His Passion Is Saving Our Great Waters

Peter Alexander (MS '04) first heard about the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England (AUNE) while waiting for a Southwest Airlines flight at the St. Louis airport. It was 2001, and an energy efficiency program that Alexander had been developing for the U.S. Department of Energy had been canceled after the national elections. He was thinking of returning to school."

By luck, Cindy Thomashow, a core faculty member in AUNE's Environmental Studies department, was waiting for the same flight. She told him about the program. "I set my sights on it, and entered AUNE in 2002," Alexander said. Two years later, he graduated with a degree in environmental advocacy and organizing.

"If there was ever a poster child to use this degree, I'm it."

An Outdoor Childhood

Growing up, Alexander passed his summers at his grandfather's log cabin on the coast of Maine and on his family's small island in Casco Bay with no electricity, running water, cars or telephones. "I spent all my childhood outdoors," he said. "My passion for this work is deeply rooted in my childhood experience."

These days, he works to rescue and protect some of those childhood places for the future. A resident of Portland, Maine, he collaborates with a growing coalition that advocates for U.S. water bodies that he passionately insists need immediate protection and rehabilitation. Since 2008, he has been working to find the money and generate the political will to restore the Gulf of Maine.

While at AUNE, Alexander had worked for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, a Brattleboro, Vermont-based nonprofit engaged in advocacy and education about nuclear power. He continued there after graduation until he went to work in Madison, Wisconsin, planning communications for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. In 2008, as a consultant with his own firm, called Talking Conservation, he organized a massive media campaign for the coalition. Later that year, Alexander and his partner, Johannah Harkness ('05 Applied Psychology), moved to Portland, where he began organizing the Gulf of Maine Habitat Restoration and Conservation Initiative.

Saving the Gulf of Maine

The gulf drains nearly 70,000 square miles of land in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and three Canadian provinces. Its waters and shoreline shelter more than 4,000 species of fish, birds and sea creatures. Its fisheries alone are worth more than $1 billion annually.

But all is not well in the gulf. Red tide is a recurring problem-in 2009, the whole coast of Maine was closed to clam and mussel harvesting. Last summer thirty-three beaches in Massachusetts were closed on a single day because of high bacteria levels, and an invasive European shrimp was found for the first time in gulf waters. Climate change is raising sea levels. And a recent Environmental Protection Agency report on U.S. estuaries labeled the Northeast "poor."

The work Alexander did on Great Lakes restoration has culminated in congressional approval of nearly $800 million so far. But in the Northeast, he found no similar approach to the sprawling gulf, only scattershot, occasional funding.

The Gulf of Maine was late to the party, he said. "The only way we were going to be able to increase the pace of restoration was to have a comprehensive strategy and to convince Congress that the need was so great that it needed to have money dedicated to that purpose."

Gathering stakeholders from a wide array of agencies and organizations across three states was his "crowning achievement," he said. The result, called the U.S. Gulf of Maine Habitat Restoration and Conservation Plan, was released in December 2010. It calls for more than $3 billion over the next five years for restoration work. That investment would be paid back two or three times over in growth, tourism, property values and other activity, Alexander said. But, of course, money is not so easy to come by these days. For instance, Alexander worked with several organizations to ask Congress for $70 million to jump-start habitat restoration in several Northeast waterways last year. "It went nowhere, because it was seen as nothing but an earmark," Alexander said. "But the ecosystem cannot wait-the longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes and the more intractable the problems become."

Meanwhile, the project's momentum convinced the American Great Waters Coalition (Alexander is a founding member of its steering committee) to designate the Gulf of Maine as one of the Great Waters. Launched in December 2010, the coalition comprises organizations from the national to the local level that want to protect and restore the country's signature bodies of water.

Alexander is now director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northeast Great Waters Program, working out of Montpelier, Vermont. True to the place-based philosophy of AUNE, he is also deeply engaged in his community. He's president of Opportunity Maine, a policy think tank and advocacy organization; a board member for the First Parish Meeting House in Portland; and president of Maine Songwriters Association.

Want to see Alexander in another role, as singer/songwriter? Check out the song he wrote about the health care issue-Begging for Change: the Health Care Blues-on YouTube.

March 2011