The nature of the city Ecology: Scientists are examining unpristine Baltimore to find how we've altered our landscape over centuries.

November 11, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

In Southwest Baltimore, Ian Yesilonis and Alysia Koufos take water samples from the Gwynns Falls, something ecologists do every day on streams and ponds around the world.

But first, they take a rare precaution for such studies: They don latex gloves, to ward off any harmful bacteria. This stream is littered with garbage where it flows beneath Interstate 95, just a chip shot from a municipal golf course at Carroll Park.

Yesilonis and Koufos, graduate students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, are part of a pioneering ecological study of the city and its suburbs that began earlier this year.

"We try to treat this as though it were sewage," explains Yesilonis, as he uses a long pole to dip a bottle into the deceptively clear, rushing water. Behind him, the tree branches are festooned with tattered plastic bags. An empty can clatters down the bank from the highway bridge above.

Ecologists tend to spend their time studying nature, not civilization. But in a long-range research project underwritten by the National Science Foundation, more than 30 scientists from around the country are getting nearly $4.4 million to examine decidedly un-pristine Baltimore over the next five years.

It is a novel blend of natural and social science. Some researchers are monitoring the Gwynns Falls, which flows from the sprawling suburbs of Owings Mills to Baltimore's gritty harbor. Others are plumbing the mud along the stream to find how people have altered the landscape through the centuries.

Still others are teaching students to test their schoolyard soil, or working with community leaders to reduce environmental and health hazards in inner-city neighborhoods.

The Baltimore study, along with a similar one in Phoenix, Ariz., aims to help residents understand how they interact with their local environment -- and perhaps how to change it.

"I think we can really provide information that can help people improve their quality of life," said Steward T. A. Pickett, head of the project and director of the Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Tracking subtle shifts

The Baltimore study is one of 21 long-term ecological research projects, stretching from Alaska to Antarctica, financed by the foundation.

Scientists hope that by monitoring these sites -- mostly grasslands, deserts, forests, lakes and coastal areas -- they can track subtle shifts in plants and animal populations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

As with most ecological studies, the Baltimore project seeks to determine how energy and matter flow into and out of the research area, and what role different organisms play in the ecosystem.

But in this case, the dominant organisms are humans, and their influence extends from individual actions such as dumping trash to government policies dictating how land will be developed.

"For ecologists, this really is a very new thing," said Grace S. Brush, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University and one of the project's principal investigators. "Humans were something to avoided. For me, at least, it has changed my thinking -- to look at humans as part of the natural system."

Brush, a paleo-ecologist, is studying sediments drawn from marshy spots along the Gwynns Falls to get a picture of how the stream has been altered by the growth of the city.

"If you don't know what happened before, how are you going to know what to expect?" she said. The research is an extension of work she has done tracking changes that have occurred in the Chesapeake Bay since Europeans settled the region almost 400 years ago.

Where beavers ruled

Since historical records indicate European settlers engaged in a thriving fur trade when they arrived, she theorizes that beaver once ruled the Gwynns Falls, damming the stream and flooding much of what is concrete and lawns today. But the beaver were trapped out, and the stream's flow and vegetation altered radically.

"I would like to be able to reconstruct the landscape as the beavers had it," Brush said. Understanding the stream's history may help restore it, she suggested.

Much of the study focuses for now on the Gwynns Falls watershed, which drains 66 square miles of northwestern Baltimore County and the western half of the city. Though only a small slice of the overall metropolitan area, it contains some of the region's older neighborhoods, and some of its newest suburban sprawl.

"This is the first time it's been done; it's better to start small," said Richard V. Pouyat, a U.S. Forest Service geologist who is studying how development affects soil, plant health and water quality.

The area through which Gwynns Falls runs is more than three-fourths urban, with pavement or buildings on more than half of the land. Less than one-fourth remains in forest or farmland.

Wild things

Amid the asphalt desert, some wild things still flourish.

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