Bay Weekly Interview ~ by Melissa Hendricks

 Vol. 10, No. 37

September 12-18, 2002

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Bay Weekly Interviews Chuck Fox

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Mother Nature’s Man in Maryland
Department of Natural Resources’ Chuck Fox

A year ago last August, Charles Fox received a phone call “literally out of the blue” from Gov. Parris Glendening inviting him to take command as secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Fox had no idea he was being considered for the job — though a wealth of leadership experience in the environmental arena made him an attractive candidate. In the administration of President Bill Clinton, he directed national clean water programs for the Environmental Protection Agency. He served as assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment and was a highly regarded policy advisor for many environmental organizations.

Since taking office, Fox has contended with a virtual menagerie of natural resource issues — oysters, crabs, bears, swans, snakehead — along with helping to promote the governor’s agenda on the Chesapeake Bay, Smart Growth and land preservation.

Despite his packed schedule, Fox (who everybody knows as Chuck) says he still finds time to fulfill his lifelong love of the water, sailing or kayaking from the beach near his Epping Forest home.

“It’s the beauty of getting in the water,” he says. “The minute I step foot in a boat, everything in my in-box becomes much less important. You’re only concerned about the water, the boat and the wind.”

As Fox approached his first anniversary as Natural Resources secretary, we interviewed him on a steamy August afternoon in his Taylor Avenue office. Despite the heat, he wore standard issue business attire. But a pair of brilliant aquamarine eyeglasses, along with a loud and hearty laugh that he liberally applies, hint at a less conservative side. Fox had just returned from a press conference where Gov. Glendening had declared a drought emergency for the Eastern Shore and issued water restrictions for eastern and central parts of Maryland.

Q. How long will it take Maryland to recover from the drought?

A. We are probably talking on the order of years. If it started raining tomorrow [editor’s note: as it did] and rained consistently for the next couple of months, we still would likely not be back to normal.

Q. What will DNR be doing to help?

A. The DNR is responsible largely in the monitoring arena. We have responsibility for the science of measuring groundwater and surface water levels.

Q. Give us a broad view of your department. What is the scope of your position as secretary?

A. The department has broad responsibilities to manage fish and wildlife on behalf of the people of the state. Much of our work is focused on assuring that we have sustainable levels of fish and wildlife for future generations.

The department is also involved in a lot of work to preserve land and landscapes around the state. The state of Maryland last year spent probably over $150 million in land-acquisition and land-preservation programs.

We’re also involved in assessing and monitoring the quality of Maryland’s environment, including water quality monitoring. And we manage a series of jewels of state parks.

Q. I’ve heard that you are steering the department away from its traditional focus on hunting and fishing toward stewardship as caretaker of our natural resources …

A. Some of that is fair. Thirty years ago, most of the department’s activities were focused on hunting and fishing. Today the people of Maryland have a much broader appreciation for the outdoors. People want high-quality parks that they can recreate in. They want to feel safe when they’re in parks. They want to have communities that have an open-space character.

We have heard overwhelmingly from people that they want to maintain a high quality of life here in Maryland. So much of that is dependent on managing the sprawling growth that we have seen around the state and the region for the past 20 years. So we are increasingly focused on issues like Smart Growth and land preservation and also importantly on protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

Q. How has your background led you to the helm of DNR?

A. I grew up loving the outdoors. We lived in the Midwest, a little bit in Milwaukee and then moved to Philadelphia. In high school, I used to put a canoe on the roof of my car and drive to northern Wisconsin to go fishing and camping. I vividly remember experiences hiking through the mountains of the West. These experiences defined a passion that I have for environmental protection.

In college, I focused on environmental planning. I then ended up working for three different environmental groups over the course of 12 years, including some work on Chesapeake Bay issues. When President Clinton was elected, I was asked to join the Environmental Protection Agency. I ran the national water program for the EPA, and got a chance to see what was happening from Puget Sound to the Gulf of Mexico.

Q. Why are you so committed to the environment?

A. I truly love the outdoors. And I unequivocally believe that we have an obligation to leave this planet better than we found it. But I’ve also watched the outdoors change so much even in my relatively short lifetime. And all of the trend lines — whether you’re looking at resource consumption, energy consumption, loss of biodiversity — still suggest that we have a long way to go to reach that end point.

Q. What do those data show?

A. Take the Chesapeake Bay, for example. There’s been a tremendous amount of success over the past 15 years. But the most recent scientific information that I’ve seen on the Chesapeake Bay suggests that we are going to have to reduce pollution levels by two to three times more in the next five years than we have done in the last 15 years.

