By DAVID J. SILVERMAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS-The Chesapeake Bay restoration group funded largely by revenues from the popular blue "Treasure the Chesapeake" Maryland license plates announced Tuesday that it has reached a major financial milestone - it has distributed more than $20 million worth of grants since its inception in 1985.
The Chesapeake Bay Trust says that the more than 7,000 grants it has disbursed for restoration and educational projects have helped raise awareness and protect the bay and its rivers. Trust officials say their goal has always been to engage as many Marylanders as possible in restoration projects.
"The extent of the involvement of grassroots organizations across the state demonstrates the commitment of our citizens to the protection and restoration of the Bay," Harry R. Hughes, former governor of Maryland and founder of the trust, said in a prepared statement. More than 350,000 Maryland students, community activists and volunteers have taken part in the trust's grant-related activities, according to the trust.
The trust describes itself as a private, non-profit group. Its 19-member board of trustees includes the president of the state Senate, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the leaders of Maryland's Departments of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment, as well as 14 people appointed by the governor.
This fiscal year, the trust's roughly $3.5 million in grants will involve more than 40,000 students and 10,000 adult volunteers. Grants, which must be applied for, go to projects like restoring shorelines, replanting oyster beds and planting trees in cities and along streams and rivers, according to the trust.
"Funding ranges from $90 to help a boy scout on a project to $200,000 grants to achieving a measurable improvement in a local stream or a river," said David O'Neill, the trust's executive director.
O'Neill said the group has seen an explosion in activity over the last five years, with grant making growing by about 80 percent. The $86,000 in grants the trust distributed in 1986 pales before the roughly $3.5 million it will dole out this year, he said.
"I don't think the crafters of the trust ever had in mind it would be able to grow and do the things it's been able to do in this amount of time," O'Neill said.
The trust's funding also comes from contributions from the tax check-off on the Maryland income tax return and from other contributions from private corporations.
But the main reason for the growth, O'Neill said, is the boom in license plate sales. Since the program's inception in 1991, 1.3 million Marylanders have purchased the plates, generating roughly $13 million. The state's other highly recognizable license plate, the orange "Ag Tag," generates revenues for the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation.
O'Neill says that although his organization's grants alone will not solve the bay's manifold problems, "they can be a catalyst for broader policy funding and behavior change that benefits the bay."
As an example, he said that relatively modest grants to urban tree programs have encouraged cities and municipalities to expand their programs. He also said the trust has teamed up with several other organizations to leverage resources on individual projects. "We see ourselves as an agent for bringing resources to the public," said O'Neill. "The fact that we're able to award larger sums of funding really speaks to the unwavering commitment on the part of the public. It's a hand in hand process--we've grown in our commitment as they have grown."