Exploring idyllic corners of Lower Shore refuge

Wetlands, woodlands in vast protected tract

August 04, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

PUCKUM BRANCH -- Larry Walton proudly showed off a few of his favorite spots among the almost 120 square miles of Eastern Shore forest and wetlands newly protected from development in a three-state land purchase made public yesterday.

Walton managed the land for the past decade for the forest products division of Chesapeake Corp. of Richmond, Va.

The land -- 58,000 acres of which are in Maryland -- was recently sold to a timber subsidiary of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., a pension fund manager, but will become public property.

One of Walton's choice places is here on Marshyhope Creek, a spot also favored by Don Jackson of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"It was last January, and it was white from one bend to the next," recalls Jackson, sweeping his arm across a broad reach of river, covering perhaps a half-mile of water.

It was neither snow nor ice, but wild tundra swans that cloaked the creek, which flows from Delaware through Caroline and Dorchester counties here on the Lower Eastern Shore.

The swans, and myriad other waterfowl, are drawn each winter to this tributary of the Nanticoke River by the seclusion its miles of unbroken, forested banks provide for resting each night.

This remarkable gathering place for waterfowl is just one of many natural wonders that excite Jackson and natural resources experts about the land purchase.

Maryland, with the private, nonprofit Conservation Fund, is expected to complete the deal this month to buy the holdings scattered across five Eastern Shore counties for about $34 million.

Delaware and Virginia are simultaneously preserving 9,000 acres each of former Chesapeake lands.

The Puckum tract, where tall pines and hardwoods green the Marshyhope's banks for nearly six miles, was in full summer dress yesterday, the forest edge fringed with lighter greens of lily pads, and patches of wild rice glowing golden-green in the afternoon light.

The loudest sounds were bumblebees and wasps pollinating sweet-scented white blossoms along the shore, and the occasional shrilling of young ospreys overhead learning to dive on the river's abundant fish.

Jackson, the bay foundation's Nanticoke River manager, said Chesapeake had "set the example in this region" for environmentally sensitive commercial forestry. The company left larger uncut buffers along waterways than were required.

But even before the sale to Hancock, pressure within the company to develop some of the prime lands was increasing, Jackson and Walton say.

"I'm going to sleep better at night knowing these lands can never be developed," Jackson says.

Ensuring long-term preservation of the tracts will also benefit water quality and will link nicely with the acquisitions being made simultaneously by Delaware in the headwaters of the Nanticoke and Marshyhope, he says.

Walton's other stop yesterday was King's Misfortune, a 255-acre Wicomico County tract bordering Peters and Quantico creeks where they meander toward the lower Nanticoke.

As if cued, a pair of bald eagles soared among the fluffy cumulus clouds that reflected perfectly in the still water.

Ripe blueberries hung from bushes in a clearing, sweet to the taste. The forest interior was deliciously cool, the deep leaf litter on its floor cratered by the rooting of deer and wild turkey.

The big pine, sweet gum and oaks that front the creeks on high, level banks fairly shout "homesite," especially given the rampant sprawl that has earned Wicomico's countryside zoning the nickname of "trash zone."

Walton, in the past two years, had begun to wonder whether he could develop a few pricey waterfront lots here while preserving most of the shoreline.

If he could not persuade his employers that they could afford to continue timber harvests on interior portions of the tract, he said at the time, he was afraid the whole parcel would be sold to a developer.

Walton is as happy as anyone that this creek-front land, some of the Shore's most beautiful, will never be touched. But he has "serious concern" about the overall effect of Maryland taking over so much private timberland.

Despite announced plans to keep about half of it in commercial forestry, "I fear a lot of excellent timberland is going to get locked up," Walton says.

He adds: "And if too big a chunk is taken out of production, that is going to be devastating for the industry on the Shore and for the environment.

"If people are forced to get out of the tree business, they'll start growing homes on that land," he says.

Jackson says he thinks Walton's concern "is legitimate, but I have faith in the forestry plan" for half of the lands, to be worked out over the next year or two.

"And from the perspective of protecting an amazing amount of natural resources, there's nothing not to love about this purchase," Jackson says.

Also high on his list of favorite lands among those the state is buying, Walton says, is Island Pond in lower Dorchester, one of the state's most beautiful spots.

It emerges from the topographic breakpoint where the county's wooded upland falls away into the salt marshes between Fishing Bay and the lower Nanticoke, around Elliott Island.

Great swatches of still, black water braid through islands of huge old pines and hardwoods, with no sign of humanity as far as the eye can see. A waterfowl and wading-bird paradise, it supports some of the most lush growths of aquatic vegetation in Maryland.

Others include a fine old bald cypress swamp on the Pocomoke, and never-cut, bottom-land hardwood wetlands in Worcester.

Finally, there is a sentimental favorite, a 455-acre parcel near where U.S. 50 crosses the Nanticoke near Vienna, the Tom Tyler Nature Trail.

Created by Chesapeake forester Tom Tyler, now deceased, the trail winds 3,000 feet through forests with a stunning variety of vegetation.

"I am proud of how we cut [timber]," Tyler once said during a tour of the tract, "but I'm very proud of all we haven't cut, too."

Pub Date: 8/04/99

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