A slippery slope to restoration Chesapeake Bay: Much has been achieved in bringing the estuary back, but the forces that launched the effort are short on leadership and running out of energy.



Chesapeake Bay in 2000 -- a national and international model of environmental restoration.

Chesapeake Bay in 2000 -- Hey, it could have been a lot worse.

A bit more than a decade into the unprecedented, multistate effort to save the bay, we are on a slippery slope, downhill from the first statement, coming in sight of the second.

Plenty has been achieved but the forces that launched the Chesapeake's restoration are running out of steam, desperate for leadership.

It was a small incident that crystallized this for me recently.

I was looking forward to seeing Tayloe Murphy and hearing him speak at the annual summit of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program.

Tayloe is a seven-term delegate, a Democrat who represents Virginia's rural Northern Neck, between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.

He is one of the bay region's more eloquent spokesmen for environmental protection, a hard-to-pigeonhole mix of liberal (on abortion) and conservative on issues important to business.

He is a lawyer, a scholar of land use and the complexities of reconciling private property rights with protection of the bay to .. which that land drains.

When I was writing a slide show on the bay six years ago, Tayloe's name kept coming up as a "must-include," from citizens and government types across Virginia.

Just before this month's summit, I found the bay program's staff had knuckled under to the administration of George Allen in Virginia and dumped Tayloe.

You could chalk it up to politics. The delegate was one of 27 Democrats targeted in Allen's unsuccessful mudslinging campaign this fall to gain control of the legislature.

But what a shameful pass the cause of environment has come to in Virginia when Tayloe Murphy is publicized as "against our values" by a governor who at the time was chairman of the bay restoration's executive committee.

Between 1986 and 1990, Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles was a leading light of bay support. With Tayloe, he established the Commission on Population Growth and Development, to give economic and environmental coherence to the state's rapid population buildup.

Even before Allen, Virginia under Douglas Wilder was losing enthusiasm for the bay restoration. But now, it is a disaster.

It is the most open of secrets within the bay program that Allen has little interest and no chance of meeting the centerpiece of the whole bay restoration -- reduction of key pollutants from sewage and land runoff by 40 percent.

Allen has depleted and demoralized the state's Department of Environmental Quality and earned a solid "F" in a recent rating by state environmental groups. Republicans, who make up about half Virginia's Senate, averaged a score of one, out of a possible 100.

Allen's Department of Natural Resources is staffed with ideologues who last April forbade employees from using the words "Earth Day" -- they had to celebrate it as "Environmental Spring Day."

The population and growth commission disbanded without ever reaching its mandate; a modest planning act it finally offered did not even pass the House of Delegates.

And Virginia is scarcely a pariah. Consider Pennsylvania, which will not nearly meet its 2000 deadlines either.

Gov. Tom Ridge is shredding six years of consensus building between environmentalists and farmers, shifting regulation of massive farm pollution in the Susquehanna River basin from his Department of Environmental Protection to his farmer-friendly (as should be) Agriculture Department.

Lest you mistake his drift, Ridge also proposes to weaken wetlands protection; and he just reduced a proposed $6 million fine against a Lancaster County polluter to $99,500, just under the $100,000 minimum the publicly traded company must disclose.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening is a far sight better on the bay than Allen or Ridge; but even here, it seems likely that not all of our goals for 2000 will be met.

Compounding the loss of state leadership so critical to the bay restoration is the Environmental Protection Agency's inability to fill the gap from the federal level.

The bay program is heralded for voluntarily going beyond federal and state requirements, but that worked only as long as there were credible enforcement threats -- and now there aren't.

Instead of going to the recent bay summit, I opted to drive to Tayloe's home on the Potomac's southern shore for coffee.

Last year, he said, he had almost decided not to run again. He was disenchanted, he said, "not only by George Allen's total lack commitment to conserve natural resources, but by my own party's failure to offer alternatives."

Last week, Tayloe seemed recharged, savoring a victory in which he took the Republicans' hardest shots and got 57 percent of the vote.

"My consultants thought I was wrong to run on protecting the environment and Chesapeake Bay. Now, they say, 'Well, it worked, but your district is different.'

"But I don't believe it is different. It is a matter of speaking out and educating your constituents over the years. It is not a handicap to run on strong support of the bay."

And what of Allen's next two years?

"For a long time, I thought consensus-building was the way to go, but you reach a point with these people where you have to fight. And the next two years, those of us who believe we are not doing enough for the environment have got to put forth what needs to be done, and fight for it."

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