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Ajax Eastman, Wildlands Warrior, 1933 – 2018

By: Christine Grillo

In 1939, a six-year-old girl went for the first time to sleep-away camp on the shores of Sebago Lake in Maine, where her four older siblings were campers. She was the youngest child at camp but unafraid, and when her camp counselor asked her name, she told him “Alice June,” after her grandmothers. “Alice June” was contracted to “A.J.,” and then at a weekly council fire the director pronounced her “Ajax the Mighty,” after the Greek mythological character. She remained “Ajax” until her death last week, at the age of 84.

Ajax Eastman married, raised four sons, and worked tirelessly—without pay—for environmental issues, especially the establishment of wildands in Maryland. As one of a group of fearless women who championed environmental issues since the 1970s, Ms. Eastman helped to preserve ecosystems across Maryland, from Western Maryland through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Eastern Shore. With mentors and friends, she helped to protect and preserve thousands of acres along the Gunpowder River, in Oregon Ridge, at Puzzley Run in the West, and Black Marsh in the East. In 1999 Governor Parris Glendening of Maryland commissioned her an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay.

She crusaded to keep green places green and wild places wild.

One of Ms. Eastman’s biggest projects, inspired by her mentor Beth Hartline, was their work to designate wildlands in Gunpowder Falls State Park. Anyone familiar with the sprawling, undeveloped land that follows the contours of the Gunpowder Falls might be surprised to learn that at one time there were plans afoot to install tennis courts, ball fields, and swimming pools—all inappropriate for a riverine park. Working with Hartline and two other dedicated women, Vera Reiner and Louise Matzinger, who were also on the State Advisory Commission, Ms. Eastman scuttled those development plans, and eventually got three wildlands designated in the park: the Panther Branch, Mingo Branch, and Sweathouse Branch. In that same park, just below the Pretty Boy Reservoir, you’ll find the Hartline-Eastman Wildland, named in honor of their work.

“My proudest achievement is the Maryland Wildlands,” Ms. Eastman told me in 2014.

Operating since 1973, the Maryland Wildlands Preservation System sets aside parcels of state-owned land and designates them official wildlands. This is a long process involving review by public officials, a recommendation by the governor, and a vote by the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis. But when it works, hundreds and thousands of acres inside of state parks and state forests are protected from development. Wildlands are left undisturbed and allowed to evolve in perpetuity. Beth Hartline was the visionary behind and the founder of the Wildlands Committee. The duo—Eastman and Hartline—spent 25 years working to get 14,000 acres designated as wildlands.

Several years ago, the General Assembly and Governor O’Malley approved the designation of 22,000 more acres. From Western Maryland’s Appalachian Mountains to the Eastern Shore, these lands protect several rich ecosystems. (Maryland alone has five different ecosystems.) “This is a done deal,” said Ms. Eastman at the time. “I’m in seventh heaven.”

Lynn Jordan, an environmental activist sister-in-arms, remembers Ajax Eastman spending countless hours lobbying for environmental issues before the State Legislature in Annapolis. “You would have to show up at 10 a.m. to sign in and sometimes didn’t get to testify until that evening. I saw Ajax do a lot of knitting in Annapolis.”

“Glendening was the first Maryland governor to embrace the environmental groups,” said Ms. Eastman. Maryland now has more than 43,000 acres set aside in 15 counties.

Baking five loaves of bread a week and raising four sons with her husband, whom she called “Easty,” Ms. Eastman worked on another project in which she was the leading force—the Coalition to Preserve Black Marsh, a project that Ms. Jordan describes as eight years of hard, heavy slogging.

“There were brutal fights [between activists and developers],” she said. With help from her friends, Ms. Eastman battled to preserve the marsh near North Point State Park as swamp and woodlands area, safe from development as a marine recreation center. She tips her hat to her friend and mentor Judy Johnson, “the human dynamo” who founded the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island in the 1960s, a time when there were plans to build a 30-mile highway, a 14,000-car parking lot, and motels on the island.

Ellie Kelly is another member of Ms. Eastman’s cohort, who started her forays into activism by working on zoning ordinance issues. With Ms. Eastman and others, she tried to prevent Pepsi from building a bottling facility in the Jones Falls Valley in Baltimore, fairly close to the riverbank. They failed in their attempts—but the plant closed and was sold in 2015.

“Whenever there was a flood, Ajax and I used to say, ‘Oh, I hope it floods Pepsi.’” Their wish came true many times.

Through all these decades of fighting to keep Maryland green and wild, one of Ms. Eastman’s co-warriors has been Polly Walker, a physician, a co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a winner of the Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Community Service. In reflecting on Ms. Eastman’s contributions, Ms. Walker refers to the quote attributed to Margaret Mead—“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed group of citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“Ajax Eastman was undaunted by those who said it couldn’t be done, whether it was walking across the state of Maryland to support a bottle bill or mobilizing citizens to protest carving ball fields and tennis courts out of beautiful land along the Gunpowder River,” says Ms. Walker. “Ajax was a vital part of many groups and many times stepped up to lead the charge.”

Image: Gunpowder Falls State Park, DNR.