Endangered plant delays museum, boosts its cost

January 31, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

An obscure, grasslike plant with a 19-letter name has forced the clearing of more than an acre of trees and added $70,000 to the cost of a taxpayer-supported wildlife museum on the Eastern Shore.

Salisbury's $5.4 million Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art is expected to open four months late and about 80 feet from its original location because a rare aquatic plant was discovered growing in the pond over which part of the museum was to be built.

Eleocharis Robbinsii, also known as Robbin's Spikerus, has been listed since 1987 among the 618 species of plants and animals officially protected under Maryland law.

The discovery of Robbin's Spikerus in Schumaker Pond caught the attention of officials at the Department of Natural Resources, who persuaded the museum's foundation to move the site to dry land.

Redesigning the museum and clearing the new site cost about $70,000. It also meant the loss of about 1 1/2 acres of pine and other trees, said Ralph Bufano, executive director of the Ward Foundation.

"My question was, how endangered was it and was it worth losing all those trees?" Bufano said.

The 38,000-square-foot museum, to open in November 1992, is to display duck decoys, carvings and other artist representations of wildfowl. It also is to offer a collection of live waterfowl in natural settings, a workshop, lecture area and library. The state has committed about $1.5 million, with the rest of the money coming from private donations and local governments.

Bufano said he has never seen the plant, a perennial that has been underwater since fall.

"Maybe we'll have a special display on this weed," he said.

Bufano mentioned the case yesterday during an appearance before the Maryland Board of Public Works, which approved the foundation's purchase of land.

The story angered Gov. William Donald Schaefer, one of the board's three members. "Who made this decision?" the governor said. "Would you kindly take me down there to see the plant that caused this?"

Kathy McCarthy, coastal plain ecologist for the state, acknowledged later that there is not much to see. The plant grows in shallow water and looks like a single stalk of grass with a triangular cross-section, she said. It stands from a few inches to a few feet tall and is topped by a green, petalless flower.

"I think it's attractive. But I'm biased. I'm a botanist," McCarthy said. The plant is found in only three other places in Maryland, all on the lower Eastern Shore. It is, however, abundant in some other states and is not on the federal list of endangered plants.

Donald E. MacLauchlan, assistant secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, said even seemingly unimportant plants contribute to environmental diversity and can become important sources of pharmaceuticals. For example, antibiotics and cancer-fighting chemicals are being developed from some plants, he said.

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