Volume 12, Issue 10 ~ March 4-10, 2004

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Maryland’s Conservation Watchdog
League of Conservation Voters’ Susan Brown guards the Bay in hard times
by Carrie Steele

From her second-story window on State Circle, Susan Brown — who leads Maryland’s League of Conservation Voters — has a clear view of the front of the Maryland State House. The enviable location of her office lends new meaning to the term “watchdog organization.”

That's the job League of Conservation Voters has been doing since the 1970s, when the environmental achievements of the last three decades were battles still to be fought. Today, holding onto earlier achievements, including the money to do the job, is as much a part of environmentalism as making new advances. State Leagues, including the 20-year-old Maryland League where Brown is watchdog, are independent of the national League.

Before Maryland’s General Assembly convened this year, Brown was snipping away at the state budget with green scissors. With eight other environmental advocates, she scrutinized fiscal year 2005’s $24 billion budget item by item and line by line.

When Maryland lawmakers returned to their January-to-April job of dividing too little money into too many pots, Brown was ready to tell them how they could find money for the environment by cutting waste. Greening the Budget, a Green Scissors Report details 11 ways that Maryland could save $145 million in 2005, money that currently resides in “hidden commercial subsidies” that actually damage the environment. For example, current policy exempts agricultural pesticides from sales and use taxes. Taxing agricultural pesticides would generate $2.2 million each year. Green Scissors, of course, would redirect that money to environmentally smart programs.

“The report points out ways to save money in the budget process and also help the environment,” Brown says.

That’s the good news that Brown announced at the Annual Environmental Legislation Summit to citizen environmentalists and advocates who would spend the next three months urging lawmakers to keep the environment in mind.

“We just want to make sure that we’re reminding them of their responsibility to folks back home who are expecting them to take care of the environment,” says Brown.

But the news Brown reported that cold January day was not all good. “Environmental funding has been slashed,” she told her audience.

Hard figures back up her claim. Since 2002, the combined spending for Maryland’s two chief environmental agencies, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment, has dropped by nearly $155 million. That’s the calculation of Howard Ernst, the U.S. Naval Academy political scientist whose book Chesapeake Bay Blues shook up the environmental community last year by accusing the massive, 20-year-old Bay cleanup program of malingering.

Loss of funding has hit environmental programs hard, Brown says. Both the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment have lost funding and staff. Spending for land conservation has been cut by 75 percent, the budget for wetlands monitoring has been reduced by 40 percent and 18 air pollution inspectors have the job of monitoring 10,000 facilities.

Sharpening the Tool
Forget the stereotype of Birkenstocks and worn-out jeans. Brown’s version of the environmentalist is clean-cut conservative pantsuits. But she has the resume of an activist.

The 35-year-old Michigan native has worked on environmental policy in Maryland for a decade. Originally a political scientist, Brown volunteered in her first campaign in high school and stayed active in political campaigns throughout college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Growing up near Lake Huron, she loved the environment, and she became involved in campaigns to protect rainforests and other environmental gems during college. Brown says her belief that environmental issues are really public health and justice issues fuels her commitment.

After graduation, she went to work first for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation doing grass-roots organizing and legislative work. Then, in 2000, she stepped up to become the first executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, which had been run by volunteers for its 20-year history. Merging her political skills and her concern for the environment, Brown now works to shape environmental policy.

“Politics is a tool,” she says. “Just like a shovel is a tool for planting a tree, politics is a tool for getting good environmental policies passed.”

On Watch at the Statehouse
At the Environmental Summit, the environmental community saw Brown stand up for the environment. That’s what the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters does every day, but often from behind the scenes.

A big part of Brown’s job is promoting environmental bills to lawmakers. Or, in a word, lobbying. That word has come to have a nasty ring, connoting influence bought and sold over lavish dinners and on expensive trips to faraway places.

Brown begs to differ, saying that lobbying elected officials blends education with accountability.
“If we’re going to work on campaigns for environmentally friendly votes and then grade them on their votes, we also need to be doing the education,” she says.

Phoning, e-mailing, sending letters, meeting them face to face and following up with resources, Brown lobbies legislators to “remind them of how important these issues are to their constituents back home.” She argues that environmentalism is more than a special interest. Citizens depend on their elected officials to vote to protect clean air and clean water.

