Our History

The video above was produced for CBF's 5oth Anniversary in 2017.

In 1964, a group of Baltimore businessmen, all sailors, waterfowl hunters, and fishermen, began meeting regularly over lunch to discuss problems they saw looming on the Chesapeake: more boats, more people, more houses, fish kills, poor sewage treatment, dirty industrial discharges. One of the leaders, Marshall Duer, called on then-Governor Millard J. Tawes to express the group's concerns personally.

Tawes responded by saying that they could not expect government to fix all the Bay's problems. "There is a great need," he said, "for a private-sector organization that can represent the best interests of the Chesapeake Bay. It should build public concern, then encourage government and private citizens to deal with these problems together."

The answer was not what the group had expected, but the words struck home to several of them. By the end of 1966, the group, led by the late Arthur Sherwood, had formed and chartered the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to be that private sector voice working on behalf of the Bay. They recruited a Board of Trustees that represented a variety of interests from throughout the Chesapeake watershed. Perhaps most important, they adopted SAVE THE BAY™ as CBF's motto and printed the first run of the distinctive blue-and-white bumper stickers that are now so common throughout the watershed.

CBF's beginnings were modest. Early in 1970, with membership at 2,000 and a staff of three, Arthur Sherwood took over as Executive Director and settled on two programs, Environmental Education and Resource Protection, with land conservation an integral part of the protection effort. Sherwood's lifelong friend C. Trowbridge Strong took his place as Chairman of the Board.

The 1970s: Wetlands, Education, the EPA Bay Study, and the Clean Water Act

In the early 1970s, Maryland and Virginia had just enacted their tidal wetland protection acts. The legislation was largely untested. In wetland permit hearings, CBF staff biologists began to press for strict enforcement of Maryland's Act, strengthening the hand of state government to do so. Within a couple of years, tidal wetland loss fell by more than 90 percent. Also during that period, CBF members organized two chapters in Virginia, in York Co. (the York Chapter) and in Hampton Roads (BayCARE). The York Chapter has been active ever since in local issues affecting York, Gloucester, and Mathews counties. BayCARE was focused primarily on an oil refinery proposed for the Elizabeth River, which they helped to defeat in 1977.

Environmental education was a CBF priority from the start. Sherwood had a simple but powerful vision for the program: "The place to teach people about the Bay is on it and in it." He put this vision into action in 1973 with the acquisition of a 44-foot workboat and the environmental education center on Meredith Creek near Annapolis that now bears his name. Tobe Strong and his family donated the land for the center and established CBF's original endowment in memory of his father, L. Corrin Strong, a yachtsman and former Ambassador to Norway. The following year, CBF acquired a fleet of canoes and a trailer to provide field trips on protected tidal waters throughout the Bay system. Sherwood hired a small education staff to begin running trips for school classes, and the program began in earnest. In 1976, he hired William C. Baker, just out of college, to do maintenance at the Meredith Creek Center. Thus began Will Baker's long professional association with the Foundation.

Something else happened in 1976 that would have profound implications for the future of the Chesapeake. CBF had raised public concern over the future of the Bay high enough that Senator Charles McC. Mathias (R-MD), a member of CBF's Board of Trustees, was able to push through Congress a seven-year EPA Chesapeake Bay Study. It provided much of the scientific basis for the broad interstate effort that continues today.

While the study was underway, CBF staff members served as resources to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to the university laboratories that carried out the program's research. The Education Program grew with the acquisition of education centers on Great Fox Island and Smith Island in Tangier Sound and the placement of a 42-foot workboat in Baltimore Harbor. Contracts with the Maryland State Department of Education and the Baltimore City Public Schools provided partial funding for the program, matched one-to-one by private grants and gifts.

Scientists from the Resource Protection Program began monitoring the level of wastewater discharge permit compliance by industries and sewage treatment plants in Maryland and Virginia under the new federal Clean Water Act. Operating as a watchdog, CBF highlighted several permit problems that were remedied by state water quality agencies, and the Foundation encouraged those agencies to address additional problems on their own.

The 1980s: The Chesapeake Bay Agreements

In 1983, EPA issued its report on the Bay Study, documenting systemic declines around the Chesapeake. The report focused not on a single cause for the decline but on the accumulation of insults that the Bay was suffering as the result of human pressures on it.

Will Baker had taken over the reins of CBF from Arthur Sherwood in 1981, with Godfrey A. Rockefeller succeeding Tobe Strong as Chairman. Now Baker seized on the results of the Bay study and, using all of the Foundation's resources, entered vigorously into the planning processes then underway in Maryland and Virginia for programs to restore the Bay. CBF took on expanded roles as both advisor and watchdog in resource protection. The State of Maryland asked the Foundation to expand its education programs to reach more students. Baker also began a vigorous fund-raising effort to develop the resources necessary for CBF to expand its capabilities.

In December of 1983, the Governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and the Mayor of the District of Columbia met at a major conference that also included staff from CBF, other environmental organizations, and the research laboratories. Their task was to hammer out what would become the first interstate Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Foundation staff members participated in the negotiations for the goals hammered out in the Agreement. They supported many of the program initiatives posed by the states, but when Virginia's financial commitment to the cleanup proved to be modest, CBF pressed for additional financial resources. Two months later, the state's General Assembly expanded the program.

A particularly important outgrowth of this Bay Agreement was Maryland's Critical Area Act, the first land use legislation intended to minimize the effects of shoreline development on the Bay ecosystem. Members of CBF's Resource Protection staff participated directly in negotiations surrounding the legislation and in development of the program arising from it.

The outpouring of public interest in cleaning up the Chesapeake was tremendous. CBF's membership had finally reached 10,000 in 1981. Now it doubled to 20,000 in eighteen months and kept growing.

