Battling time and tide to save vanishing island

Crusade: Stephen L. White has committed $40,000 and his own labor to preserving what's left of remote Holland Island.


HOLLAND ISLAND -- When he closes his eyes, Stephen L. White can see it all: the neat row of white clapboard houses, the plain country schoolhouse, the skipjacks and work boats in the harbor, the steeple of the Methodist church. He can almost hear the crunch of long-ago footsteps on oyster shell roads that once cut through the marsh of his remote island.

It is his island now. Eighty years after most residents had bowed to the relentless Chesapeake tides, hauling their homes and belongings on barges and schooners to the Maryland mainland, White has drawn a quixotic line against erosion that has gobbled all but 80 acres of sand and marsh of Holland Island in the middle of the bay.

A developer-builder and former Methodist minister from Salisbury, White has put up $40,000 to buy the last remaining house and about 75 marshy acres. He has created the nonprofit Holland Island Preservation Foundation, supported by a handful of descendants of the islanders who lived in a village of 350.

Last year, he refurbished a dredge and had it hauled to the island, the first step toward erosion control on a crumbling 500-foot section of the island. He says he can stem erosion for a fraction of the normal cost by doing most of the work himself. All he needs is money -- maybe $140,000.

Robust at age 69, White plans to retire next year and devote all his considerable energy to saving Holland Island. His only worry is whether he'll live long enough to complete the project.

"I've got grant applications all over the place," White says. "We need to find people who want to do more than talk about preservation. The bay has barrier islands just like those on the ocean side. We have the know-how and the technology. I don't accept a fatalistic outlook that there's nothing we can do."

The best hope is a $20,000 matching grant White has secured from the state Department of Natural Resources shore erosion program. The money, reserved in an escrow account, won't be released until he comes up with $20,000 or more on his own. The grant program, which began in the 1970s and stopped awarding grants last month, has steered more than $500,000 to shoreline property owners, says administrator Leonard Larese-Casanova.

Coaxing a recalcitrant three-cylinder outboard motor that powers his beat-up, 16-foot skiff, White set out on a clear morning last week from a public landing near Wenona, the Somerset County town where he grew up.

The small boat crosses eight miles of choppy Tangier Sound. Dodging bobbing painted corks that mark hundreds of crab pots set out by watermen, he headed toward Holland Straits, the channel ringed by Holland, Bloodsworth, South Marsh, Adam and Spring islands.

Teeming with gulls, cormorants, herons and other sea birds, the flat strips of sand and marsh also provide habitat for a growing population of pelicans that began nesting in the marsh cord grass a few years ago.

Approaching Holland, which is about 10 miles north of Smith Island, an osprey hovered above a tall hackberry tree. Great blue herons and snowy egrets scattered at the sound of a boat motor.

"Once you see the wildlife out here, it's hard to imagine that this isn't worth saving, just for the habitat that's provided," he says.

White deftly maneuvered his small craft to a rickety dock. Even at high tide, there is no channel, and the greenish-brown water is about 2 feet deep.

The battered three-story house White first visited as a child -- when George Parkinson, his uncle, lived there as a caretaker in the 1940s and 1950s -- is perched precariously on what is the northern end of the island. Waves nearly lap the foundation.

Currents and tides have cut Holland into three slices, White says, with the largest maybe a mile long and a half-mile wide. About 75 graves, some dating to the 1700s, lie in a cemetery in a grove of stunted myrtle trees at Eagle Point on the southern end of the island. A smaller graveyard on Holland's north end was long ago claimed by tides.

White returned to the island for the first time in 30 years in 1989, and it was these graves, with the erosion that threatened the former caretaker's house, that compelled him to try to save what was left.

"I just don't like to listen to the naysayers. If we listened to them, nothing would ever get done," says White, who plans to donate his island property to the preservation foundation he started.

One of the skeptics is Kent Mountford, senior scientist at the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program office.

Like many bay specialists, Mountford sees rising sea levels as an inexorable pattern throughout the bay, a historical reality that has been observed since the Colonial era.

Expensive erosion control efforts, including the use of mud and sand dredged from Maryland shipping channels, might be more cost-effective if used to replenish larger islands near Holland that offer habitats, he says.

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