Chesapeake Insider

Nancy Merrill


Early in her career, Nancy Merrill spent five years with The Conservation Fund in Arlington, VA, helping to get the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail established with the National Park Service. Today, she is the volunteer and outreach program coordinator for the South River Federation in Annapolis, MD. She has worked as an environmental educator for Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Friends of the Rappahannock. Nancy is the president of the Merrill Family Foundation and serves on Chesapeake Conservancy's Chesapeake Council.

The Chesapeake Bay was a big part of your childhood. What was it like for you growing up with a love of the water?

I grew up as a "river rat," fishing and crabbing on the Severn River in Annapolis, MD. I even went to school by boat! I got my first boat at the age of 9, which was a 10-foot rubber raft with a 2-horsepower engine. I wasn’t allowed to leave the creek, but I often went to what my family called “Far-Away Island," which was a half-acre sand spit about 400 yards away. A lot of times, I swam the boat back because I couldn’t get the engine started again. Unfortunately, “Far-Away Island” washed away when the underwater grass died off in the mid-1980s.

It seems like growing up on the Chesapeake Bay inspired your career. Did you know as a young student that you would pursue a career in conservation?

I was a history major and thought I would go into business. I didn’t know you could have a career in conservation. I attended Cornell University which didn’t even offer an environmental sciences major when I went to college. My friends teased me when I became an “environmental educator." They had never heard of such a thing and suggested that I get a real job. My father kept asking me where my office was located and he never did understand that for three years it was a Ford pick-up truck and a trailer full of canoes. Today I am very grateful that none of the places I have ever worked ever felt like a "real job." When that "real job" feeling starts to creep up on me, I just go into the field and get muddy and wet and the feeling passes.

Who have been your mentors in the conservation movement?

Don Baugh, who was vice-president for education at Chesapeake Bay Foundation modeled for me what a meaningful field trip experience felt like as a participant and shared with me the core building blocks on how to create “wow!” experiences. He also always took the time to talk to me about switching jobs or going back to school.

Pat Noonan, founder of The Conservation Fund and president of The Nature Conservancy for decades, was another strong influence. He taught me how to get very passionate people with fundamental different views to work together toward a common goal. His outlook on solving environmental issues is fundamentally capitalistic. He harnesses and leverages people’s self interests towards a greater good. Both of them believed in teaching through experience, not speech. They would tell me a goal they wanted to accomplish (sometimes I just got a sheet with some names and phone numbers), and they would push me out the door telling me “when I figured it out to get back to them.” I was usually a third of the way through the process before I even identified what the “it” even was that I needed to figure out. However, I admit that working for them honed my problem-solving and analytical skills.

You're very busy, do you manage to find time to mentor students?

The last two years, I have supervised the South River Federation’s Chesapeake Conservation Corps volunteers through a one-year training program. I probably use the same “figure it out” approach as my mentors, but perhaps with a little more speech on why I am throwing them in head first.

When you're not working, what's your favorite place to visit in the Chesapeake?

I love to sail and belong to the Chesapeake Boating Club in Annapolis, so in the summer I often go sailing out on the Bay between the Bay Bridge and Thomas Point Light. My absolute favorite bay activity is “gunkholing” where you take a kayak or skiff up to the top of a creek where it is so shallow you are poking holes in the Chesapeake bottom gunk. I still have a few left to poke into on the South River. I am amazed at how many of the sites featured here on  I have been to during my career.  They are all unique and special and worth a visit. The next two adventures on my list to visit are Mallows Bay on the Potomac River and the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. I have retraced all of Captain John Smith’s voyages around the Bay, except for his first three days on the lower eastern shore, and those missing creeks are calling my name.

Nancy, thank you for dedicating your career to the Chesapeake! Your passion and enthusiasm for the Bay run deep. Of all of the Bay's beautiful places, where are some of the most special to you?

While I grew up on the Severn River, I spent a lot of time in my young twenties on Tangier Island where I was an educator for Chesapeake Bay Foundation. For me, Smith and Tangier Islands and the surrounding marshes represent the soul of the Chesapeake.

Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge

The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, contains 1415 acres of maritime forest, myrtle and bayberry thickets, grasslands, and fresh and brackish ponds.

Smith Island Center

Small museum on Smith Island, home to many working watermen, tells the story of working and living on the Bay.

Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center

A living history museum of Tangier Island and its people who have worked with the island and water for over 250 years.

Jody Couser

Jody is the senior vice president of communications with the Chesapeake Conservancy. She has a public relations background and served as spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County, MD. 

March 27, 2017

Main image: Nancy Merrill (Image courtesy: Chesapeake Conservancy)
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