During this time, there were several significant events in Virginia. CBF established a small office in Richmond and began running school trips with a fleet of canoes on Virginia waterways in 1981. In 1983, Foundation staff and volunteers from the BayCARE Chapter established an education center around a 42-foot workboat in Hampton Roads. In 1985, the Virginia General Assembly provided a contract for partial funding of CBF's Education Program in Virginia, allowing the Foundation to expand its reach into literally every tidal river in the Bay system. As in Maryland, CBF matched the state funds with private contributions. At the same time, the Virginia office began participating in the development of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, the Commonwealth's own land use law.

With Pennsylvania established as a full partner in the Bay cleanup, CBF in 1986 established an office in Harrisburg. Much of the effort in that office has focused on agricultural issues in the intensely-farmed south-central counties along the Susquehanna. Additional attention has been directed to wastewater treatment, urban stormwater runoff, and wetland protection.

In 1987, Virginia Governor, Gerald L. Baliles intensified the cleanup effort with a new Chesapeake Bay Agreement that called for a 40 percent reduction in the flow of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous to the Bay, along with the specific goal of elimination of toxics from all controllable sources. The numerical nutrient reduction goal is one that CBF had pushed for, in the belief that it is necessary to have such benchmarks by which to measure progress.

In the late 1980's, the Bay saw a new threat: exploration for oil. Texaco drilled an exploratory well in King George County, near the Potomac on Virginia's Northern Neck, but it came up dry. The threat of drilling led CBF to place renewed emphasis on the dangers of oil in the estuary, not only from exploration and production but from transportation and from all the countless little spills that occur on a regular basis. With vigorous support from CBF, Virginia passed legislation prohibiting production oil wells in the Commonwealth.

The late 1980's and early 90's saw more expansion in the Education Program, with a canoe fleet operating in Pennsylvania and the acquisition of Port Isobel Island near Tangier, VA. Participation in the program reached 35,000 people per year.

The 1990s: Indicator Goals, Restoration Programs, & Pfiesteria

In 1990, Sumner Pingree took over the Board Chairmanship from Godfrey Rockefeller. During the first part of the decade, the Chesapeake began to show modest improvements. Underwater grasses returned to the Potomac around Washington and to a number of other areas from which they had disappeared. Striped bass (rockfish) rebounded strongly from a fishing moratorium of the late 1980s. At the same time, however, oyster stocks in both Maryland and Virginia declined to historic lows, causing great hardship in the seafood industry and dangerously increased fishing pressure on blue crabs. The cleanup provisions of the Clean Water Act began to take hold with point source discharges (pipes) at sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities throughout the Bay. Emphasis began to shift to non-point sources (runoff pollution from urban areas, suburbs, and farms).

It was obvious that the needs of the Bay were changing. In 1991, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, CBF commissioned the writing of the book Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay as a "State of the Bay Report." In 1993, the Foundation began a long-term planning process designed to refocus its goals and to structure it for the 21st century. The planning effort was led by Thomas H. Stoner, who succeeded Sumner Pingree as Chairman the following year. The planning resulted in development in 1996 of nine indicator benchmarks for Bay restoration over the next 10-20 years. They include wetlands, underwater grasses, forested stream buffers, migratory fish, oysters, toxics, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and loss of resource lands.

To achieve the indicator goals, CBF has placed new emphasis on constituent development, to expand significantly the number of people actively participating in the Bay cleanup effort, and on restoration programs, especially for oysters, wetlands, forested stream buffers, and underwater grasses. In these four areas, the technology of restoration has grown to the point where we can now begin to rebuild some of what has been lost. The first major step in this process came with the signing in 1996 of an agreement between CBF and Ducks Unlimited to restore 20,000 acres of wetlands in the Bay by the year 2005.

In 1997, a new threat arose from the fish-killing microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida. Pfiesteria had been associated with large fish kills in the Neuse and Tar Rivers of North Carolina's Pamlico Sound, in waters highly enriched by runoff of waste from hog farms. The outbreaks on the Bay began that summer on the Pocomoke River, which has tens of millions of chickens in its watershed. In late summer, kills occurred also on Kings Creek, a tributary of the Manokin, and the Chicamacomico, both further up Tangier Sound. CBF began an intensive monitoring effort, placing field staff on those rivers. The kills were significant, both in loss of fish and in human illness suffered by watermen and state workers investigating the kills. Monitoring efforts by additional field staff in Virginia found pfiesteria to be active there as well, but at a much lower level.

Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening responded by instituting a blue-ribbon commission to come up with recommendations for state spending and legislation to deal with the problem. Will Baker represented CBF and the Bay vigorously as a member of the Governor's commission. In both Maryland and Virginia, the case galvanized intensive efforts to strengthen nutrient reduction programs.

Through more than five decades of intense activity, CBF has continued to operate on the original, deceptively simple ideas of Arthur Sherwood and the other founders. First, the Chesapeake needs a private-sector voice mobilizing the citizens of the region to prod and assist government in dealing with the impacts of the 17 million people in its watershed. Second, the best place to teach people about the Chesapeake is on it and in it. CBF's Education Program has now served more than 1.5 million people through 17 study centers, and it grows stronger every day. We have 200,000 members and supporters and approximately 230 staff members. The history of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is testimony that we, the people of the Bay region, have caused its problems, but we also provide the solutions. The members, Board of Trustees, and staff of CBF look ahead with eagerness and renewed commitment to restoring the health of this magnificent natural resource that so enriches our region and our lives.

The Bay Needs You

The State of the Bay Report makes it clear that the Bay needs our support now more than ever. Your donation helps the Chesapeake Bay Foundation maintain our momentum toward a restored Bay, rivers, and streams for today and generations to come.

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