We were able to protect one of the most amazing sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and bring about the creation of the first U.S. national marine sanctuary in nearly 20 years, with bipartisan support. To say I’m thrilled would be an understatement."
–Joel Dunn, MEM'04
“The sum total of all these elements makes it a very special place deserving of protection,” Dunn said. “It’s been on conservationists’ radar for years, but it wasn’t until 2014 that we finally saw a way to make it happen.”
That spring, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revised its national marine sanctuary designation process to allow local, state and tribal governments, or even individuals, to nominate places for consideration.
Charlie Stek, who was then chairman of the Chesapeake Conservancy and had previously helped develop the U.S. Environmental Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, saw the opening they had been waiting for. And although neither Dunn, his staff nor any of their community or NGO partners knew anything about how to nominate a site to be a national marine sanctuary, they marshalled their forces and went to work.
By November, Dunn’s staff, which includes many alums and student summer interns from the Nicholas School, had built a coalition of governments, businesses, local communities, tribes, recreational users and landowners to get behind what they were trying to do, and shortly before Thanksgiving, the State of Maryland submitted an official nomination for Mallows Bay with the support of Charles County, the Conservancy and other partners.
In January 2015, they received word that NOAA had approved the nomination and provisionally agreed to designate Mallows Bay as a national marine monument. But first, there were a few details to attend to.
“Our coalition had to brief members of Congress, work with governors from both parties, do a lot more outreach, partner with the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab to get aerial footage, do geospatial studies, create marketing and educational materials, do media outreach and encourage participation at public meetings to help build the case for why creating a national marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay made sense at this time,” Dunn said.
After a few close calls—such as when the powerful Potomac River Fisheries Commission came within one vote of reversing its initial recommendation of support for the sanctuary—the Conservancy team and its partners finally cleared the last hurdle, the public comment period, and the site was officially designated the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary in October 2019.
Now, Dunn wants to go even bigger.
“Over the next 10 years, our goal is to protect 30% of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This includes working with willing landowners to conserve 5,000 acres of ecologically and historically important land adjacent to the national marine sanctuary, if possible,” Dunn said. “We’ll also be supporting efforts to add a visitor’s center, educational exhibits, interpretive signage, and other necessary facilities.”
Ultimately, the Conservancy is facilitating a vision by U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen and Congressman John Sarbanes, both of Maryland, to create a new Chesapeake National Recreational Area that they hope will include Mallows Bay and dozens of other places of historical, ecological, cultural or recreational importance around the region.
Because national recreation areas are a type of national park and part of the National Park System, this would afford even greater enjoyment and protection of these sites.
It would also help attract visitors from around the world, bringing new sources of revenue to the local economy.
“A Chesapeake National Park will benefit local communities by attracting tourism dollars, enhancing quality of life for residents, attracting talent for local businesses and increasing property values,” Dunn said.
Getting to that point will involve much more education and outreach, a major investment in infrastructure and expanded philanthropic support. It will also require a ton of what Dunn calls “precision conservation” in which he and his staff use advanced geospatial analysis and other high-tech tools to gather the data they need to make their conservation and restoration case undeniable.
“We’ll be leveraging all the skills, tools and networks we gained at the Nicholas School to help us produce geospatial analyses, sharpen our policy and economic analyses, and boost buy-in from community members, elected officials, environmental groups, industry and other critical stakeholders,” he said. “The school can really see itself reflected in what our small, thoughtful and relentless group has achieved, and what we’ll do in the coming years.”
It Takes a Village…
In addition to Joel Dunn himself, seven Nicholas School alums played significant roles in the drive to have Mallows Bay designated as a national marine sanctuary.
Six of these alums worked with Dunn at the Conservancy. They are: Jeff Allenby (MEM’11), Emily Myron (MEM’12), Joanna Ogburn (MEM’08), Reed Perry (MEM’19), Susan Shingedecker (MEM’00), and Colin Stief (MEM’15).
The seventh, Kimberly Hernandez Grubert (MEM’14), worked as one of three staff from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who led the designation effort in close collaboration with Dunn’s team. She received the Conservancy’s Next Generation Champion of the Chesapeake award in 2016.
Read more stories featured in the Duke Environment Magazine Spring 2021 issue.