Highway agency hopes to transform derelict gravel mine into swampland Effort aims to create 73 wetland acres

September 26, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

From the ruins of civilization, the State Highway Administration is planting the seeds of a new wilderness.

To compensate for natural areas destroyed during the expansion of roads in Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, the SHA is attempting to convert the derelict remains of an old gravel mine near Wayson's Corner into a thriving wildlife habitat and wetlands.

Workers under the direction of James D. Hade, a landscape architect with the SHA, have pulled rusty, discarded appliances, used tires, tattered rugs and other refuse from the 138-acre site between Sands Road and the Patuxent River.

"We could have opened a carpet store with all the old rugs we pulled out of there," said Charlie Adams, the SHA's chief environmental officer.

The landscape of the mine, which was excavated and closed before many of the state's reclamation laws took effect two decades ago, looks radically different from its appearance last year. What Mr. Hade describes as a "moonscape" is giving way to grassy terraces and shallow lakes surrounded by an emerging forest.

But the idea that humans can create wetlands to replace those they destroy is viewed skeptically by environmentalists and scientists who either have watched previous attempts fail or believe artificial wetlands are a bad bargain.

"There aren't many glowing examples of [artificial] wetlands . . . that we can point to," said Mike Hirschfield, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Even if it works perfectly, you are trading off between watersheds, . . . creating sacrifice zones for the benefit of other areas."

Federal law requires that wetlands, which help control flooding and filter pollutants from storm water runoff, be replaced. Forested wetlands must be replaced with twice as many acres as were destroyed.

The Sands Road site, bought in 1973 by Anne Arundel County as part of a "greenway" along the Patuxent, is meant to compensate for about 35 acres of wetlands destroyed during construction along Routes 214, 4, 50, 3, 29 and 202.

When all is said and done, Mr. Hade said, the SHA hopes to have created 73 acres of wetlands, providing habitat for bald eagles, osprey and other wildlife as well as natural flood controls.

Over the years, the Patuxent has sacrificed some of its natural ability to accommodate floods to the human appetite for waterfront homes, agricultural land and roads, Mr. Adams said. It also has lost much of the surrounding vegetation, its only natural protection from pollutants and sediments swept off the land by flood and other storm waters.

The tidal basins, terraced fields and forested wetlands being constructed at the old gravel mine will replace some of what has been lost, Mr. Adams said.

The SHA's work began there in 1992 and won't be done until at least 1995. Except for a maintenance road, which eventually may be converted into a nature trail for hikers, the ground is being excavated down to the water table. Mr. Hade said his crew has moved 680,000 cubic yards of earth.

At a cost of $40,000 to $70,000 an acre, the SHA also is to plant more than 45,000 red and black oak, dogwood, shellbark hickory and spice bush trees. Those species were chosen because of their compatibility with wetlands.

L The project will cost more than $2.1 million in state money.

A decided transformation already has taken place, said Tolly Peleuche, chief of environmental programs for the Anne Arundel Department of Parks and Recreation.

When the SHA began work, the Sands Road mine looked much as it probably did when the county bought it in 1973, Ms. Peleuche said. The mine was stripped of its topsoil, ensuring that little would grow there, she said.

"It was a disaster area when I first saw it," Ms. Peleuche said. "It was unusable and too expensive for [the county] to fix."

Birds and other wildlife have flocked to the new mud flats and tidal ponds, said Kathie Lambert, a member of the Anne Arundel County Bird Club and Maryland Ornithological Society. Ms. Lambert began surveying birds at the site last spring and has documented more than 90 species.

"Tromping through it, it definitely is not a natural wetland," she said. "But it's real young yet. I'm anxious to see what it looks like in a couple of years."

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