Much has been written in praise of former U.S. Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias Jr. since his death Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease, and all of it is deserved. As much as anyone who has represented this state in Congress, the Republican from Frederick exhibited a fierce independent streak and a keen disinterest in partisan politics.
The 87-year-old left behind an impressive legacy: three terms in the U.S. Senate and four in the U.S. House of Representatives, a strong record in civil rights, a willingness to buck his party's increasingly influential conservative wing, a place on Richard Nixon's enemies list, opposition to the Vietnam War. Marylanders loved him for his thoughtful statesmanship and pragmatism even as he was ostracized by his own party for daring to harbor so many left-of-center views.
But if there is one accomplishment of Senator Mathias' career that deserves to be highlighted and remembered above all others, it is surely his role in helping the Chesapeake Bay. So much of the "Save the Bay" movement that we take for granted today can be traced to the actions of this one principled man.
After a weeklong fact-finding mission across the bay and its tributaries in the mid-1970s, he championed legislation directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a five-year study of the nation's largest estuary. The results brought the country's attention to an alarming potential loss - invaluable aquatic habitat gradually being destroyed by development, sewage, storm water runoff and other human activities.
The EPA initially wanted to leave the results on a shelf somewhere, but Senator Mathias insisted that the report would prove a beginning, not an end. Under his watch, the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program was formed and a partnership among the states in the bay's watershed reached. Over the ensuing three decades, the participants have agreed to increasingly stringent water quality standards - if not always with great success.
It would be nice to then write the words: "and then the Chesapeake Bay was cleaned up." But, of course, the challenge has not been met. Whether the bay will ever be as healthy as it was in Senator Mathias' youth (indeed, whether its decline can even be halted) is uncertain at best.
Today, the Chesapeake Bay Program is at something of a crossroads. President Barack Obama has pledged an enhanced federal involvement in restoration efforts, and the EPA is contemplating a more aggressive watchdog role in enforcing water quality standards. Legislation to enhance (and finance) that mission is pending in Congress.
Can the bay be saved from pollution? It was considered taboo to even ask such a question in the 1970s. Back then, naysayers insisted that the loss of oysters and rockfish was simply part of a natural cycle of ups and downs. They were apt to pooh-pooh man's impact on the resource, much as know-nothing critics today lambaste the notion of man-made global climate change.
But this much is certain: While the bay's recovery remains in doubt, its prospects would be far worse today had the inestimable Senator Mathias not taken up its cause.
If anyone is concerned about the current state of the bay, they should thank Senator Mathias. Without his 40 years of bay advocacy, it would be all but dead today.
Will Baker, Annapolis
The writer is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.