Conduit Q&A with DNR Secretary Mark Belton

Mark Belton

The Conduit Street Q&A is our opportunity to get closer to the policymakers and public leaders who affect Maryland and its counties. We’ll ask questions about the person, the policy, and the politics – and let their answers bring you valuable insights on the biggest issues of today and tomorrow.

This week, we catch up with Mark Belton, Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, himself a former county elected official.

MACo: Your background before getting the role as Secretary of Department of Natural Resources is pretty complicated… but for our county audience, it seems obvious to ask about your county experience. You were elected County Commissioner in Queen Anne’s County. How did serving in elected office prepare you for the visibility of the role as Secretary?

Belton: In addition to serving as County Commissioner in Queen Anne’s County, I was also County Administrator in three different counties within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. My county experience was ideal preparation for my role as Natural Resources Secretary. I feel particularly well versed on issues counties face and how a state agency like ours can be an asset in tackling them. For instance, local governments work to enhance land preservation and implement best practices to restore the bay every day. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources faces these same issues and we know the only way to succeed is by working together, across local communities and local governments, and in partnership with regional and federal organizations. The Department views local governments as partners and understanding county issues helps me be a better agency secretary.

belton aMACo: County Commissioner is famously one of those jobs where you get stopped at the supermarket by neighbors who know what you just voted for. Are you feeling some of that same face-to-face input as Secretary?

Belton: The demand on our natural resources is keen and there are competing—and sometimes incompatible—groups vying to use them. So, there are a lot of citizens interested in talking to me given my role. I recognize this and I’ve made it a priority to get out of the office and into communities whenever my schedule allows. I’ve urged my staff to do the same. In my first months as Secretary, I’ve had the chance to visit many parts of the state—from the coasts of Worcester County to the mountains of Garrett County. During these and future visits, I’m able to see our natural resources first-hand and better understand issues local governments and other organizations face as they manage these resources.

MACo: Your resume is full of other experiences that you bring to the table – time with the Navy in both active and reserve service, and some time at the Department of Natural Resources. How have all these things helped shape you as an agency leader?

Courtesy of MD DNR staff
Courtesy of MD DNR staff

Belton: As you pointed out, I spent 32-years of my career with the U.S. Navy, which helped me understand executive management and leadership in small, medium and large-sized organizations. My experience as Natural Resources Assistant Secretary during the Ehrlich administration gave me direct understanding of the organization, and most importantly, the agency’s goals, challenges and capabilities. Taken all together, my skill set and experience have provided me with an excellent foundation to take on the role of Secretary. I’m excited for what the agency and the state will accomplish with our local partners in coming years.

MACo: Okay, on to some more policy. The water quality effort for the Chesapeake Bay has been a major issue for years – with the state and counties adopting Watershed Improvement Plans and everyone targeting stormwater, nutrient runoff, and best practices. Several state agencies are overseeing parts of that huge effort. What role does the department play in all this?

Belton: In a recent Chesapeake Executive Council meeting, the Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners (including the Department) announced 29 Chesapeake Bay Watershed management strategies that fall into five broad categories: abundant life, clean water, climate change, conserved land and engaged communities. Clearly these areas directly apply to us and, in fact, we have taken the lead on 21 of the 29 strategies.

These strategies and their related action plans are paramount. If all of the bay states make collective progress on every one of the strategies, it will lead to a restored bay. Starting in 2017, and every two years thereafter, partners will monitor, assess and report progress on these strategies. It’s very important to me that Maryland continues to lead the way amongst our partners as we all work together to restore the bay. This is a primary goal of the agency during the Hogan administration.

MACo: When you spoke at MACo’s “Chesapeake Checkpoint” symposium this spring, you talked about bay cleanup efforts and really stressed your interest in building partnerships with counties and other stakeholders. I’m sure you saw all the nodding heads in the room. Can you elaborate on that – and tell us a little more about how you see Natural Resources and county leaders working together?

Belton: The Department currently works directly with our local partners and we want to enhance that partnership moving forward. It is our priority to be accessible to all local jurisdictions, understand concerns and discuss how we can help partner to solve problems. We have numerous tools, programs and services that benefit counties and stakeholders.

A great example of that is the Watershed Assistance Collaborative, which is a program offered through the Department in partnership with other state and federal agencies. The Collaborative provides services and technical assistance to communities to advance nonpoint source restoration activities and projects. (Nonpoint source pollution comes from many different sources and is caused by storm water runoff.) The program operates similar to a consulting service: appropriate experts teach best practices as well as provide funding opportunities for long-term restoration projects. This is an important initiative, especially for smaller counties.

belton bThe Chesapeake & Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund is another terrific tool for cost-effective nonpoint source pollution reduction projects for local governments. The Trust Fund encourages multi-year, multi-partner projects that will achieve the greatest reduction per dollar invested. This summer, Governor Hogan announced 14 projects that will receive a total of about $10 million in FY16 funding.

