Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Open forum: A natural gem slipping away

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by Dick Cooper

When my wife and I first saw people milling around several cars on the roadside at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, we thought we had come upon a bad accident. But as we drove closer, we saw they had all pulled over to witness an amazing scene of nature.

Thousands of snow geese and tundra swans were taking flight from a field, swirling in thick white clouds, as the winter sun set over the vast marsh.

We grabbed our cameras and joined the small crowd. The sky was alive and we were permanently hooked on the beauty of Blackwater on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. We have returned several times in different seasons to enjoy the ever-changing vistas and abundant wildlife.

The more we visit, however, the more concerned we’ve become about Blackwater’s future.

The marsh is sinking at an alarming rate. Each year, 100 acres of this critical marshland slip under the water. That is like losing two-thirds of the National Mall in Washington, D.C, each year. Since 1933, almost 8,000 acres of grassland have become Blackwater Lake, a 12-square-mile shallow pool pushed by a wind-driven tide that keeps lapping away its edges. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who administer the refuge, say that if the erosion is not stopped, much of the preserve’s 27,000 acres could be under water in 10 to 15 years.

Several forces have combined to put Blackwater in jeopardy, going back almost 200 years to when a hand-dug canal turned the freshwater marsh brackish. Since then, rising sea levels and extensive damage done by nutria, a big, muskrat-like rodent imported from South American, have further weakened the fragile marsh.

In April, attendees at an annual gathering of leading scientists and citizens concerned with the Chesapeake marshlands’ future heard mixed messages of hope and concern.

One reported success was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts to eradicate nutria. The rodents, which can grow to almost 20 pounds, eat the roots of the grasses that hold a marsh together. Once that mat is gone, the marshes easily wash away. The nutria’s numbers had gone from a few raised in the 1940s for their fur to more than 30,000 by the early 2000s. But since 2002, U.S.D.A. technicians have killed almost 12,000 nutria in the Blackwater refuge, and Steve Kendrot, director of the project, told the audience that in 2007 technicians found just 15 nutria in the refuge.

Federal and Maryland officials now place a lot of hope on the use of spoil dredged from the Chesapeake Bay’s shipping channels to rebuild the failed marsh. They point to the successful rebuilding of Poplar Island in the Bay. In April, $196,800 in federal money was appropriated to study how to get the spoil inland from the Bay to Blackwater.

Chris Spaur of the Army Corps of Engineers said it could be ‘‘one or two decades” before any work is started. ‘‘And who knows what Blackwater will look like by that time.”

But, Suzanne C. Baird, marshlands complex manager, said, ‘‘We are not waiting around with our hands in our pockets.” She is moving ahead with efforts to stabilize marshes, especially where there has been recent land loss.

There are signs that those who have sounded the alarm about Blackwater have been heard. The comprehensive management plan for Blackwater calls for the marshes to be restored to 1933 levels. Friends of Blackwater, a non-profit organization with more than 800 members, supplies volunteers to help the government with its efforts. The state of Maryland stepped in last year to scale back a major housing and resort planned to be built on the headwaters of the Little Blackwater River and elected officials have visited the marsh to see for themselves what damage has been done.

The real concern for the future of the marshes, however, is summed up on Blackwater’s Web site, http:⁄⁄⁄blackwater⁄restore.html.

‘‘Efforts have been ongoing to save the wetlands at Blackwater Refuge.... But with the predicted increases in sea level rise, Blackwater Refuge will not survive without a major restoration effort taken on jointly by government agencies, non-governmental organizations and the concerned public.”

Let’s hope that cooperation comes together quickly enough to save Blackwater. The stakes are high. In addition to being home to hundreds of species of plants and animals and a major wintering ground for migratory waterfowl, the marshes provide a natural barrier against storm damage and protect the most populated areas of Dorchester County, which surrounds the refuge.

Dick Cooper spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and in 1972 won the Pulitzer Prize for General Local Reporting. He lives and sails in St. Michaels, Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.