Tree revival takes root in Arundel

Pupils to help plant 1,000 white cedars

April 20, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The Atlantic white cedar saplings that sprout from the white sand are small and scrawny, but Keith Underwood can see a lush forest thick with the rare trees. He also sees purple pitcher plants, a burst of flame-red sundews and wild water lilies, as well as frogs, fish, birds and turtles.

Underwood envisioned this forest four years ago to restore a degraded wetland along the Severn River. Now, 6,000 tons of sand, 1,000 tons of rock and 100 trucks of wood chips later, his forest is about to take root. Today, about 80 children from area schools will plant nearly 1,000 Atlantic white cedar trees, doubling the population of the ecologically prized trees west of the Chesapeake Bay.

"This is a huge dream come true for me," said Underwood, a restoration ecologist and environmental activist, as he surveyed the 3.5-acre site in Anne Arundel County - between the Downs and Sherwood Forest housing developments- where 100 trees, the tallest standing nearly 3 feet, have been planted.

"In a year's time, that will be covered with sundews," said Underwood, imagining part of the area blanketed with the carnivorous plants that lure insects with drops of honey on tiny hairs in their leaves. "And in 10 years, we could have an evergreen forest of towering spires of Atlantic white cedars."

Valued for its water-purifying properties and high-quality timber, the Atlantic white cedar once thrived throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. European colonists harvested the sweet-scented wood for water barrels on long sea voyages because its anti-pollutants kept drinking water fresh. The durable, easy-to-work wood was also sought after for boats and shingles.

Found in a narrow band of coastal wetlands from Maine to Florida, the cedars have dwindled in the past century to 1 percent of their former number.

"In the area near Annapolis, the Atlantic white cedar is virtually gone, and the sites that have been found are just so few and sort of little stringy and unhappy places," said Aimlee Laderman, a lecturer in wetland ecology and restoration at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who will attend today's planting.

She said Underwood's project is one of the most ambitious Atlantic white cedar restoration efforts she knows of.

Called Howard's Branch, the Atlantic white cedar project is the culmination of several restoration efforts over the past five years focused on Brewer's Creek, a Severn River tributary.

"This is the preservation of an entire watershed, from the open waters to the shoreline, into the upland forest," said William Moulden, a science teacher at Samuel Ogle Math and Science Magnet Elementary School in Prince George's County who signed on to the project in its early days and has served as what he calls a "troubleshooter."

Underwood's project began to take shape five years ago after he counted 1,247 white cedar trees remaining in Anne Arundel County. That number is now 1,000.

"They're headed for extinction," he said.

In 1997, Millersville and Samuel Ogle elementary schools created schoolyard wetlands to grow the Atlantic white cedars for the Howard's Branch nontidal wetland. The $336,000 initiative was funded with two $150,000 grants from the state Department of the Environment and Anne Arundel County, and two smaller grants from the state Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

In December, Underwood and David Wallace, president of the Severn River Association, started construction of the new wetland, trucking hundreds of loads of sand and stones to the site, through the back yard of a home in The Downs. After today's planting, the homeowners with the torn-up yard will receive a new driveway and landscaping.

In addition to growing a forest of Atlantic white cedars, project organizers say, the sand berms and stones placed over the mud and weeds will filter the stormwater runoff that for years carried sediment and pollutants to Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

The cleansed water will allow for the growth of the cedars, and the mature trees will enhance the purification of the water. The fallen needles of Atlantic white cedars create acid-rich soils, which trap major bay contaminants such as nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals.

It's a biological approach to storm-water management, said Underwood, who designed the wetland with technical assistance from county public works engineers and state environment officials.

"We did the design work based on the requirements of a cedar forest, and how do we get water quality that will sustain the forest, vs. how do we vent the water off houses and roofs as quickly as possible," Underwood said.

Project organizers hope the mature cedar swamp will provide a habitat for a variety of endangered plants and animals, including the spotted turtle, the box huckleberry and the palm warbler. "We're creating a safe harbor for many species in decline," said Moulden.

Students from the schools that grew the trees will monitor the water quality at Howard's Branch over the next five years and send samples to Laderman at Yale, who is collecting samples from cedar wetlands in 13 states as part of a worldwide biodiversity survey.

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