The Department also works very closely with local partners on expanding our network of public lands, trails, parks, wildlife sanctuaries and water access. Our land programs, including Program Open Space (both local and stateside), the Rural Legacy Program and the Maryland Environmental Trust, each provide a unique means to achieve land preservation in local communities. Our Boating Service’s Waterway Improvement Fund is another source of support, which provides improved public water access as well as important dredging services.

I encourage leaders to take advantage of all of these fantastic programs that can enhance bay restoration, land preservation and other significant priorities.

MACo: You also visited MACo’s offices to talk with our Legislative Committee, and during a nice Q&A session you heard a lot about oysters in the Bay. It seems like we’d be missing an opportunity if we didn’t ask for an update there. Anything new learned from this season’s catch, or otherwise coming from the Department or industry?

Belton: Oysters evoke a lot of passion in many Marylanders. One of my goals is to make appropriate changes to our oyster management plan. Next July, an important oyster sanctuary progress report will be published. We plan to use that data, which was collected over the last five years, and consult with experts to determine how the state can move forward with future large scale oyster restoration efforts that will leverage all of the success we have already realized in this area.

Courtesy of MD DNR staff
Courtesy of MD DNR staff

At the same time, the management plan needs to provide for continuing opportunity for the public oyster fishery. Our commercial watermen represent a traditional and important part of our state’s seafood industry and the economic benefits derived therein. We’re also in discussions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on streamlining the oyster aquaculture permitting process to help the many small businesses taking advantage of the growing sector of the bay-based economy.

MACo: One challenge that both county governments and the Department face is running and maintaining parks and recreational lands.  You chaired a Land Preservation Workgroup over the summer that looked at funding for Program Open Space and other land preservation programs.  Where do you think that Workgroup is headed? What do you expect out of that Workgroup?

Belton: The Workgroup has brought together a lot of enthusiastic people from the land preservation industry, including state, county, municipalities and private sector organizations. At the end of deliberations, the group will submit a report to the General Assembly on Maryland’s land preservation and easement acquisition programs.  The group has discussed the role of each program in meeting the state’s land preservation and recreation goals and the transfer tax funding that these programs receive.

Courtesy of MD DNR staff
Courtesy of MD DNR staff

There is wide agreement on three themes: 1. A return to full funding for programs funded through the transfer tax formula as soon as possible.  2. More flexibility for local governments in spending Program Open Space allocations on the acquisition and development projects that best meet their recreational and open space needs. 3. Recognition that the current programs are working well and shouldn’t be changed in any substantial way.

MACo: Finally, reform and efficiency has been a key theme of this administration.  Can you provide some details and highlight other programs the Department may be reviewing for potential reforms? 

Belton: One area is land acquisition and associated mineral rights. Many assume that when the Department looks at properties for acquisition, we only purchase property if the mineral rights are attached. We’re working on a policy that would allow both 1. Land acquisition to take place without the associated mineral rights and 2. To acquire mineral rights for publicly owned land where they’ve already separated.

Another item is water resources on our public lands. Our current policy is especially restrictive. We are researching a policy to broaden this opportunities for private and commercial entities, permitting them to use water from public lands while maintaining strict standards for natural resource protection. This could also allow for economic expansion where it makes sense.

Finally, given the advent of new technology like drones, we are establishing a policy for the use of drones on the half million acres of Maryland public lands.

MACo: Secretary, is there anything we didn’t cover but you’d like to have county leaders and our other readers hear about?

Belton: One item I’d like to note, to reach our goal of a restored Chesapeake Bay by 2025 requires a lot of financial resources. The state of Maryland has taken the lead amongst bay watershed states in seeking out innovative financing options, including pursuing private sector funding. In coming months, we will hold a bay restoration financing seminar that will explore potential opportunities, specifically nutrient trading. The Hogan administration is particularly supportive of this initiative and other alternatives.

belton cAlso, I can’t say it enough, land preservation and public access are key to bay restoration and to enhancing the lives of our citizens. There several exciting developments coming to Maryland and its citizens in the near term. We are working in partnership with the Maryland Port Administration to expand public recreation opportunities—like biking, birding and hiking — at Hart-Miller Island State Park, starting spring 2016. A new state park is also expected to open next year on the Eastern Shore: Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Cambridge. In southern Maryland, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has nominated Mallows Bay as a National Marine Sanctuary, marking a first for Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay region. The Department is also working with federal and local partners on enhancing access and recreational opportunities along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail, the nation’s first all-water National Historic trail. We are also working with organizations in Western Maryland on improving public access and developing sustainable trails in Garrett County.

I’m confident that the Department and our local partners will see great success in coming years as we work together to change Maryland for the better.

MACo: With that, we thank you so much for your high visibility in the county community – we’ve mentioned you speaking at our events, you were definitely out talking to county leaders all throughout the MACo summer conference, and your open door is a great signal to counties.