BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- The mechanics of marsh restoration are pretty simple from 13-year- old Peter Broun's perspective -- sink a shovel-like tool called a dibble a few inches into the mushy black mud, wiggle it a little, add a dash of time-released fertilizer, then jam a plug of baby marsh grass in before the hole fills with salt water.
There is one cautionary note for the uninitiated, according to the Wilde Lake Middle School student. "Don't fall down. You slip and slide, but after a while it's like riding a bike," Broun says.
Broun and about 15 other Howard County seventh-graders held center stage yesterday in the 24,000-acre preserve near Cambridge, where the youngsters and their teachers put the finishing touches on a $300,000 15-acre restoration.
Officials from more than a dozen state and federal agencies, preservation and sportsmen's groups turned out to mark the start of an effort to reverse a 50-year decline that has seen an estimated 12 square miles of marsh and grasses in the refuge disappear since 1940.
Blackwater, the largest stretch of unbroken marsh on Chesapeake Bay, is losing 150 acres or more every year -- mud and grasses that are nibbled away by erosion, the inexorable rise in sea water, and nutria, the non-native saltwater rodents that destroy marsh grasses by eating their roots.
"This grass is vital because it can tolerate flooding twice a day by saltwater," said Glenn Page, who heads the conservation program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which coordinated the student volunteer program. "This is the base of the entire Chesapeake Bay ecosystem."
After a two-year study, the program began in earnest in September last year when the Army Corps of Engineers completed a dredging operation that scooped mud from the channels of the Blackwater River and the small creeks of the refuge, then sprayed the material in areas carefully designated for planting.
The next step, according to the corps officials, will be extending the small pilot project to a 200-acre effort, perhaps as soon as next fall.
"Obviously, there are questions about how to pay for this, but ultimately we want to make this our own mini-Everglades," said project manager Jody Beachamp.
"This first project has given us the chance to experiment to see what works and what doesn't. There's a lot of political good will for Blackwater, so we are optimistic."
Restoration of Blackwater , is vital to migratory waterfowl and other species, including the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. The refuge is also home to one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on the East Coast, officials say.
Working in partnership on the project are the aquarium, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which plans to install satellite-linked tide gauges that will guide future plantings.
"Really, everything about this project is experimental," said Page. "We can get an idea of what works, why and on what scale. The aquarium is involved because people see this natural system on display. We want to build on that enthusiasm and, eventually, turn the volunteer program over to local groups who can follow through."
The sweat-equity for this summer's planting of smooth cordgrass, or Spartina alterniflora, the grass that Page calls "the basic building block of the marsh," was invested by about 150 Maryland students, including some from the Maryland Conservation Corps, who plopped about 6,000 plants -- grown in schoolyard ponds by students around the state -- into the muck.
Brandon Shifflett, a fourth-year teacher, described by his pupils as "the coolest teacher at Wilde Lake," says the program has proven to be a godsend in his seventh-grade classroom.
"It's totally hands-on science, the kind of thing that shows them what they might not otherwise be able to visualize," said Shifflett.