“You find environmentalists in every walk of life,” Brown says. “People who have kids are environmentalists because they want to have clean air for their kids to breathe. Nurses are environmentalists because they see the effects of bad air. Business people can be environmentalists because they want to see a good quality of life for their community.”

Nor is environmentalism bounded by political party. “Republicans, Democrats and Independents,” she says. “Across the board, all care about environmental protection and expect legislators to put environmental protection in place.”

At the end of the legislative session in even-numbered years comes another watchdog job: assembling the Maryland League of Conservation Voters scorecard, a two-year report card grading lawmakers on their votes for and against the environment. In Anne Arundel County’s 2001-2002 rankings, scores ranged from Del. Virginia Clagett’s 100 percent — meaning she voted pro-environment every time a significant environmental vote was called during those two sessions — to then Del. and now Sen. Janet Greenip’s zero. In Calvert County, both delegates — Democrat George Owings and Republican Anthony O’Donnell — scored 38 percent.

The Maryland League then rewards its top lawmaker in environmental leadership and legislation initiatives with the John V. Kabler Memorial Award. Kabler, who died from cancer in 1996 at the age of 53, headed Clean Water Action in Maryland and pioneered the door-knocking activism practiced widely now in conservation circles. Last year’s Kabler award went to Sen. Brian Frosh. As well as the honor, Kabler was feted at an awards dinner for conservation-minded initiatives, including establishing the state’s recycling program and a ban on oil and gas drilling in the Chesapeake Bay.

Keeping Citizens Alert
Just as important as her work with legislators, Brown says, is recruiting citizens to help keep watch. Just as the environmental scorecard helps voters score their candidates on the environment, citizens can in turn educate their representatives.

At the Citizen’s Lobby Day for the Environment last month, Brown held up that Green Scissors Report as a positive, concrete idea that citizens can promote to lawmakers. “Thank you all, and have fun!” she said as she sent out more than 100 activists to educate and lobby their legislators. Then she directed traffic, pointing activists the right way, before setting out down the hall of the Lowe House Office Building, greeting legislators and fellow environmentalists.

In election years like this one, Brown also urges voters to check environmental records of candidates by investigating the scorecard and tracking how candidates have voted on environmental issues in the past. The League reaches out further through e-mail action networks, mailings, phone banks and community meetings, all aimed at informing voters.

“We try to make sure that citizens know what their legislators are doing,” says Brown.

In the four years Brown has been executive director of League of Conservation Voters, her organization has not only bridged the gap between citizens and lawmakers but also amplified the voice of the environmental community. The League, together with the environmental community, last year helped derail Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s nomination of Lynn Buhl, a candidate they deemed unqualified to be secretary of Maryland’s Department of the Environment. In the first such rejection in Maryland history, the Senate refused to confirm her.

“Our goal is to get people elected — or in this case confirmed — who care about environmental issues and will work hard for these issues,” says Brown.

To continue her work, Brown has to keep the League itself operating. Finding funding is not her favorite job. “It would be great if we didn’t have to worry about fundraising for us to do our job,” says Brown.

Money is a tool the League uses to endorse, support and rate politicians. Unlike many environmental organizations that shy away from hardball politics, the League backs pro-environment candidates by running TV ads and mailings and e-mailing voters about candidates’ positions.

Chesapeake Bay political analyst Howard Ernst claims that “If Sue Brown and the League of Conservation Voters got $22 million, like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation does, it would change the political culture of Bay restoration in a year.”

As Brown looks to the Bay’s future, she hopes, she says, “we will have put in place things now that will help the future look better.”

But Brown is not one to look so far into the future that she forgets about the present. Right now, she says, people who care about the environment should themselves consider running for office.

“It would be great to have environmentalists running at every level of government,” says Brown. “Hopefully the League would have the resources to support every single one of them.”

Learn more about the Maryland League of Conservation Voters at www.mdlcv.org.

About the Author
By day, Carrie Steele, of Olney, puts her environmental background and love of the outdoors to good use as a program assistant at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center’s Camp Woodlands site in Riva. This is her first Bay Weekly feature.

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Last updated March 11, 2004 @ 1:15am.