SNOW HILL -- A private conservation group has launched a far-reaching, $67 million program aimed at protecting thousands of acres that are vital to the Chesapeake Bay and other mid-Atlantic ecological systems.
The Nature Conservancy, which already owned 90,000 acres in Maryland and Virginia, announced yesterday the purchase of another 12,000 acres in the two states.
The acquisitions will extend the group's holdings in the mountains of Virginia and on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- where the addition of 3,300 pristine acres along Nassawango Creek will create the state's largest private nature preserve, a boggy 7,500-acre habitat for dozens of varieties of birds and plants.
Over the next three years, the Maryland/D.C. and Virginia chapters of the conservancy plan to use the $67 million -- money contributed by individuals, corporations, foundations and government -- to protect more land from development.
In Maryland, officials said they plan to target sites from "mountains to marshes," including dense forests along Nanjemoy Creek in Charles County and mountain peat lands and shale cliffs in Western Maryland.
"Instead of looking at political boundaries, we're looking at an overall eco-regional plan," said Nat Williams, director of the Maryland/D.C. chapter. "From Western Maryland to Nassawango Creek on the Shore, there are literally hundreds of sites where we would like to preserve ecological diversity."
Conservancy officials say Nassawango Creek, an 18-mile chocolate-colored rivulet through swamp and forest -- one of the last real wildernesses on the Eastern Shore -- has remained largely untouched since loggers denuded it 150 years ago to make charcoal for a nearby iron furnace.
The preserve is one of the northernmost forests of bald cypress, some with trunks that measure 2 to 3 feet in diameter and tower over the swamp. Nearly 100 other kinds of rare plants and animals thrive along the creek.
More than half of all bird species that breed in Maryland can be found in the preserve, many of them neo-tropical migrants such as the prothonotary warbler, whose yellow chests can be spotted in early spring, flitting among cypress and rare Atlantic white cedar trees as they nest and raise their young.
The conservancy's latest purchase along Nassawango Creek is the result of a deal with the E.S. Adkins Co., which in 1978 donated the 158-acre parcel that was the beginning of the preserve.
After negotiating for nearly three years, conservancy officials won't reveal how much the complex transaction is worth, saying only that it might total one-third of the cost of the Maryland campaign.
The company, which operated a sawmill in Salisbury for more than a century, owned huge tracts of forest land.
After closing the mill in the 1960s, it moved into residential and commercial development but has continued to be one of the area's largest landowners, currently holding 12,000 acres on the Lower Shore, said Bill Turner, Adkins' president.
Local environmentalists such as Ilia Ferer, chairman of the Worcester Environmental Trust, said the purchase was recommended last year by a planning group that included activists, state and local planners and conservancy representatives.
"We'd like to see the border areas of the creek expanded even further," Ferer said. "It's terribly important to controlling runoff for the creek and for the Pocomoke River. It's like a primeval swamp that's so rare."
In Virginia, the conservancy has purchased 9,000 acres in Warm Springs near the Homestead resort, a national historic landmark. The property helps connect 170,000 acres of public land in the George Washington National Forest.
`A deep investment'
Virginia conservationists have selected other areas for restoration and protection, including undeveloped river watersheds of the Rappahannock, Mattaponi, Pamunkey and Dragon Run.
"We're making a deep investment in places where we think we can have the most significant effect in the mid-Atlantic," said Michael Lipford, director of the Virginia conservancy.
"As big as this campaign is, we still need to leverage that money with matching funds from government and others," he said.
The Virginia chapter, which already owns 45,000 acres of Atlantic barrier islands, the Virginia Coast Reserve, is looking at coastal properties on the bay side of Virginia's Eastern Shore, a key stop for many migratory birds.
"The conservancy has become very strategic over the last five or six years, targeting their acquisitions rather than taking a scattershot approach," said Lee Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which released a study this week showing that 700,000 acres between the bay and the Shenandoah Mountains will be lost to development in the next 30 years without stricter growth controls.
"Even with $67 million, which is obviously nothing to sneeze at, there's a need for local governments to step up and realize what's happening," Epstein said.