Six secretaries over 32 years

ON THE BAY

Leadership: After years of stability, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has had three chiefs since 1995.

September 14, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE EXPOSED picture hooks made the bare walls of Sarah Taylor-Rogers' spacious, top-floor office look even starker. Her personal stuff had all been carted out a few days earlier, after one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's staff told her, without warning or explanation, that she was finished after two years as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

Wearing one of her jaunty, trademark hats - a broad-brimmed straw number trimmed with a broad, black ribbon - Taylor-Rogers sat at a mostly empty desk, accepting calls of condolence and support; she was also checking on suddenly important details like her retirement status in the state system. Among the sympathy calls had been one from Glendening's estranged wife, Frances.

Taylor-Rogers was only the fifth secretary of DNR since it was created 32 years ago, but the third to be dismissed by the current governor. It's been a uniquely tumultuous time at the agency's top levels.

The first DNR secretary, retired Gov. J. Millard Tawes, never intended to stay long, leaving in 1971 after two years. Tawes cared deeply for the bay, though. A letter he sent to Congress as governor 40 years ago could have been written yesterday.

It called for stepped-up national spending and more scientific research to combat "the enormity of Bay problems, which require a total, rather than a piecemeal approach."

The next secretary, James B. Coulter, would stay nearly 12 years - too long, in retrospect. Coulter, a Harvard-trained sanitary engineer, was a capable and decent public servant, praised initially for bringing modern environmental management to DNR.

But he ended up a roadblock to progress, disagreeing with scientists and other environmental managers on how to clean up the bay. Gov. Harry R. Hughes didn't ask him back when he assembled a Cabinet for his second term.

The third secretary, Torrey C. Brown, an affable medical doctor and longtime legislator, stayed even longer, from 1983 until 1995. Brown usually knew the right thing to do environmentally, and often even did it. His toughest and best decision was a fishing moratorium in 1984 that rescued rockfish from the brink of oblivion.

Glendening chose not to reappoint Brown; you could understand him wanting his own person and to start fresh in his first term. Also, he replaced him with John R. Griffin, Brown's well-regarded deputy secretary.

Many would call Griffin DNR's best secretary, though it's risky to compare across eras. He won the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's coveted Conservationist of the Year award in 1998.

Yet a year later, with no real explanation, Glendening fired Griffin. It was ironic, since the governor and the secretary were both strongly committed to the same environmental goals. One of Griffin's sins: He failed to make sure the governor was always in the limelight on environmental initiatives.

The beginning of the end for Griffin came in 1998, when Glendening did not let him appoint his own deputy, but installed Stan Arthur, a Glendening political operative. Arthur brought to DNR no natural-resources experience or commitment, and an abrasive management style that hurt morale. Taylor-Rogers, who inherited Arthur, called him "my deputy who was not. ... I believe I would have flourished if I'd had the ability to put in people I wanted."

I confess I was among those who wondered whether Taylor-Rogers was up to the top post, although she did first-rate jobs directing the state's Coastal Zone Management and Critical Area programs, both key to a lot of the protection the Chesapeake Bay has enjoyed.

In retrospect, she never had the chance to prove herself, given Glendening's micro-management of the department.

For example, the governor and his deputy chief of staff, Jennifer Crawford, have damaged DNR's relationships with hunters in recent months, ousting a respected DNR wildlife manager because they wanted less enthusiasm for youth hunting programs. They have also tried to prohibit kids from getting into trapping.

I worry about this. It's not that hunters are always right, or that a suburbanizing Maryland doesn't need nonlethal ways of managing wildlife. But recently I've seen a huge political wedge driven between hunters and environmentalists, who should have much in common; and what Glendening and Crawford are doing just plays into it.

Taylor-Rogers says "the governor is not anti-hunting, but he has a strong `anti-handgun in the schools' program, and he worries about the connections to youth hunting."

Griffin says his early experience with Glendening was "he was practically belittling the anti-hunting groups, but what I hear from DNR people now is that [Crawford] has become more involved in DNR, and she has a big aversion to hunting and has influence with the governor."

One dares to hope the governor will give DNR some leeway. He dismissed Taylor-Rogers shabbily, but has made a great choice to replace her.

J. Charles Fox, only the sixth DNR secretary since 1969, knows the turf from all angles, having worked as a professional environmentalist and at high levels in Maryland's and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water quality divisions.

The fact that Deputy Secretary Arthur just resigned bodes well for Fox having a freer hand than his predecessors. Here's hoping the governor and Crawford can let him do his thing.

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