Fox’s assistant interrupts him to say he has a phone call. He takes the call, which is from the governor. As he speaks, he paces, stops, laughs long and hard, paces again, reels off a stream of policy recommendations, back to the belly laugh. “Here’s what we should do,” he tells the governor. After a brief discussion, he hangs up.

A. As I was saying, the scientists on the Chesapeake Bay say we are going to have to double or triple our efforts toward reducing pollution. There’s no question that this is a daunting challenge.

We’re going to have to fundamentally reduce and alter how we treat our sewage and how we control the pollution that comes from the farms around the Bay watershed. Farms, by the way, provide probably twice the amount of pollution as sewage treatment plants do, despite common perceptions on that.

Q. Hearing grim news about the environment must be a daily part of your job. What gives you hope?

A. We do face very daunting scientific challenges. But I get optimistic because I know the public strongly supports the environment. Look at Maryland’s recycling program. We’re now recycling almost 40 percent of the waste that we generate. This is a statement of Marylanders’ willingness to protect the environment.

Our challenge in government sometimes is to be able to define for the public what they can do to protect the environment.

Q. What are some important things people should do?

A. Reducing energy consumption and vehicle-miles traveled would be right up there at the top. The growth in vehicle-miles traveled in the state has far surpassed the growth in population, and America’s love affair with the car is clearly having adverse effects on the environment.

Reducing polluted run-off from homes would also make a very big difference. In my own home, for example, we’re now beginning the process of remodeling, and we are considering geothermal energy, some new storm water controls such as a rain garden and a new septic system that will provide higher quality treatment.

Q. Let’s talk about some specific issues under your authority. First, crabs. The state increased size limits for male crabs and introduced restrictions on possession of female crabs. Watermen and processing plants, as you know, are worried and angry that these restrictions may put them out of a job. How do you respond?

A. Crab harvests are at historical lows. All the stock assessments that we did on the Chesapeake suggested that we needed to take action to reduce the crab harvest. We tried to do this as fairly as possible, and we felt that an overall increase in size was the fairest way to reduce harvest limits.

In general, I’ve found that a lot of the watermen are very supportive of the actions we’ve taken. Some of the processing plants are going to be the hardest hit. But this industry has generally been declining for some time, in large part because of competition from cheaper, imported crab.

Fundamentally, though, the challenge we face today is that the Bay ecosystem is out of whack. The loss of submerged aquatic vegetation and declining water clarity are creating an ecosystem that cannot sustain the populations of fish and animals that it used to.

Q. Another seafood issue concerns proposals to seed the Bay with the Asian oyster ariakensis, which grows faster and appears to be more disease-resistant than native oysters. You’ve taken a conservative stance on introducing ariakensis. Why?

A. At this point we are urging a go-slow approach on the Asian oyster in large part because there hasn’t been much scientific evaluation of what it could do to other Chesapeake Bay species in the food chain or to the native oysters. For example, MSX, the disease that has run rampant through the Chesapeake, was introduced by a different Asian oyster back in the 1950s. We very well might be at a point five years from now when we would be willing to support the introduction of ariakensis. But once you make the decision to begin the introduction process, you can’t go back.

photo courtesy of the Governor’s Press Office
DNR Secretary Chuck Fox seats his son Kai in the helicopter used last spring to rescue trapped eagles from the muck of a Charles County sludge pit.
Q. Give us a progress report on efforts to restock native oysters.

A. We’ve been fairly successful at creating oyster bottoms. But we’re not reaching goals we’d expected. The problem is the new oysters are still susceptible to disease. By the third or fourth year, they die. I’m not impressed by the progress we’ve seen.

Q. Turning to a terrestrial animal, black bears have been in the news over the past few years. Are they becoming more of a problem?

A Population surveys have shown about 250 to 450 black bears in Maryland. There’s no question, there have been increasing instances of human-bear interactions. We’re now evaluating a proposal on bear hunting and a task force will release recommendations in the next few months. But hunting won’t significantly decrease the bear population. We’ll need to continue other interventions, such as informing people how to keep their garbage so as not to attract bears.

Q. Have you noted any other shifts in wildlife populations?

A. Yes. Brown pelicans moving farther north. I saw them out on Poplar Island a month ago. That’s what — 10 to 15 miles south of here? I haven’t yet seen one on City Dock, but I think that will happen soon. This is probably one effect of removing DDT from pesticides. Some scientists have suggested that it’s also part of an overall effect of climate change.

Q. Let’s talk about some of the invasive species in Maryland. You’ve explored a number of ways of controlling the mute swan population, including addling their eggs. But we have heard objections from animal rights activists and swan lovers. How will you now proceed?

A. We are in the process of taking public comment on a mute swan management plan. The plan describes establishing swan-free zones, such as ecologically sensitive areas and wildlife management areas, where we would seek to remove or euthanize mute swans.

