Paddling toward a Healthier Bay

Decision makers get a new perspective

by Rona Kobell

Don Baugh (left) and Erica Baugh paddle along the Severn River, near Don‘s home in Annapolis. Photo, Nicole Lehming/MDSG
Don Baugh (left) and Erica Baugh paddle along the Severn River, near Don‘s home in Annapolis. Photo, Nicole Lehming / MDSG

When Don Baugh was vice president of education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), he devoted his days to getting students out on the water in hopes that they would make a meaningful connection with the Bay—and be inspired to preserve it.

His efforts seemed to work. A University of Michigan review of the foundation’s education programs reported that students’ knowledge of ecology and methods to protect the environment had nearly doubled after those field trips on the water.

Meanwhile, many adults living in the 64,000-square-mile watershed, Baugh learned, lacked that connection. They either were transplants to the area and never had it—or they were locals whose jobs left little time for the outdoors and they’d lost it. Even among those working as professionals to restore the Chesapeake’s waterways, many rarely enjoyed them for recreation.

Studies, including those conducted by researcher Louise Chawla at the University of Colorado Boulder, have shown that individuals who are encouraged to enjoy a positive relationship with the outdoors as children are more likely to become environmental advocates or to choose careers in environmental stewardship.

On that assumption, figuring it’s hard to fight for clean water if you don’t know what you’re trying to preserve, Baugh and his friend Tom Horton, a longtime Chesapeake Bay writer, invited people they identified as key to the cause—local philanthropists, congressional staffers, state water protection agency leaders, and top federal officials—to join them on guided kayak trips. Within a couple of years, Baugh and Horton had garnered a few regulars for a weekend of camping and paddling on the Bay.

Among them was Charlie Stek, projects director for former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) and lead on many of the senator’s environmental initiatives. His first trip with Baugh, in 2002, was memorable—for the sudden storm that overtook them and the strenuous paddling through it. But Stek returned, again and again, as much for the paddling as for the stimulating discussion with fellow advocates.

“I did environmental policy for years before I met Don,” Stek said, “but Don opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. That gave meaning to the work we did in Congress.”

When Stek learned of Baugh’s difficulty in finding sites to camp and fish along the Bay, he used his position to push for creation of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The first national water trail in the United States, it follows the Englishman’s routes of exploration around the Bay and its tributaries in the early 1600s, and it allowed the National Park Service to create public access points.

After Sarbanes’s departure, Stek worked briefly for U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) before leaving Capitol Hill to devote himself to conservation. He led the No Child Left Inside Act with a broad coalition of government officials and policymakers that he says coalesced during Baugh’s kayak trips.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said she has witnessed Baugh transform lawmakers into Bay advocates through his knowledge and enthusiasm for the Bay.

“The paddlers on Don’s trips are a tight network that worked together for common causes,” she said. “Through the trips, we have developed a deep understanding of the importance of access to Chesapeake Bay and the connections that come with traveling it. There is probably no one that has shown me more of the Bay, and made sure I was aware of the diverse landscapes, than Don.”

After retiring from CBF in 2014, Baugh made the informal kayak tours more official. The following year, he founded a nonprofit organization called the Upstream Alliance. His daughter, Erica Baugh, eventually joined the venture. The group has identified hundreds of leaders in the fields of education, restoration, and infrastructure management, introducing them to the natural world of the Chesapeake from the water—where they can glide by old cypress trees, spot runoff from a sand and gravel mine, observe schools of menhaden, or note the clarity of the water above oyster beds. Participants have paddled by the ghost forests of Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to learn about the impacts of sea level rise, and along the Nanticoke to view the large preserves along the river’s banks set aside for protection of wildlife and safeguarding of property.

Don Baugh (left) with his daughter, Erica. He kayaked to work nearly every day while working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Photo, Nicole Lehming/MDSG
Don Baugh (left) with his daughter, Erica. He kayaked to work nearly every day while working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Photo, Nicole Lehming / MDSG

The elder and younger Baughs represent two generations of leadership in the environmental field today, the one existing and the other emerging. Many of Don Baugh’s friends became active just as the Clean Water and Clean Air acts were passed; in contrast, Erica Baugh’s peers have not seen these types of sweeping changes in federal laws, she said, and so they don’t really know how to make them happen.

“There is a whole group of next-generation leaders, people my age and younger, that really need to be coached,” she said. “We have a lot of problems coming up in the foreseeable future, and we need a creative workforce to solve the issues ahead.”

Among Upstream’s other targets for paddling trips are school superintendents, sewage treatment plant managers, and legislators. The alliance has partnered with nonprofits and universities for their access to connect participants with both impaired and relatively pristine waterways. The trips help decision makers focus on real implications of water quality, pollution and regulations to control it, and increasing public access.

“The magic mix is, we’re trying to take out [on the water] people that make decisions on those issues, but we’re also taking out people who will soon make decisions on those issues,” Don Baugh said.

Pennsylvania representative Keith Gillespie, a Republican from York, was already concerned about the Chesapeake Bay’s health and his state’s contribution to nutrient pollution. But after several trips with Baugh, Gillespie said, he feels even more motivated to push for additional funding for measures to keep runoff out of the Chesapeake, including livestock stream exclusion and riparian buffers. The trips, he said, “keep the fires stoked.” He shares photos of Upstream Alliance trips with his Republican colleagues, hoping to inspire them to action even if their state has no Chesapeake frontage.

“Because a lot of my colleagues have never had the chance to see it, they don’t consider it a priority. I look upon it as my job to spread that word,” he said. He is considering introducing legislation to tax bottled water to raise more funding for pollution prevention. “We have not been fully carrying our end of the log,” he said.

Jan-Michael Archer, a University of Maryland doctoral student focusing on environmental health science and environmental justice, described his first Upstream trip in 2016, taken before he enrolled in the doctoral program, It was “kind of a bridge,” he said. “It put things into perspective.” The Georgia native’s experience on the Nanticoke opened his eyes to the challenges facing the Eastern Shore, where low-lying land is giving way to rising water levels.

Through his graduate research, Archer is investigating the motivators needed to increase citizen science participation on climate change issues. He wants residents of these Eastern Shore communities to know how to document the changes that are happening around them. Archer, who studies with Sacoby Wilson in the School of Public Health, is also working to educate environmental advocacy groups, whose membership tends to be predominantly white, on issues of environmental justice and resource equity in adapting to climate change.

The Baughs, he said, were “very interested in my insights as a person of color on the trip.”

Upstream Alliance outings always include naturalists, who point out wildlife and plants along the route, and scientists, who inform participants about coastal resiliency, climate change, and other topics. After each excursion, participants gather around a campfire to discuss ecology and policy.

“What we’re bringing to the equation is something we feel is critically needed, that is increasingly difficult for people to get. It never was too easy, but it’s becoming much harder.

People are walled in by their cubicles and their institutions. And when we’re able to get them out in a short amount of time—a day, three days—people are having their ‘Aha’ moments that ignite them for a career,” Don Baugh said. “We’re feeling positive that we’ve landed on the right space.”


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