As an avid hiker and bicyclist, Martha Shimkin follows the mantra of “leave no trace” when outside, but she also tries to go one step farther.

“I want to go beyond that and say not just ‘leave no trace’ but ‘how do I make it better?’” she said. That could mean picking up some litter or sprucing up a cabin along the trail.

Now, as the recently named director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office, she hopes to apply that philosophy to restoration efforts.

“What we’re really looking forward to is not just restoring and protecting and conserving, but also handing up something to the next generation that is even better,” Shimkin said.

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The office coordinates state and federal efforts to restore the nation’s largest estuary, and she is its fifth director or acting director in less than four years. Unlike her immediate predecessors, most of whom came from outside the program, Shimkin is already deeply involved in the state-federal partnership, having served as the Bay Program deputy director since May 2021.

“I’m not hitting the ground running but rather continuing the sprint,” she said.

Mid-Atlantic EPA Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz chose Shimkin for the post in December, saying it was a “critical time for the Chesapeake Bay” and that her leadership “will be crucial in carrying that effort forward.”

It is, as Ortiz said, a pivotal time for the 41-year-old partnership. Bay restoration progress has often been slow. That’s led to frustration among many advocates, while others question whether some cleanup goals are achievable in a watershed that has seen significant population growth and development since efforts began in 1983.

The CBPO supports the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program, which includes Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA.

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Shimkin acknowledged some surprise that her career path had led to the Bay Program. The Kansas native attended North Park University in Chicago, where she studied Swedish, German and business administration. There, she joined a service project that built a school in Haiti.

Afterward, she served with the Peace Corps, helping people with disabilities in Costa Rica, and then landed a job with the EPA in Washington as a junior budget analyst working on pesticide programs.

“I thought I was in the extreme dorkiest position,” she said. “I didn’t want my friends to know I was the budget analyst for pesticides.”

But she worked her way up, joining the agency’s international office, where she used her earlier experiences to negotiate an agreement with Central American countries to remove lead from gasoline, which would help improve the health of children.

That led to an increased focus on child health initiatives. For six years, she ran a consulting business that worked with United Nations agencies to protect children from environmental hazards. She returned to the EPA, where she went on to hold several positions related to water, chemical safety and fiscal management.

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She then was encouraged to consider working with the Bay Program, a voluntary partnership that makes decisions by building consensus among bay states and the EPA.

“The reason … I was asked if I might be interested in the Chesapeake Bay Program is because of that international experience I have in negotiating, coordinating and finding consensus, knowing that everyone is kind of sovereign and on their own but that we have a common cause for the good,” she said.

It is a challenging time for the Bay Program. Much of its work is guided by the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which established 31 “outcomes” covering issues such as nutrient pollution, oyster restoration, tree cover in urban areas, environmental education, fish passage and others. Most were to be attained by 2025.

The program is on track to meet about half of those but will miss at least 10 — many by a wide mark — including key goals for wetland restoration, streamside forests and nutrient reduction.

It will be the third time the Bay Program missed a goal to reduce the amount of water-fouling nutrients that reach the Chesapeake. While reductions have been made, it is far short of its objective, and there is no clear trajectory to indicate that the goals could be attained in the foreseeable future.

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A landmark report from the Bay Program’s scientific and technical advisory committee last year noted that current programs and policies are unlikely to achieve nutrient reduction goals and that some of the water quality objectives may not be attainable.

It called for placing more emphasis on improving water quality and habitats in shallow water areas and tributaries where efforts would provide more direct benefit to fish, shellfish and other aquatic life.

Shimkin said that determining what happens after 2025 is the greatest challenge facing the Bay Program. She is co-chair of a 29-member committee tasked with making recommendations about what comes next — something sure to put her negotiating skills to the test. The committee could suggest modifying and extending objectives and deadlines based on new scientific information, recommend drafting a new bay agreement or offer ideas for something totally different.

“I think that coming out with a good solid recommendation that we all can get behind is the most daunting project before us, and the most important, for so many aspects of the partnership,” Shimkin said.

In the meantime, she said, the goals of the 2014 agreement remain in place, and the EPA and states will continue striving to meet them.

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“We do have an agreement,” she said. “It doesn’t expire in 2025. If we don’t meet all the goals — and we’ve heard we won’t meet all the goals — we will continue to work as hard as we can and keep going.”

Although there are challenges, she also sees opportunities. Record amounts of federal money are coming into the bay region to bolster restoration efforts. And she sees establishing a clear path forward post-2025 as a chance to build broad support for efforts not only among the states but the public at large.

In the end — just as when trying to do better than “leave no trace” on a trail — she sees that effort as an opportunity to leave the bay better off for future generations. “That’s inspiring and motivating to me,” she said.

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