Majestic, marvelous tree

ON THE BAY

Restoration: A project to plant 1,000 Atlantic white cedars along the Severn River will double the number of the once populous species on the Western Shore.

March 30, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AMONG THE great, near-forgotten forests that originally blanketed the Chesapeake Bay's watersheds, no species of tree produced purer water than the Atlantic white cedar.

Sailing ships departing the bay region made a special effort to obtain barrels of the clear, ale-colored flows from coastal plain cedar swamps for drinking, writes Donald Culross Peattie in his 1948 classic, "A Natural History of Trees."

"Tannic and almost medicinal" in taste, "but wondrously soft and pure," the acidic, peat-tinctured cedar swamp water killed the micro-organisms that caused even the finest spring water to go foul on long sea voyages, Peattie wrote.

Many early American cities, noting the rot-resistant and antibiotic properties of the cedar, also bored its logs for use as pipes in their water supply systems.

Unlike the familiar, gnarly red cedars of today, Atlantic white cedar grew spirelike, tall and straight and in dense monocultures.

"Their regular and majestic height cast such a venerable shade that it kept every other tree of the forest at an awful distance and impressed the beholder with a religious solemnity," wrote an anonymous traveler in 1797 after visiting one of the large cedar swamps that used to populate the Delmarva Peninsula.

The cedars that once stretched from Florida to Maine are estimated to be less than 1 percent of their former population, and big trees are a rarity.

So it is good to see, as the first spring of the 21st century wakens across the Chesapeake, a nifty little environmental restoration project along the Severn River that will almost double the number of Atlantic white cedars remaining on Maryland's Western Shore.

Environmentalists and schoolchildren are planting a thousand cedars, raised from seedlings, to reclaim a degraded, Severn River wetland.

It's adding beauty and diversity to a few acres of Anne Arundel County, while purifying the storm-water runoff from a few hundred acres of developed lands along Generals Highway.

The state, Anne Arundel County and the Chesapeake Bay Trust have put $330,000 into the restoration, which has placed more than 7,000 tons of white sand and rock to create a suitable growing area for the cedars.

Keith Underwood, a local wetlands specialist who conceived the project, says that over time the cedars will shed their needles, which don't decay, building a thick, acidic peat that acts toward pollutants like an activated charcoal filter.

A mature cedar swamp, Underwood says, can filter out huge quantities of contaminants, from airborne mercury to the nitrogen that is the biggest water quality problem in the bay and its tidal rivers.

An Atlantic white cedar swamp also provides habitat for a host of rare acid-loving plants, including bog orchids, pitcher plants and a type of bayberry once thought extinct in Anne Arundel County.

The cedars being planted along the Severn, between The Downs and Sherwood Forest developments, will also provide a rich source of seed for further projects, says Steve Carr, a member of the Severn River Association environmental group.

A survey Underwood did showed 1,247 cedars left along the Severn and Magothy rivers, where they once were a populous species.

Beyond its ecological value, white cedar is a higher quality and interesting wood. The fine charcoal it makes when burned was preferred for making gunpowder in Colonial times.

Its rot resistance made the finest shingles obtainable. Peattie writes of the exquisite resonance of rain falling on white cedar shingles. Hearing it, a German organ maker decided to construct all his future pipes of cedar.

It is extraordinarily light wood, easily worked, ideal for building small wooden boats. I'd like to see the state and its forest industry research growing this marvelous tree as a high-value crop.

Poultry group uses myth to disclaim pollution role

Suppose your septic tank overflowed and contaminated your community's drinking water wells? What would you do?

If you were the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. (DPI), you'd claim your sewage hardly matters because there are so many bigger sources elsewhere.

That's essentially what the trade group representing Maryland and Delaware poultry interests is saying on their Web site these days about bay pollution. The group notes a report showing the great bulk of polluting fertilizers, nitrogen and phosphorus come from the bay's big rivers, like the Potomac and Susquehanna, which drain tens of millions of acres of farmland -- none on Delmarva.

"It scientifically challenges the myth that the majority of bay pollution is caused by Delmarva's farmers and poultry industry," Ken Sterling, the group's president, is quoted as saying.

But Sterling's myth is a myth. No one seriously maintains that millions of tons of manure from the peninsula's hundreds of millions of chickens is the dominant source of water pollution baywide.

But it is a large and well-documented source of pollution in several Eastern Shore rivers -- also in coastal bays on the ocean side of Delaware. And evidence is growing that manure played a key role in Maryland's 1997 Pfiesteria outbreaks.

DPI too often has been more about generating heat than light. While most of the bay region works toward solutions, the group remains part of the problem.

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