Our goal is to decrease the number of mute swans. Their populations have increased dramatically, particularly in the last five years. They are a non-native species, a beautiful but aggressive bird that destroys submerged aquatic vegetation, and there is evidence that it is competing with other native birds for habitat.

Q. The invasive species that has gotten the most attention this past summer, of course, is the snakehead. What lessons has the snakehead issue taught you?

A. One is that our laws really only give us the authority to take action after the horse has been let out of the barn, and we need to be in a position to prevent these kinds of introductions from happening in the first instance. Many states have that authority, and that is something we’ll be looking at here in Maryland.

Q. When people read the name “Chuck Fox,” it’s often attached to high-profile events, such as the snakehead saga. What don’t we hear about that goes on behind the scenes at DNR?

A. The vast majority of issues that we work on don’t get written about in the press. Take the snakehead, for example. What we had to do here at the department was figure out what chemicals to use to get rid of this fish, what kind of threat they posed, how to you negotiate with the landowner to actually get permission to get into the pond. We convened a scientific panel to be sure we had the best information available for making decisions, and I wanted to make sure we informed the appropriate local officials of what we were doing.

We also had to train some of our employees to use the pesticides. We had to receive permits from the Maryland Department of Agriculture for the use of the pesticides and permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment to apply them to a lake. We had to assemble boats, to make sure the boats were working, get all the right trucks there, get a 1,000-gallon tank of water to help mix the chemicals. Also we had to be prepared in case there were any safety issues.

Q. Now that you’ve held leadership positions at the state and federal levels, how do the two compare?

A. Working at the state level is much more rewarding in many ways. At the federal level, I spent half my time before Congress in a partisan, political environment. At the state level, I’m closer to the problem and the solution. I can actually see success. When you preserve a park, you can see it preserved.

Q. What’s been most gratifying about this past year?

A. Clearly I’ve enjoyed a lot of the work on Chesapeake Bay, land preservation and Smart Growth.

Q. And your biggest challenge?

A. I think my biggest single surprise was the reality of managing the state budget. I don’t think I was quite ready and quite prepared for the challenges that I had to face in that regard. My agency, like many in state government — like virtually every state government in the country right now — is trying to accomplish more on behalf of the environment with less dollars. It really makes the job very difficult.

Q. What’s the budget look like?

A. So far the budget has been flat, with the exception of land preservation programs, which were basically cut in half. Our operating budget has not yet been cut sizably, but it is possible it will face additional cuts over the next year or so.

Q. Let’s get back to you for a moment. What do you and your family like to do on the Bay?

A. My wife, Ritu, and my son and I do a lot of sailing together. I enjoy fishing and kayaking. My son, Kai, has even paddled in a kayak. He sits in the back of a sea kayak, in the storage area. We put him on a cushion. It seems to work pretty well as a seat for a three-year-old.

Q. Which authors have offered you wisdom on caring for natural resources?

A. The most general book that I think offers a lot of lessons for all of us is A Sand County Almanac, written by Aldo Leopold back in the late 1940s. He was a Wisconsin landowner who was one of the first people to acknowledge the role of environmental management in a true ecosystem sense. He was one of the first, in my opinion, to very eloquently describe the responsibility that we as humans have in managing and influencing the environment in a way that respected the integrity of it in and of itself.

Q. When the governor completes his term, you may or may not have a job. What do you plan to do come 2003?

A. I fully expect that on the last day of the Glendening administration I’ll offer my resignation. Depending on who is governor, that person will either accept or reject my resignation.

I’m a big supporter of the lieutenant governor. I think she has laid out a pretty articulate vision for the future of Maryland’s environment. We’ll have to see what her decision will be.

Q. What message would you most like to convey to people?

A. Come back to the Chesapeake. What’s becoming crystal clear is that saving the Bay is going to require the investment of literally billions of dollars and new commitments of energy from virtually everybody in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For homeowners, this means becoming much more part of the solution, whether this is taking the gutters from your drain spout and running them into your lawn or into a retention basin, dealing with failing septic systems or paying higher water and sewage bills to pay for sizable upgrades at sewage treatment plants.

This is going to be a real turning point for the Chesapeake. If we succeed we will restore a large ecosystem, something that no other place achieved. Saving the Bay is central to all that Marylanders care about.

Melissa Hendricks
is a freelance writer living in Annapolis who enjoys writing about the environment, public health and science. She studied biology at Wesleyan University and worked in several medical research laboratories before deciding to pursue a career that did not require contact with test tubes or rats. Her favorite writing assignment involved catching (and releasing) peregrine falcons on Assateague Island.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly