Ann Pesiri Swanson 79, works for a healthier Chesapeake Bay
Ann Pesiri Swanson, SNR 79, was a UVM biology major in 1976,
when she happened to walk through the Aiken Natural Resources
Center, stopping to look at the giant fish tank in the hallway.
SNR Director Hugo John came out from his office and engaged her
in a long conversation.
It was a significant moment, Swanson, 39, remembers. A lover of
the outdoors all her life, she soon decided to major in wildlife
biology. My UVM career defined my career and therefore, defined
my life, said Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay
Commission for the last nine years.
Still, she said, ...most of my days are spent writing or talking,
not looking at the birds, she said. I sit at my desk worrying
about nature. If you want to apply science in the world, you must
understand what motivates people, and you must communicate that.
Shes had to learn that lesson well. There is perhaps no other
place where recovery of the environment is so visible, so massive
and complicated, involving three states, and the District of Columbia.
The Chesapeake Bay is by far the largest estuary in the U.S. Within
its enormous watershed live thirteen million people, most within
a ten-minute walk of some river that dumps its waters directly
into the bay.
By the mid-70s, the bay had become a giant cesspool of waste
and pollution; its $1 billion annual fisheryhome of the half
of Americas Atlantic crab catch failing. Thats what really
ignited bay residents, Swanson believes. I think, in the end,
people deeply love their childhood landscape or the landscape
that brought them to a place, she said. If thats threatened,
theyre willing to rebel. And in the bay region, the pastoral
landscape is the fishermen in their boats, tonging for oysters
or fishing for crab. People were really afraid they would lose
A $27 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study led to
an innovative compact in 1983 among state and federal governments
and the Commission, the legislative arm of the clean-up effort,
to collectively manage the bay as an ecosystem. It was a grand
time, Swanson said. There was an explosion of newfound commitment
and hope, she said. It was environmental restoration on a scale
that hadnt been done before, so this seemed like a chance not
only to define the canvas but paint the picture, too.
Her job is to shepherd through the various legislatures the laws
and programs that clean up and protect the bay. Her education
sets her apart from others in high-level policy-making There
are more English majors than anything else at this level, she
said yet science is crucial for progress on the environment.
For example, underwater grasses in the bay were dying; everyone
thought the culprit was a common agricultural weedkiller. It wasnt
until research by major universities showed that an over-abundance
of nutrients like phosphorus was encouraging algae to shade out
That gave us the foundation to fight for phosphorus removal and
the phosphate detergent ban, she said.
Swanson, a New York native, worked for the National Wildlife Federation
in Washington, D.C., after graduating from UVM. Later, she earned
a masters degree in environmental sciences from Yale University.
The foundation that UVM gave me was noticeably better than those
of my colleagues at Yale, she said. I clearly had one of the
strongest natural history backgrounds.
Swanson is also an accomplished illustrator, credited with illustrating
The Nature of Vermont and The Bogs of New England, as well as
contributing to a teachers guide for environmental education
in Montpelier. Meanwhile, shes teaching her two toddlers to birdwatch,
sea kayak and appreciate natureeven if she rarely gets out there
herself these days.