A man's land, and clear water

Runoff: An executive who retired to the Eastern Shore has spent $1 million and formed a foundation to protect a stream alongside his 40 acres.

May 05, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TRAPPE - Don Kerstetter saw it every time there was a hard rain at his 40-acre waterfront retirement place: silt-laden runoff the color of coffee and cream pouring from the fields he rents to a local farmer straight into La Trappe Creek.

Kerstetter isn't a farmer. He's not an environmental specialist. But after a successful corporate career, he made up his mind to see what he could do about water quality along his mile or so of Talbot County shoreline.

As it turned out, Kerstetter, 70, can do quite a bit with his own money.

"We've had a boat in the Chesapeake Bay since 1965. We know the creeks as well as anybody, and La Trappe Creek is a world-class creek," Kerstetter says. "You have to look at this piece of land as the end of a watershed. That was really the start."

Kerstetter, a civil engineer and a former top executive for one of the nation's largest construction companies, Turner Construction, began tinkering with ways to halt the runoff, planting grass buffers and digging shallow trenches, or field leads as farmers call them, to soak up or drain rainwater. All were vain attempts at stopping the nutrient-rich sediment.

Now, after putting nearly $1 million of their money into the effort, Kerstetter and his wife, Anne, have formed a nonprofit foundation to build a model project using no-till farming practices, planting 10,000 trees and replacing every non-native plant species on the property with plants and grasses that would have been there before Europeans arrived nearly 400 years ago.

That's just the beginning.

Kerstetter hopes to persuade his neighbors that La Trappe Creek, which drains into the Choptank River, can be cleaned up if they follow a few of the fundamentals he has learned.

He envisions turning Trappe Landing Farm and Native Sanctuary into an educational site where a gardener, who would live in a brick rancher on the property, could lead tours for school groups or for property owners interested in starting similar projects.

A master plan, developed by Church Hill landscape architect John Gutting, calls for creating woodland buffers 50 feet to 100 feet wide around fields to absorb storm runoff. Work has begun on a wetland around a freshwater pond.

Several acres of lawn, along with a variety of plants and trees - including Bradford pear, crabapple trees and honeysuckle - will be removed.

"I think this is how the planet is supposed to work," says Gutting. "Every piece of land has been impacted by humans; every project is a restoration. This is unique because [Kerstetter] wants to use this as an educational model."

For the past year, Kerstetter has spent most of his time with a front-end loader and survey equipment, grading and staking out aspects of the project, doing what he calls "elementary civil engineering."

"For our own motivation, this is something that will be here long after we are gone," Kerstetter says. "We don't have children or close family. We have the money, so it's something that will outlast us."

The next step, says Kerstetter, is to begin writing grant applications that he hopes will bring in enough money to build an educational center and put the foundation on solid footing.

Eventually, Kerstetter hopes to corral all 84 people who own property along the creek. Some have sat in his home theater for a slide and graphics presentation he runs with a laptop computer.

He has enlisted Rush Moody, who lives across the street and has accepted a spot on the Kerstetter Foundation's board.

"From a selfish standpoint, we look out on what will be a sanctuary," says Moody, a lawyer who retired to Trappe from Montgomery County four years ago. "That aside, I'm really proud they are doing something to improve the quality of the creek. And it's not just money. They've put themselves into this."

Equally important is Moody's agreement to lease his 115 acres of farmland to the farmer who will work the remaining agricultural fields on Kerstetter's land. Without the larger parcel, it would not be economically viable as a working farm.

The project is similar to many larger efforts that have come to fruition on the Eastern Shore in recent years. Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, a nonprofit conservation group that will be lending its expertise to Kerstetter's project, owns a 540-acre Kent Island farm where similar methods are practiced. The organization has helped design many more on privately owned waterfront farms.

State and federal programs aimed at conserving farm and forest land pay for long-term or permanent easements to protect farmland from development.

Another program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, administered by the federal agriculture department, has paid Maryland landowners about $200 million in the past five years to set aside land for buffers to control runoff.

"From the agricultural perspective, he's not doing anything that's not already being heavily promoted and encouraged in the state," Russ Brinsfield, director of the Maryland Agro-Ecology Center in Wye Mills, says of Kerstetter. "It's his little bit of paradise, and he's doing what he can to improve water quality."

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