The Spikerush: $70,000 a Stalk

February 03, 1991

The state has saved a rare aquatic plant from having a $5.4 million wildfowl art museum built on top of it in Salisbury -- at the not insignificant cost of $70,000. We appreciate the Department of Natural Resources' dedication to environmental preservation, but the price in this case is too high.

At stake was a single strand of Robbins' Spikerush, one of 618 species of plants and animals protected by Maryland law. It sits in Schumaker Pond, over which part of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art was to be built. After its discovery, DNR wasted no time persuading the foundation to spend the money to move the museum site.

The foundation chose a spot 80 feet away, on dry land that unfortunately required clearing 1 1/2 acres of pine trees. We wonder, in nature's way, which was the greater environmental loss, Robbins' Spikerush or the wonderful tall pines. We know which cost more by the linear foot.

Maryland officials have commited $1.5 million to the waterfowl museum, which is named for two of the best-known waterfowl decoy carvers ever to practice the art -- the late Lem and Steve Ward of Crisfield, on Tangier Sound. Their art has grown rapidly in the past 20 years, but not as fast as the state's deftness for spending other people's money.

Ralph Bufano, executive director of the Ward Foundation, wondered at a meeting of the Board of Public Works this week: "How endangered was [the Robbins' Spikerush plant] and was it worth losing all those trees?" Good question. We're getting so we can't see the trees for the seaweed.

The plant grows in shallow water. Mr. Bufano has never seen the specimen that now has been so expensively preserved. But never mind, others can be found in Maryland. Still, Kathy McCarthy, coastal plain ecologist for the state, has a ready response for Mr. Bufano or anyone else unconcerned about the future of Robbins' Spikerush. "I think it's attractive," she said. "But I'm biased. I'm a botonist." We wonder what Lem and Steve Ward would have thought of this.

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