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Dick Lahn’s String of Pearls

The rewarding culmination of a long environmental quest

A light went on for environmental guru Dick Lahn, of Crofton, back in 1967, at a League of Conservation Voters lecture.
    “I was working as a mathematician for NASA, and suddenly I knew that protecting our environment was what I really wanted to do.”
    The Ah-ha! moment has shaped Lahn’s life into a String of Pearls that unites Baywide land preservation, art and a treasure hunt.
    Along the way, Lahn has strung a strand of environmental successes.
    Joining the Sierra Club as a volunteer, Lahn found himself leading the charge against the Liquefied Natural Gas Dock at Cove Point in Calvert County. The Sierra Club negotiated a long list of protections of land, neighborhood and environment as conditions of importing tanker loads of gas. Four decades later, that settlement is still affecting how the new owner, Dominion Cove Point, can do business. Export, not import, is today’s issue.
    Lahn’s next cause was radiation after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to raise the permissible dose of radiation a person could safely be exposed to. Without lobbying experience, Lahn called the staffs of Sens. Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy. A Ralph Nader intern joined the effort. Within six months, they had defeated the legislation in the Senate.
    The next day, Dick got a call from the Sierra Club, offering him a job as a lobbyist, and he left NASA for a six-year tour on Capitol Hill.
    With the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 kicking in and water quality becoming a big environmental issue, Lahn realized that you “can’t protect the water if you don’t protect the land.”
    That’s when he had his grand vision of a String of Pearls. Essentially, the idea was to string together environmentally significant lands — the Pearls — throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed to create a network of permanently preserved properties.
    But it was going to take more than a snappy slogan to make a complicated land conservation program work. Lahn had a family to support, and he didn’t have the time, technical background or money to start up such a cutting-edge program from scratch.
    Sometimes, a good idea is like a fine scotch, taking years before it is ready for public consumption. String of Pearls is one of those ideas.
    It aged while Lahn joined an old Sierra Club buddy at the Department of Justice in D.C., installing the Environment Division’s first computer system.
    Retiring from the federal government in 2000, Lahn worked on stormwater issues and another clever idea, the Annapolis Sustainable Business Alliance, a buy-local initiative. For all those years, the String of Pearls lay mostly dormant, worked on now and again until finally shining.
    This June 20, seven new preservations bring Lahn’s String of Pearls to 34. This year’s Pearls come from the Eastern Shore, in Talbot and Dorchester counties.
    Anne Arundel County has Pearls of its own, including the 840-acre Bacon Ridge parcel in Crownsville; 72 acres on Brewer Pond near Sherwood Forest; the 100-acre Bay Ridge Forest and nearby 33-acres of forested property in Annapolis Roads known as Ogelton Woods; and the five-acre Linthicum Walks, with its 200-year-old historic house and dairy barn.
    Landowners retain ownership of their Pearls, which are preserved through conservation easements that trade development rights for property tax and state income tax credits up to $5,000 each year for a maximum of 15 years. Lahn’s String of Pearls Foundation does not write easement contracts but does work as a resource to connect landowners to local land trusts, the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
    For Lahn, connections are everything. This weekend, connections with regional plein air artists are putting the Pearls front and center, where we can all enjoy them, even to taking souvenirs home.