Saving the bay, one slide show at a time
Retired senator Winegrad on an environmental mission

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer Fifty people packed into a stuffy room at Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis and turned their attention to the man wearing a navy blue tie decorated with bald eagles. The man in the tie - 62-year-old Gerald Winegrad of Annapolis - once was called the "environmental conscience" of the Maryland General Assembly, pushing a ban on phosphorus in laundry detergent and championing controls on stormwater runoff.

Since retiring as a senator in 1994, Mr. Winegrad has kept a low profile in politics. He's worked in the nonprofit world, taught graduate students and planned meetings of the local bird club.

But this summer, Mr. Winegrad has once again been ruffling the feathers of government officials.

The presentation at the church last week was just the latest stop on Mr. Winegrad's bay-saving summer tour.

As the meeting room filled up, Mr. Winegrad fired up a laptop that projected the title of his slideshow onto a screen: "The Chesapeake Bay: An Imperiled Treasure and the Inconvenient Truths About its recovery."

In title and in many other ways, the presentation calls to mind Al Gore's Academy Award winning slide show and movie about global warming.

Mr. Gore opens with a photo of the Earth from space as he reminds his audiences about the wonders of the planet.

Mr. Winegrad, meanwhile, starts with a photo of an osprey clutching a rockfish in its talons.

While the resurgence of osprey and rockfish populations is promising, Mr. Winegrad tells his audience, there still are plenty of problems that need to be addressed.

"The Chesapeake is in dismal shape. There's no way to put a smile or a happy face on it," Mr. Winegrad told the group of mainly environmental activists.

The presentation continued for nearly two hours, as Mr. Winegrad laid out in text-heavy slides the facts and figures that tell the story of the bay's woes.

At the end, Mr. Winegrad proposed his solutions.

While they were numerous, his key ideas are for Maryland to set a goal of no net loss of forests, require more pollution controls from farms and put a tax on all paved surfaces to fix stormwater control problems.

He also called for the establishment of a Chesapeake Bay restoration workgroup to propose state legislation.

Mr. Winegrad acknowledges that his ideas aren't universally popular.

During the church talk, for example, not everyone agreed with his tough comments about farming. But most in the room seemed to like his idea about the pavement tax.

Still, Mr. Winegrad is busy taking his slideshow to anyone in power who will listen.

Last week, he met with top officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment. Before that, he met with the bosses at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

His audiences have included staffers for House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

He's met with influential delegates and representatives from the top bay-related nonprofits, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment. His first presentation was to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, whose board he sits on.

John Griffin, the state natural resources secretary, said he found much to agree with in Mr. Winegrad's presentation.

He said some of Mr. Winegrad's issues - such as preserving forests - are items the DNR is working on.

Mr. Griffin praised Mr. Winegrad's dedication to the issue, even when it's not popular.

Sometimes, Mr. Winegrad acts as a lightning rod, Mr. Griffin said. That's a tough position to be in, but one that's necessary "as part of the change process."

For Mr. Winegrad, the slideshows are his way to influence policy on the bay. His effort comes at a critical time, as the 2010 deadline for meeting a series of goals on bay cleanup is looming.

"Planting these seeds, I hope, will result in changes in cleaning up the bay. It's essential unless we want to write it off," Mr. Winegrad said during an interview at his waterfront home in Oyster Harbor near Annapolis.

What got Mr. Winegrad started on his slide show mission was a question from a reporter who asked him to evaluate the 2007 General Assembly session, which was touted by many as a good year for the environment.

While there were some positive steps for the environment - tighter pollution controls for cars, a ban on phosphorus in dish detergent - Mr. Winegrad found a lot of holes.

"When I saw the legislation, I got concerned about what was missing," he said.

Though Mr. Winegrad has officially been out of politics for more than a decade, he's stayed up on bay issues.

Not only does he live on the water, watch birds and crab nearly daily in the summer, he teaches an environmental policy class at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy in College Park.

He combined his analysis of the legislation, teaching materials and fresh data on the 2010 goals and rolled it into the slideshow.

"Why am I doing this? Instead of sitting back and teaching and occasionally talking to reporters and doing seminars ... It's a necessity to use the skills and talents I've been given and speak to people," Mr. Winegrad said.

Pointing out lawmakers' flaws and recommending unpopular actions - few people want to criticize farmers these days - doesn't bother Mr. Winegrad.

Like Mr. Gore, he's convinced his ideas are what's needed to improve the environment, even if they aren't popular.

"We can't go by what seems this minute to be politically doable," he said. "We have to go by what's right."

And there's one more parallel with Mr. Gore.

Though Mr. Winegrad has been asked to run for office, he said he much prefers life without campaigns and hearings and press conferences.

"I'm not running for office," he said.

Published August 12, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised September 2007)