Champion of the Chesapeake Bay Honored with YSE Alumni Award
As executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Ann Pesiri Swanson brought together scientists, federal and state legislators, and environmental advocates to forge agreements to protect the health of the largest estuary in the U.S.
While studying at the Yale School of the Environment, Ann Pesiri Swanson ’83 MES figured out quickly that she had a special skill for advocating for environmental planning and policy. That’s because her professors at YSE told her. That acknowledgement, she says, helped nudge her in into a career focused on marrying science to policy to push for environmental progress.
For four decades, Swanson has used her science and communication skills to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This work has earned her Yale School of the Environment’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which honors the achievements of YSE graduates who have made significant contributions to the field of conservation, environmental science, and management.
Swanson came to YSE after studying wildlife biology as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont and serving as an assistant state naturalist. She credits Thomas Siccama, forest ecology professor; F. Herbert Bormann, Oastler Professor Emeritus of Forest Ecology; and William Burch, Frederick C. Hixon Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources Management for helping her find her environmental role.
“My time at Yale helped amplify my focus towards policy and planning,” Swanson says. “I was thinking about field ecology and Herb, Tom and Bill told me, ‘We need you on the frontlines, translating science.’”
The frontlines were on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S. The 200-mile-long bay spans six states, holds more than 15 trillion gallons of water, supports more than 3,600 species of plant and animal life, and produces more than 500 million pounds of seafood harvest. Its watershed is home to more than 18 million people and overuse and pollution were degrading its health.
Swanson first worked on efforts to save the bay as a grassroots director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“We were seeing significant declines in water quality, fisheries diversity, and a loss of forests and wetlands in the watershed. What had been a magically productive ecosystem was beginning to show the severe wear and tear of being over-loved and overused by people,” Swanson says.
In her first months at the foundation, she witnessed the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which recognized the importance of a cooperative approach among state and federal leaders to restore the bay. She then turned her attention to establishing laws and policies to support the agreement’s goals. In 1988, she was hired by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative body that is a signatory for every bay restoration agreement.
Swanson served as its executive director for 35 years before retiring in 2022. Under her tenure, the commission helped establish a phosphate detergent ban in every state in the watershed; flush fees and dedicated funding to pay for upgrades to sewage treatment plants and septic systems; aggressive agricultural conservation programs to mitigate nitrogen runoff; nutrient limits on lawn fertilizers; and blue crab harvest limits. In all cases she worked to bring science and data into policy discussions and decisions, Swanson says.
Most of the initiatives faced a myriad of challenges. “There was often strong headwind against progressive environmental policy. It surprised me,” she says.
Her experiences at YSE provided her with strategies to move forward, she says.
“You never did a project at Yale solo. Everything was a group. In fact, I found that the success of one’s entire professional career rested in no small part on collaborative group efforts. If others in the group were not pulling their weight, you worked to inspire them to pull their weight, to have them recognize that they were an integral part of the team, and thus their contributions mattered,” she says.
As head of the commission, Swanson created and led numerous working groups and advisory committees that brought together experts and stakeholders from across state borders to address challenges and reach agreements on critical initiatives designed to protect the health of the bay. These efforts paid off. More than 20% of the watershed land has been preserved and there has been a 40% reduction in nitrogen pollution of the bay and an increase of billions of dollars in funding for restoration efforts.
There is still work to do, says Swanson.
“The progress that’s been made in the Chesapeake is astounding. And yet, it’s not enough. It will not save the bay,” she says.
Swanson, who will continue to advise the commission, is not deterred though. She says new leadership and technologies will help ongoing efforts to save the bay.
“The work that I did — which was a joy to do — is but one chapter among many in the book of bay restoration. We have a long way to reach the epilogue. We must never, ever give up.” Swanson says.
Meet the Other 2022 Alumni Award Winners
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