In the 1960s and 70s, the environmental movement was just beginning. There was more concern about air and water pollution as people started to see the effects on their beloved Chesapeake Bay such as, loss of underwater grasses, declining oyster and crab population, and what people called “milk chocolate” rivers after a rain event.  In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was released starting the discussion of environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. There was a need to take action and that’s why we saw a significant increase in the number of US Environmental organizations in the 60s and 70s such as The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation. 1970 also marks the beginning of “Earth Day.”

Caring about the environment was the new “it thing,” and as attention shifted to the environment, an alliance was forming. In 1971 a group of concerned citizens representing business, agriculture, conservation, academia, and the government began gathering to discuss their concerns for the state of the bay. They formed the “Citizens Program for the Chesapeake Bay,” which would eventually become the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The program brought regional leaders together to discuss a coordinated approach to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.

The Alliance’s long-time Executive Director, Fran Flanigan even admits her involvement with the Alliance stems from advice she got from a friend that the 70s was going to be the “decade of the environment.”

“I was involved in the women’s league of voters… And they wanted to know what I was interested in, and I really didn’t really know. But a friend of mine said, ‘You know this is going to be the decade of the environment’ and I said ‘Okay, I’m interested in the environment.'”

Fran quickly learned the importance of the work she was doing and served as the Alliance’s executive director from 1977 to 2001.

Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency was born in December 1970 after President Richard Nixon brought to the House and Senate a 37-point message on the environment. Congress saw a need to consolidate environmental responsibilities and federal government programs under one agency – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fran notes;  “It was new to everyone at that point, so I didn’t feel a real disadvantage because we were all learning at the same time…Including EPA, they were nice guys but they didn’t really know what they were doing. So we were all in the same boat.”

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, U.S Senator Charles “Mac” Matthias (R-MD) sponsored a seven-year research project funded at $27 million dollars to analyze the Bay’s rapid loss of wildlife and aquatic life. This research would be crucial in the formation of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, and the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983. The findings from the seven-year study were published in September 1983 and the one-page Agreement was signed on December 9th, 1983. The signers would become the Chesapeake Executive Council, including the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the mayor of D.C., the administrator of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The Executive Council still meets at least once annually. This was also when it was established that there would be a liaison office for “Chesapeake Bay activities at EPA’s Central Regional Laboratory in Annapolis, Maryland to advise and support the Council and committee.”

Who helped organize this monumental gathering? None other than our very own, Fran Flanigan. The queen of bringing together unique voices around the bay, Fran recognized the importance of getting everyone from around the watershed involved. 

Fran Flanigan at the signing of the 1983 Bay Agreement at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA

“This was about reaching out to other groups. We weren’t the new guy in town trying to do this on our own. We needed all these partners. And I think that’s still the case at the Alliance. It brings in partners and communicates well with groups that have slightly different missions…that’s what distinguishes us from so many other organizations.”

Fran helped organize this three-day event at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, that became so popular that they had to turn attendees away after reaching max capacity at 700 people! 

Chesapeake Bay Program’s Ground Breaking Ceremony

It’s clear that those concerned citizens could see the power of collaboration back in 1971. As we celebrate 50 years of conservation success in the Chesapeake Bay, we cannot forget the partnerships that got us here. While we’ve made huge strides towards a cleaner Chesapeake watershed, we still have work to do! As Fran reminds us, we need partnerships in order to get the work done. The Alliance is ready to tackle the next 50 years by continuing to grow our partnerships, collaborate with others, and bring together convening voices.

To learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Programs history check out the links below.