Helping hand for the Nanticoke

ON THE BAY

Conservation: The Nature Conservancy is using strategic land purchases to maintain riverine habitat

July 14, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

It's one of the sweet spots in Chesapeake country to float your boat, here where the Nanticoke River sweeps down out of Delaware and swallows its largest tributary, Marshy Hope Creek, before bending off south toward Tangier Sound.

Stop paddling, cut the engine. Let the eddies slowly rotate your view across miles of nearly unbroken forest that surround the broad confluence and cloak the banks, upriver and down.

Around the confluence, ospreys and herons are common traffic, and eagles are becoming so. By day, the wooded swamps ring with birdsong. By night, they reverberate with the howls and hoots of owls. Some evenings, a flock of wild turkeys perches there.

Each in its season, wild rice sends its frothy, green-golden seed heads high above the tidal mud flats, cardinal flower and swamp iris bloom from the shaded recesses of the swamp edge, and spawning 60-pound rockfish roll and thrash in the shallows.

The confluence is a place so lovely, vital and natural, you wish it could stay that way forever. And it just might, thanks to groups like The Nature Conservancy.

The Maryland-D.C. chapter of the organization decided several years ago to make the Nanticoke a conservation focus. Several of its strategic land purchases, including a recent one that came just as timber harvesting was to begin, have gone a long way to ensure a natural future for the area.

Many other groups - local, state and national, public and private - are also working hard to protect this big, relatively unspoiled Delmarva Peninsula river and its watershed.

But the conservancy seized on it early and moved effectively. I have frequently found the group out front and on the cutting edge of preserving nature, locally and nationally.

For example, it long ago formed partnerships with military bases, recognizing that the nation's 28 million acres of military lands harbor a lot of the endangered plants and animals left in America.

The group also got sophisticated, early on, about the role of fire in the landscape, realizing that a surprising number of ecosystems are adapted to - even dependent on - frequent burning, an aspect of nature actively suppressed during the past half-century.

Now the buzz at the conservancy is "ecoregional planning," says Liz Zucker, director of its Nanticoke Project.

"Plants and animals don't recognize political boundaries," Zucker says. Accordingly, the conservancy's scientists have remapped the 50 states into 63 ecoregions, from the size of Rhode Island to the size of Texas. These range from the Northern Tallgrass Prairie, cutting through several Midwestern states, to our own Chesapeake Lowlands.

Based on geology, climate and the natural ranges of plant and animal communities, ecoregions form a basis for planning how to most efficiently preserve the full range of America's natural diversity.

Even the conservancy, with an annual budget topping a half-billion dollars, can't buy it all, though the group has helped protect more than 10 million acres nationwide, and 50,000 acres in Maryland since 1976. But the conservancy says that by strategically preserving 15 percent to 25 percent of the lands in a given ecoregion, a huge percentage of its biological diversity can be protected.

Strategies could include outright purchase of a small Delmarva Bay, which is a type of ancient wetland, rich in rare plants and amphibians, found in the Nanticoke area. Or getting landowners to grant voluntary easements, for federal tax credit, to create green corridors for wildlife migrations.

The Nanticoke is one of 500 strategic project areas the conservancy envisions within its ecoregions. Its watershed cuts across the heart of Delmarva, from the marshes of lower Dorchester, through the forested swamps and uplands of Caroline and Wicomico counties, into the remnants of the Great Cypress Swamp that once dominated lower Delaware nearly to the Atlantic.

It encompasses more than a half-million acres, about 7 acres for every person, compared to about one person per acre, on average, for Maryland as a whole. A third of all the tidal wetlands remaining in Maryland lie in the Nanticoke Project.

The conservancy's strategy further divides the Nanticoke Project, focusing on the confluence and two other areas, Broad Creek near Laurel, Del., and the Middleford Branch above Seaford, Del., where the river flows under U.S. 13. The goal, Zucker says, is for TNC and other groups to preserve a minimum of 50,000 acres, around 10 percent of the watershed.

The nitty-gritty of ecoregional thinking can be daunting to lay people - preserving contiguous blocks of forest for interior-dwelling species, ensuring adequate dispersal of plant genetic diversity.

Perhaps a future public will fully appreciate this. Think of it as the difference between inheriting a piano with some of the keys, or all of the keys. Both can make music, but ...

Meantime, floating on the confluence of Nanticoke and Marshy Hope, watching the river gorge on an incoming tide, growing fat and sleek between banks of green, one need not be a scientist to see the overlap between preserving biodiversity and retaining sheer, natural beauty.

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