Small tasks, large impact


Cleanup: For nearly 20 years, the Chesapeake Bay Trust has funded a variety of projects that help restore the bay.

January 23, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT WAS 1985, and Secretary of Natural Resources Torrey C. Brown was telling officials from across Maryland about a new program to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

"You're going to need a lot of money to do all that," Robert J. DiPietro, the young mayor of Laurel, told Brown. And, tongue in cheek, DiPietro suggested that his colleagues "pass the hat."

Brown returned to Gov. Harry Hughes' office that day with about $700 in his pockets. "I told [a Hughes aide], `We can't just put this in the general budget; it'll disappear,' " Brown says.

From that sprang the idea of creating a unique entity, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a private nonprofit group with a board appointed by the governor, to accept private donations and disburse money for projects to improve the bay.

Nearly 20 years later, the trust gives away about $1 million annually and plans to double that expenditure.

While the organization has remained low-profile, everyone has seen its core funding source, the "Treasure the Bay" license plates, with a great blue heron peering from a marsh. A more colorful version of the plate made its debut this month.

The plates generate about half of the trust's money. The other major source is a voluntary state income tax check-off. Once derided by opponents in the legislature as the "chickadee check-off," it generated $603,000 last year.

Perhaps more than with any other nonprofit organization, almost all of the trust's money comes from small donations - $20 dollars apiece from those who buy bay plates (on top of the regular registration fee) and tax check-offs that average about $25 per contributor.

"We depend totally on the goodwill of Marylanders ... about 70,000 of them each year," says David O'Neill, executive director of the trust.

A small staff of five people means 90 cents on the donated dollar goes directly to environmental projects, O'Neill says.

Although the trust makes grants of $50,000 or more, it has long specialized in funding small projects that are the hardest to get grants for.

Last year, nearly 300 grants were for less than $2,000. These were sent to schools and community organizations for planting trees, restoring a small wetland, holding an environmental planning conference or growing oysters to filter the water.

Mel Nolan, a Baltimore County forestry expert, has received more than $100,000 from the trust over the years, mostly in grants of less than $1,000 each.

He works with students to raise seedlings in the classroom, then plant them to reclaim erosive slopes on school grounds and to cut down on grass that needs mowing. Trees filter pollution from the air and from pavement before it reaches the bay.

Bob Foor Hogue, a Carroll County teacher, has used trust grants to convert an old building into an aquaculture laboratory, where kids raise rockfish and sturgeon for release to the bay. They also grow submerged aquatic grasses for transplanting to bay waters.

"He's got kids at South Carroll High School doing laboratory work on the college and even graduate school level, and now he's working with teachers and schools around Maryland as a mentor," says O'Neill.

"The trust is one of the best resources we have, statewide, for authentic learning experiences," says Pat Neidhardt, a science teacher at Broadneck High in Anne Arundel County. "When kids apply what they've learned, they really own the knowledge. The impact on learning and on the health of the bay is just tremendous."

The trust reaches out statewide. One project funds an exchange between Calvert and Allegany county schools to study trout streams in Western Maryland and oystering on the bay. It also gives grants to other nonprofit groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and works as a partner with state and federal environmental agencies.

O'Neill says the trust wants to raise its visibility, taking on some watershed-scale projects that will require grants of up to $200,000 each. These are being selected and will focus initially on controlling polluted runoff from poor land use, the single largest source of bay pollution.

The extra money comes partly from bay plates. Beginning this year, the trust gets renewal fees from the tags as well as money from initial sales. The board has also authorized the trust to draw on a $9.5 million surplus.

Though the trust doesn't fund advocacy, anyone with a bay-related project can apply for a grant. The small ones require a one-page application, with a decision in three to five weeks.

When the mayors passed that token hat in 1985, no one knew what restoration would cost. It's now estimated that Maryland has a few billion dollars in unfunded needs.

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