The general perception by most is that the state of politics in America has become very polarized and most issues have devolved into “us vs. them”. That perception is no different when it comes to clean water issues throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
There are, however, areas where common ground can be found on most issues if you look hard enough and both sides listen to each other. These areas are not as easy to find as they were 5, 10 or 20 years ago, but they are still there if people are willing to look.
A case in point occurred just a couple of weeks ago with Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Republican representing the 5th Congressional District in Pennsylvania. The 5th District is larger than the state of Vermont and a very large chunk of it is in the Susquehanna/Chesapeake watershed.
Congressman Thompson - he goes by “GT” - chairs the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee. He is a conservative representing a very rural and conservative district, and he has often voted on the other side of issues important to the Coalition, such as voting for riders to stop the Chesapeake Bay TMDL or bills to stop the Clean Water Rule. But that does not mean he doesn’t care at all about clean water.
As the Federal Affairs contractor for the Coalition, I have always believed that you need to talk to all sides and keep a dialogue open, trying to find common ground. This means talking to Republicans and Democrats in Congress – that was true when the Democrats controlled the House and/or the Senate, and is especially true now that the Republicans control both houses of Congress. Ignoring the majority party is generally not a good legislative strategy.
My day with GT began with a Hill visit to his office back in April. We had several Coalition members who traveled to DC from PA for a day on the Hill meeting with House and Senate offices of the PA delegation. One of our goals was to get support for funding (“appropriations”) a couple of key programs – the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, and the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants that come from that Program. The two Stewardship Grant programs are the Chesapeake Small Watershed Grants and the Nutrient and Sediment Reduction grants.
When making a pitch for the Congressman to support these programs, his staff interrupted, and told us that GT strongly supported this funding and had already made a request to the House Appropriations Committee for full funding. It was a great opportunity to declare victory without having done anything, and so I did. I asked the staffer if he or the Congressman would be interested in touring some sites in the 5th District that were funded through the grant programs. He said “absolutely”.
The Chesapeake Stewardship Grants, funded by EPA, are currently administered by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). I contacted NFWF to arrange a tour for the Congressman - after a bit of back and forth, it was decided to do the tour in early October and to focus on projects in Centre County – which is GT’s home.
Since the Congressman chairs an Agriculture Subcommittee, NFWF opted to focus on farm-based restoration and protection projects. NFWF worked with the ClearWater Conservancy, a non-profit grant recipient, and Choose Clean Water Coalition member, that is based in State College, in Centre County. We had the Congressman for a full five hours, from 9 a.m. through 2 p.m. He and his office were not concerned about getting media on the tour, he was just interested in seeing the projects and talking to private landowners about how they liked what was done on their land.
The Congressman arrived with one district office staff person and the seven person tour began. We went to five different restoration sites, all of them on farmland. Some were very agriculture focused, constructing manure containment facilities, fencing and new water supplies to enable livestock exclusion from streams. Others were riparian forest buffers and streambank restoration for local water quality and flood control. All of the landowners we met were very pleased with their finished projects and also with everything that was necessary to get them done.
Congressman Thompson seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day. He’s a soft-spoken man, but not shy, which was evident by his knowing virtually everyone we met by name. And, of course, they all knew GT. It was a great example of retail politics with the Congressman meeting constituents and asking a lot of questions about projects that were completed with federal funds that he helped to obtain. And he was also well aware of the environmental and downstream benefits of all of these projects.
No deals or promises were made by anyone during the day, but we all shared a common goal of trying to get help for landowners who want to do the right thing but are stretched very thin in both time and money. These were great projects that in some places are already making a noticeable difference in local water quality and will be critical to building support for restoration throughout our region.
Folks in Centre County, PA, don’t talk too much about Chesapeake Bay, but they do talk about local streams that have had native brook trout return; they talk about streams that are not flooding as much as they did before their shorelines were stabilized and forested buffers took root on the shoreline; and they talk about how EPA funds actually helped their farms function better and improved their local environment and quality of life.