James B. Coulter, 85, second DNR head

September 11, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

James B. Coulter, whose tenure as Maryland's second secretary of natural resources earned the state a national reputation for meeting the challenges of an urbanized society while cleaning up the environment, died of melanoma Friday evening at his home at Heritage Harbor Health and Rehabilitation Center in Annapolis. The former longtime Davidsonville resident was 85.

"People are saddened by his passing. He was well-liked by people on both sides of the aisle from the conservationists to the hunters," said C. Ronald Franks, current Department of Natural Resources secretary.

Mr. Coulter was born in Vinita, Okla., and raised in Kansas City, Mo. He served as a combat engineer with the Army from 1940 to 1945 in the Aleutian Islands, the Philippines and Okinawa. He attained the rank of major and earned the Bronze Star.

After the war, Mr. Coulter enrolled at the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1950. He earned a master's degree in environmental engineering from Harvard University in 1952.

After working as a research engineer at the U.S. Public Health Service's Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center in Cincinnati during the 1950s, Mr. Coulter was transferred in 1960 to Washington, where he was deputy director of the technical services branch of the division of water supply and sewage disposal.

After retiring from the Public Health Service in 1966, he became assistant commissioner for Environmental Health Services of the Maryland State Department of Health.

The department that Mr. Coulter eventually headed was formed in 1969 by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel, who brought together a number of environmental agencies including fisheries, wildlife, water resources, parks, forests, mining, waterway improvements and some elements of land management.

"The plan was to name J. Millard Tawes, a former governor, as the first secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, to unify the vastly independent boards and commissions," Mr. Mandel said yesterday. "Then, after two years, Jim Coulter, who had the expertise to lead in the field of environmental management, was to take over as secretary."

Mr. Coulter served as deputy DNR secretary until taking over in 1971, after Mr. Tawes stepped down. Mr. Coulter retired from the post in 1983.

Mr. Mandel said there was no one in the state or nation more qualified to lead the department in its formative years.

Mr. Coulter often found himself to be a target of commercial interests and conservation groups.

"Throughout my career, I've been at odds with the so-called environmentalists," Mr. Coulter told The Evening Sun when he announced his retirement. "It's been a difference in how we go about things."

"He was one of three secretaries I continued when I took over as governor," former Gov. Harry R. Hughes said yesterday. "He was a very knowledgeable, intelligent and dedicated government official." He described Mr. Coulter as "very reserved and soft-spoken."

He added: "Jim was very thorough when making presentations and very good at expressing his positions and getting them across. He was able to work with his counterpart in Virginia to collaborate on issues and research, which laid much of the groundwork for various Chesapeake Bay programs."

A number of environmental programs began during Mr. Coulter's tenure as DNR secretary or were enhanced by his involvement.

Mr. Coulter worked closely with the Susquehanna River Commission, which brought together Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and the federal government.

He also was interested in establishing water quality standards for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Oil-spill response, fisheries management and management of agricultural lands adjacent to streams were other areas of interest.

Several waterway improvement projects took shape during his administration, including the building of Summers Cove Marina in Crisfield, the boating facility at Sandy Point State Park and the depositing of spoil dredged from Baltimore's shipping channels on Hart-Miller Island in Eastern Baltimore County.

He was an advocate of Program Open Space, which guaranteed land for parks, recreation and conservation areas.

"He's probably most deserving of credit for preserving wetlands. Maryland was one of the first states in the country to preserve wetlands and open space," said Torrey C. Brown, a former DNR secretary. "And he made DNR work. He made it into a cohesive agency and was able to get all of its former agencies to work together."

Bill Burton, who was The Evening Sun's outdoor editor for nearly 40 years and at times Mr. Coulter's fishing partner, said "he was a very curious man who liked to meet people and pick their brains."

William Jabine, who was Mr. Coulter's public information officer for 17 years, said, "He was a very vigorous man who had tremendous powers of concentration. He also had a great memory and respect for details."

After leaving DNR, Mr. Coulter was a member in 1986 of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's transition team, serving on his environmental and Chesapeake Bay task forces. He was a board member of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland from 1972 to 1987.

Mr. Coulter was a member of the National Academy of Engineers and had served on Harvard's Committee to Visit the School of Arts and Sciences and was on the advisory board of the School of Engineering at the University of Kansas.

He was an avid reader and enjoyed collecting books about the Chesapeake Bay.

He was a longtime member of Grace Lutheran Church, 2503 Belair Drive, Bowie, where a memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Surviving are his wife of 63 years, the former Norma Brink; a son, James B. Coulter Jr. of Severna Park; a daughter, Linda Elizabeth Prandoni of Rockville; a sister, Penny Colwell of Clarinda, Iowa; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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