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Defining Moment

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.”

She’s 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-70’s, the bay had become a giant cesspool of waste and pollution; its $1 billion annual fishery—home of the half of America’s Atlantic crab catch— failing. That’s 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 that’s threatened, they’re 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 that.”

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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t until research by major universities showed that an over-abundance of nutrients like phosphorus was encouraging algae to shade out the grasses.

“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 master’s 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 teacher’s guide for environmental education in Montpelier. Meanwhile, she’s teaching her two toddlers to birdwatch, sea kayak and appreciate nature—even if she rarely gets out there herself these days.