Above the busy Fort McHenry tunnel, a team of scientists, students and volunteers works on an environmental science project in a 10-acre man-made marsh.
For two years, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has helped direct restoration of the 15-year-old site, removing trash, tires and logs, planting marsh grass and luring fish, birds and other animals. Now, with the dedication Thursday of a field station, the aquarium is committed to maintaining the wetlands as a permanent project and is looking to the community for help.
Since 1998, scientists from the aquarium and Morgan State University students have been collecting and analyzing weather data at the site at the base of a hill next to a footpath that leads to the fort. More than 500 volunteers have spent several Saturdays picking up trash and planting marsh grass, and Baltimore Bird Club inventories species at the site weekly.
The marsh has been home to or visited by 78 bird species, including ospreys, screech owls, bluebirds, and purple martins. New bird boxes and osprey platforms might attract other residents. Fish, black snakes, crabs and turtles also live in the marsh. The aquarium recently planted an oyster colony in the water.
The marsh, easily seen from the footpath at the entrance to the park and marked by an informational sign, is covered with freshly planted green marsh grass and brown phragmites, a tall, wild grass that overtakes wetlands that have been stripped of their original wild plant life. When the tide is low, the grass is more visible, but during high tide, water floods the marsh.
"This is as urban as you can get," said Lori Denno, conservation policy analyst for the aquarium, referring to the marsh location. Denno said the marsh offers an opportunity to learn about how such a habitat can survive in a big city.
"Part of the problem with environmental issues in the past is that it's all been gloom and doom," said Denno. "And now we're telling people that there's hope and they can get involved."
Denno's office has been flooded with requests from local Scout troops, church groups and schools that want to schedule a private field day.
"In terms of access, this project is wide open for the public to get involved, and we're providing this opportunity to make a difference," said Glenn Page, director of conservation at the aquarium.
Trash, mostly plastic, is collected at the point where the marsh meets the bay. The aquarium has sponsored about 10 volunteer cleanup days in the past two years and has collected and logged more than 40,000 pieces of garbage.
"By the naked eye, the trash is the main problem," said Angie Lawrence, conservation project manager at the aquarium. "We can't do a lot without cleaning it up, and we can't do it" alone.
"After people spend five hours down in the marsh picking up trash, they're changed. They'll think twice before throwing something out," she said.
The water quality data collected from the site will help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency, partners in the project, learn more about the cause and effect of human activity on water quality in small watersheds. Denno said the aquarium hopes to link the data collected to its Web site by the end of the year, offering real-time statistics from the project, updated every 15 minutes.
Students from Morgan State are being trained to measure water quality and perform other scientific tests. When they're done, some students will be placed in jobs and internships with NOAA at estuaries across the country.
Local Boy Scouts have also adopted parts of the site, using the project to complete Eagle Scout badge requirements. Scouts are building low-impact boardwalks so scientists can gain access to data collection sites and are constructing a water quality monitoring platform at the site.
"When I first came to the aquarium, it was clear that we needed a very central and public location to really move beyond the exhibits and allow people to get involved with hands-on habitat restoration," Page said. "With a walk through the aquarium, it's a wonderful way to raise awareness, but what we want to do is raise that awareness to action. And we're doing it."