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Eco-Champions

Our future is in the hands of real people, not superheroes

      Appreciation for our planet is expressed not only in art, music and literature, but also in our consumer and economic practices, our spiritual and cultural beliefs and values, our foodways and our politics.
     Working to clean up our collective mess are passionate eco-guardians who make it their business to fight pollution, clean our waterways, protect wildlife and keep our planet healthy. For most, it’s a lifelong journey.
      As Earth Day comes around for the 49th time, Bay Weekly spoke to three such people. One is a teenager making headlines and turning heads in Calvert County. The second is a recent college graduate who made a beeline into an environmental nonprofit for a year of service work. The third is a veteran watershed advocate navigating the shifting tide of policy and politics on the Bay.
 
 
Erik Michelsen
Fighting History and Stormwater
     
     Erik Michelsen, Anne Arundel’s man in charge of spending the fees each of us pay to manage our stormwater, has been at work cleaning up our collective mess for more than 20 years. In the big picture, the county head of Watershed Protection and Restoration Program works to keep our Bay on its federally mandated survival diet. 
     In taking this controversial job five years ago, the former executive director of South River Federation had to learn to play in a whole new ballpark. 
      “In the private sector, there is flexibility and a kind of nobility in what you are doing. But you don’t necessarily get the same results. Working with the county, you aren’t as nimble, but the partnerships are good and the resources are significantly greater.”
     He puts those resources to work in longterm watershed restoration projects now “thickly into the construction process.” Stormwater outfalls are being rebuilt, failed facilities retrofitted and degraded streams restored so they no longer contribute high levels of sediment and phosphorous to our local rivers.
      “A lot of what we do is aimed at correcting the sins of the past,” Michelsen said.
      Success is not always visible, but you can see it clearly at Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church in Arnold, where heavy flooding was destroying an historic African American cemetery. “The graves were being unearthed,” Michelsen said.
     A stormwater improvement project now protects the cemetery while improving drainage and creating a native garden for beauty and wildlife. 
      Educating is part of the job.
      “It became apparent early on that a lot of folks did not understand why stormwater runoff was a water quality issue for the Bay. They just want the water off their roads, and where it goes they just don’t think about. But that approach has led us to where we are.”
      So managing stormwater runoff for water quality as well as for flood control, he has to explain to people the hydrological whys and hows of what he calls “an incredibly complex and multi-dimensional problem.”
      Navigating bureaucratic red tape, regulations, enforcement and permit headaches haven’t robbed Michelsen of hope.
      “Even with our year-to-year rainfall fluctuations, for the first time in a long time we are moving in the right direction,” he says. “We have had twice as much rain as normal, but in some places, like the Magothy River for example, we are seeing resiliency being built back into these systems.
      “Through our historical agricultural practices, development and such, we have stripped the resiliencies from the land and the waterways. Our goal is to build that back in.”
 
Lucy Heller
Millennial on a Mission
 
      Cockeysville native Lucy Heller couldn’t read her future when she entered the College of Wooster in Ohio. So she majored in English.
      In her senior year, she discovered her passion.
      “I was taking an environmental studies class, something very basic like Science for English Majors, and I liked it a lot. But the whole outlook was so pessimistic, like there was nothing we could really do to help the environment. That stuck with me.”
      She didn’t want to give up hope, and she wanted to learn more. Browsing the website Service Year for environmental opportunity, she found the Chesapeake Conservation Corps.
      Each year, the Chesapeake Conservation Corps Program places 35 to 40 young adults with nonprofit or government agencies around Chesapeake Bay to work fulltime for the environment for one year.
     She scrambled to apply. Though she didn’t make that class, she “fell in love,” she says, “with what all the nonprofits were doing in the region.”
     Two months volunteering for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay whetted her appetite for the work. Then a real job for a large corporate technology company introduced her to communications and lured her to Boston.
      “When the Chesapeake Conservation Corps application time came around again, I figured I’d try again,” she said. “And I’m so happy I did,” she says.
      Back with the Alliance, she’s using her real-job skills in an environment she loves, working to bring in volunteers. She spends her time working with volunteers to plant trees, monitor water quality and pick up trash.
      “I am full swing into Project Clean Stream right now, and Earth Day is right around the corner, so I have a lot of organizing to do trying to get volunteers at 150 sites and all their supplies. It’s exciting.”
       Working in the nonprofit world has given Heller skill and purpose. “In nonprofits, I am seeing that people come and go all the time. It doesn’t pay well, and it can be very stressful. But I’ve had such a good experience that I’m hoping I can be hired on here. But if not, I know I want to stick around the area and work in communications for a nonprofit or environmental group. I’m part of a generation using social media to get the message out.”
      Her Corps year has also renewed her optimism.
       “There are so many of us doing these boots-on-the-ground projects,” she said. “And I’m reaching out to more people and educating them. I feel more optimistic now.”
 
Ben Springer 
A Lens into the Future
 
     Is the next generation getting the message? A short conversation with 16-year-old Ben Springer from Calvert High School seems to say so.
     Springer, a junior from Port Republic, won the 2018 Calvert You Are Beautiful Award for his commitment to volunteering. The annual award usually goes to an older person. But he’d worked for the environment on so many scores that he wowed the judges. 
      Volunteering with the Calvert Stewards, he worked at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp building nest boxes for prothonotary warblers and surveying with the Maryland Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians. At school, he helped the Calvert High Envirothon team earn top spots in competitions the last two years.
      He credits a free-range childhood roaming his home’s four acres of woods for introducing him to the environment and its inhabitants. “I’ve just always been drawn to the woods. I like to walk and see all the creatures running around. I enjoy seeing animals that you won’t find if you aren’t looking for them.”
      Getting a camera in seventh grade deepened his vision and passion. 
      “I spotted an interesting bird I had never seen before. It was a hooded warbler; I had never heard of it,” he said. “I suddenly wondered what else I was missing in the woods because I wasn’t looking closely enough — and I was hooked.”
      Springer has logged more than 340 species of birds in the three years since. He spends much of his time at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, working as a volunteer educator and taking lots of photos.
      There he found a mentor as well in Battle Creek naturalist Andy Brown. “Thanks to people like Andy,” he said. “I am considering a career in natural resource management because I know I want to be involved in protecting and caring for the outdoors.”
     He also set up bat boxes at his high school so that he can encourage a breeding population of evening bats he helped discover.
      Springer joins forces with other teens on the school Envirothon team, battling against other schools to see who knows most on topics such as aquatics, forestry, soils, wildlife and current issues. This year’s Calvert High team placed first in the county and will go to the state contest at St. Mary’s College this summer. 
       Springer says he tries to be optimistic about the planet he has inherited, but thinks we must do more.
     “We need to get away from fossil fuels for our energy supply. It does so much damage. If we can switch to renewable energy, we could spring back to a healthier ecosystem,” he says. 
      This fan of solar energy “hopes for the best and tries hard to make things better.” But he knows he can’t do it alone. So, he said, “I’m also hopeful that other people want to change.”