the future. They hold the genetic information that we should no more destroy than the Gutenberg Bible."

Even in that rewarding accomplishment, however, she was reminded of the reality of political compromise. Some 3,100 acres of prime wilderness in Garrett County were removed from the proposal in order to win support from Western Maryland leaders.

Forests and mountains of Maine inspired an early appreciation of nature in her childhood. That was her favorite camping destination while growing up in Western Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

The active outdoors life is central to her environmental dynamism, which was often seen by the public focused on sedentary hearings and forensic exercises. "You can't defend what you don't know," she says.

She's made a half-dozen treks through the Himalayas of Western Asia, and taught courses at The Mountain Institute in West Virginia. She organized and led a hike from Western Maryland to Annapolis one year to publicize the bottle bill campaign.

Joining the nascent Maryland Conservation Council back in 1970 drew Ms. Eastman into close contact with other early activists in their battles for "greener, cleaner" laws. She was elected president in 1976 and served six terms.

For many years, she wrote and edited the council's Conservation Report newsletter to keep members informed on what state legislators were doing about, or to, the environment.

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