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Griffin Watching Over the Wild


Someday, when a history is written about the long and not always successful war to restore the Chesapeake Bay, a chapter will be devoted to one of the bay’s greatest heroes:  John Griffin.

Over more than three decades, Griffin labored – often behind the scenes, working 70 hour weeks-- for four Maryland governors as the state’s deputy secretary or secretary of Natural Resources.  With the change in administrations in January, Griffin – now 68 years old -- finally resigned from his final job with the state, as Governor Martin O’Malley’s chief of staff.

As chairman of the Governor's Chesapeake Bay Cabinet from 2007 to 2013, Griffin led Maryland’s efforts to meet new pollution limits for the nation’s largest estuary, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.

But, oddly enough, his lifelong devotion to conservation did not grow out of the bay – but instead, out of his childhood, growing up in part in New Mexico.  There, in the stark but stunning western landscapes outside Albuqurque, he hunted, fished and camped with his father, an air force bomber pilot. Father and son visited Native American reservations, which inspired reverence in John.

“I came across a quote from a Native American elder which I shared with Governor O’Malley early in his first term, and he used it in his own way quite frequently,” Griffin said.   “It was to the effect that the way we treat the Earth is reflected in how we treat its inhabitants, its people.  And the way we treat each one another is reflected in how we treat the earth. So it’s kind of two sides of the same coin.”

Griffin treated his employees at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with respect – even if he occasionally mystified them by playing CD’s with Native American drum music during meetings. "Yeah, I’ve done that." he admitted, adding that the intention was to get people to meditate and think deeply. 

Serving as the governor's chief of staff wasn’t always easy work, especially reporting to a workaholic Blackberry jockey like O’Malley.

“You know, he would email me and others at midnight, at 3 in the morning, when he couldn’t sleep,” Griffin said about the governor.  “He would get on the (Maryland bay data) BayStat website, and he’d say, ‘I don’t understand? Why isn’t this moving up? Or why is this doing this?’ He was on his game. He was amazing. I was like, ‘How do you have the time to do these things?'”

Griffin humbly defers credit for his achievements to the governors he served, and to the biologists who advised him. But those who really know what’s going on know that Griffin who was a driving force behind many of the most successful policies that brought some life back to an ailing Bay.

Griffin’s efforts include, in 2010, an expansion of oyster sanctuaries in the bay and promotion of oyster farming to help protect and spark a turn-around of the Chesapeake’s keystone species.

“We had been doing an oyster repletion program in which we’d dredge up old historic oyster shell,  clean it, and deposit it around the bay in areas where watermen would harvest it,” Griffin said.  “But it became – because of pollution, because of parasites, because of overharvesting -- a pretty lame program. And the scientists concluded that we were also unwittingly perhaps spreading (oyster diseases) Dermo and MSX around the bay. So we phased that program out.”

Instead, Maryland created no-harvesting zones to protect 24 percent of the remaining oyster reefs in the bay. And the state started planting millions of baby oysters in these sanctuaries.  Maryland also offered  financial incentives to encourage watermen to abandon their traditional dredging  up of wild oysters and instead switch to aquaculture.

“They were used to being hunter-gatherers,” Griffin said of watermen who harvested oysters from the wild. “They were not used to doing all the work that’s involved with oyster floats or bags on the bottom. It just wasn’t what they were used to over the years.”

Because of the switch in state policies, now Maryland has dozens of oyster farming businesses.  And oyster populations in the Bay have roughly doubled over the last five years, although they remain severely depleted – at less than one percent of historic levels.  (Oyster populations also may have increased because of favorable weather conditions.)

In 2008, Maryland banned recreational catching of female blue crabs and restricted commercial harvest, to help the species recover – at least temporarily – from a population crash.

Griffin cracked down on poaching and illegal fishing in the Bay.   And he played a supporting role in a moratorium on catching striped bass from 1985 to 1990, although the ban made him unpopular among watermen and lawmakers who represented them.

“When we proposed that, it was a major controversy.  I mean a major controversy,” Griffin recalled during an interview at his home in Annapolis.  “We had public hearings on the regs, and we were getting death threats, so we had the police there at meetings.  (The threats came in) phone calls, mail.  You know, I’m going to kill you, you expletive deleted. “

It was brutal work, in part because Griffin liked the watermen who were so furious at him.  But Griffins and his bosses, Natural Resources Secretary Torrey Brown and Governor Harry Hughes, stood their ground.  As a result of their determination, the region’s most popular sport fish enjoyed a spectacular multiplication and comeback.

The white-haired Griffin watched over his wildlife management agency like a bald eagle, and changed its culture. For too long, the Department of Natural Resources had an overly cozy relationship with watermen and the fishing industry. Griffin put scientists instead of political hacks in charge, and focused on conservation, first.

“John Griffin is one of the true great visionaries of this century,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “He is a change agent, a man who changed Maryland for the better.”

The world would be a greener place if we had even one more John Griffin.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.