The push to preserve pristine Sideling Hill Creek Watershed: Nestled between Washington and Allegany counties is a stream whose basin remains 75 percent forested and sparsely populated. Conservationists are hoping to keep it that way.

On the Bay

December 06, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND IS among the smallest of these United States (42nd in size) and more densely populated than all but five other states. In a word, it's crowded.

But Daniel Boone knows better.

Dan, no relation to the fabled pioneer, and a much better naturalist -- says it's all in how and where one looks at the state.

Boone once drove from marshy, oystery Girdletree, on the southeastern corner of the Shore, to the strip-mined mountains of Kempton, in Garrett County's southwestern corner.

It took eight hours -- drive north as long, and you'd be in Boston.

And he crossed a virtual continent's worth of geological and biological "time zones," without ever leaving the state.

"From bald cypress to larch," is one way to look at the state's ecological expansiveness, says the Hagerstown native.

The cypress, a majestic denizen of Southern swamps, extends northernmost to the lower Delmarva Peninsula; and the larch, which grows farther north than any tree in North America, just reaches Maryland's mountains with its southward range.

From cypress to larch, Boone sees Maryland's flora and fauna as few others ever have, in an integrated way that we all need greater appreciation for.

He so shuns talking about himself that after years of knocking about the woods with him, I'm still filling in the gaps on Boone's accomplishments.

But go to any county of the state, where pockets of the rarest and finest and most endangered of our natural heritage have been protected. More often than not, you'll find its protection evolved from the explorations of Daniel Boone, or one of the naturalists he trained when he was head of Maryland's Natural Heritage Program.

Boone, now 40, is working on a doctorate in forest ecology at the University of Maryland's Appalachian Environmental Laboratory in Frostburg. At his small mountain farm nearby, surrounded by thousands of acres of state forestland, it is possible to see a

black bear wander down a meadow that serves as front yard to shake apples from a gnarled tree.

I wouldn't want to say Sideling Hill Creek is Boone's favorite haunt because he has so many excellent ones. But when I asked him to go for a late-autumn ramble there, it didn't take any prodding.

Years ago he put a mortgage on the family home to buy at auction some woods there, 54 acres his grandfather once owned, to have some creek-front where he could camp and fish and hunt.

The creek rises in Bedford County, Pa., and forms the border between Washington and Allegany counties, passing under Interstate 68 and draining into the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay.

Its 100-square mile drainage basin remains nearly 75 percent forested; and a basinwide population of about 2,200 people makes it one of the least crowded watersheds in the mid-Atlantic region.

There are panoramic views, creek winding far below, where one can see no trace of human influence, not even a light from a cabin or microwave tower.

The water quality is extraordinary and supports large populations of rare mussels and the world's healthiest population of ptilimnium (til-IM-nee-um) a globally rare aquatic wildflower (common name harperella).

And that is just the start of why Sideling Hill Creek is high on the list of "Last Great Places," an international campaign by The Nature Conservancy that has raised nearly $300 million to preserve treasure troves of natural diversity.

The Maryland conservancy chapter's goal is to raise $10 million to be used on Sideling Hill, on the Eastern Shore's Nanticoke and Pocomoke rivers, and on Nanjemoy Creek in Charles County.

Sideling Hill, Boone says as we hike in through big oaks toward the creek, "is the best chance we've got to preserve virtually the entire watershed" of a stream of this magnitude.

As is his almost unconscious habit, he rattles off a commentary on the species about us, without breaking stride:

"Nuthatch, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet, pileated [woodpecker]" -- all from bird song he hears in a space of 30 seconds or so.

In a clearing is a native grass, called deer tongue, "panicum clandestinum -- clandestinum because it hides its seeds in its top leaves see?"

Nearby is white snakeroot. The free-ranging cows of pioneers ate it, he says, and the toxins in their milk sickened and killed whole communities. "It's how Lincoln's mother died."

Knowing all these species is enriching and fun, Boone says, "but it's not really the point. the starting point, maybe."

It is comprehending how they all fit together into habitats that is the real magic.

For example, those world-class beds of ptilimnium, the little wildflower in the creek, are rooted in the very nature of the watershed.

The forested slopes keep the creek's waters pure and clear, but the shaly soils -- upthrusted rock of the Paleozoic -- are too poor and thin to store much rainfall.

The creek, therefore, is what hydrologists call "flashy," flooding quickly during rains and shrinking to a relative trickle in between since little ground water is stored to feed its flow.

The floods' scouring keeps forest on the banks from shading out the light-loving aquatics. The clear, shallow flows the rest of the time allow the rare wildflower light.

Similarly, the creek's undisturbed slopes hold an array of "microhabitats" like shale barrens, patches too dry and poor for trees to have encroached upon for thousands of years; and, there, a host of rare and specialized plants and insects have evolved.

The interaction among mountains and their forests, among their weather and soils and streambeds, ultimately is more complicated than Daniel Boone or anyone else can yet know.

But just knowing it is so -- that our actions almost never change just one thing -- is a valuable lesson that Sideling Hill Creek can teach us.

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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