When William Donald Schaefer was elected governor 25 years ago, Maryland's environmentalists braced for the worst. During his run for statewide office, the longtime mayor of Baltimore had talked about rolling back moves by his predecessor to save a dying Chesapeake Bay.

But by the time Schaefer ran for re-election in 1990, he won the endorsement of the state's leading green activists for what he'd done as governor to push the bay cleanup forward and reduce pollution choking the air and water.

After his death Monday, activists, former aides and politicians recalled Schaefer's awakening in the State House to environmental concerns and his relatively unheralded legacy in working to clean up the bay. They pointed to his role in fleshing out and expanding the multistate bay restoration effort, as well as new state laws to preserve wetlands and forests from development.

"The contrast between where he started out in his first year and where he ended up is quite striking," said John W. Griffin, who was assistant secretary of natural resources under Schaefer and now heads the department.

As mayor, Schaefer was better known for filling potholes and developing the Inner Harbor than he was for tackling air and water pollution, and he ran for governor on a platform that stressed economic development, not protecting the environment.

"He was the 'great paver' in Baltimore City," joked Robert C. Douglas, his first State House press secretary, now a lawyer in private practice.

During the campaign, Schaefer had implied he would backtrack on some of the sweeping bay-saving moves of his predecessor, Harry R. Hughes — particularly a ban on catching striped bass that chafed watermen, and a 1984 law restricting shoreline development that riled builders and property owners.

But once in office, Schaefer didn't repeal any of Hughes' bay initiatives, despite pressure to do so. Instead, he built on them. That's because, former aides say, Schaefer cared deeply about the bay. As a child he'd spent time in summers at his grandparents' cottage on Marley Creek in Anne Arundel County, where he developed a lifelong enjoyment of fishing.

"He wanted to do more and to be better than his predecessors, including Harry Hughes," said Douglas.

Schaefer's first major environmental test came when he was invited to an interstate summit in Norfolk, Va., to hammer out an ambitious detailed plan for restoring the bay. Gerald L. Baliles, then Virginia's governor, recalled this week that the meeting did not start well, as Schaefer was gloomy about prospects for progress at an opening news conference.

But Baliles said he broke the ice with Schaefer at a private dinner meeting. There, they ignored aides' recommendations to avoid making specific commitments and agreed to work to reduce nutrient pollution of the bay 40 percent by 2000.

"The 1987 bay agreement was the first [time] where we started setting actual goals, dates and specific programs" for restoring the Chesapeake, said David A.C. Carroll, who was Schaefer's bay adviser and later secretary of the environment — a new Cabinet post established when Schaefer created the Department of the Environment at the beginning of his first term.

The bay cleanup pact "was precisely what was needed," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The 40 percent nutrient reduction goal remains more or less the target Maryland and other bay states continue to shoot for, he said. While critical of the failure of states and federal government to clean up the bay faster, Baker said he doesn't fault Schaefer, but rather "bureaucrats" and other politicians who backpedaled on the commitments.

"I believe Schaefer's intentions were good," Baker said. "In many regards he was driven by an attempt to demonstrate to his critics that he wasn't as bad as he was accused of being."

Schaefer pursued bay restoration with the same "do it now" approach he applied to other public initiatives. He launched a tree-planting program dubbed "Treemendous Maryland," appealed for residents to join "One Million Marylanders for the Bay" and created similar campaigns.

Some of his efforts fell short. He managed to push through clean-air legislation requiring auto manufacturers to sell the same less-polluting cars in Maryland that were being made for California. Lawmakers effectively blocked the measure by requiring neighboring states to follow suit, and none did. So Schaefer appealed to states throughout the Northeast to adopt similar requirements, recalled Robert Perciasepe, who also served as secretary of environment under Schaefer and is now deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He also stumbled when he sought to limit suburban sprawl. Experts had warned that low-density development was slowly strangling the bay, so Schaefer formed a commission, which recommended tightening state oversight of local land-use decisions.

Griffin, the natural resources secretary, said he urged Schaefer to take more time to line up support before seeking legislative approval. But the governor forged ahead, and his plan died under fire from developers and local officials. He managed the next year to pass a much less ambitious growth proposal, though it was dismissed as a "weak nothing-burger" by the legislature's leading environmental advocate, state Sen. Gerald Winegrad of Annapolis.

"He believed the bay could be saved very quickly," said the bay foundation's Baker. "That was classic Schaefer. "It frustrated him when it couldn't be."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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