DNR aims to restore serpentine barrens

Project: The state will use controlled burning to re-establish grasslands that once covered Soldiers Delight.

October 26, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SUN STAFF

IN MARYLAND, the serpentine barrens run through the northwest corner of Cecil County and enter Harford just south of Broad Creek and perpendicular to the Susquehanna River.

The geological formation arcs through Mill Green and turns up in patches along Deer Creek and Little Deer Creek. The largest concentration of serpentinite in Maryland is at Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area in Owings Mills, where the thin soil and unique vegetation is on display to the public.

According to Martin F. Schmidt Jr. in the book Maryland's Geology, "Serpentinite's attractive green color has led to its use as a decorative rock known as `green marble,' " which is a famous product of the Harford County quarry at Whiteford.

Only certain grasses and shrubs can withstand the high levels of magnesium and chromite in the thin soil formed by the decomposition of serpentinite, but the concentration of metals lured early miners to the site.

Isaac Tyson Jr., who had opened mines at Bare Hills in Baltimore County in the early 1800s, opened the first chrome mines in Harford after discovering dark pieces of metal at the Bel Air market. In 1827, he began the Baltimore Chrome Co.

The mines closed at the turn of the century but were reopened during World War I and World War II.

According to Gerald Baum, program chief of environmental geology and mineral resources at the Maryland Geological Survey, the serpentine barrens established Maryland as the chrome capital of the world in the first half of the 19th century, until larger deposits were discovered in Africa.

Although the mines are now closed, there is plenty of activity around Soldiers Delight, where the Department of Natural Resources is implementing a five-year controlled burning program.

While Pennsylvania's Nottingham County Park managers have allowed pines to grow over the serpentinite, the Maryland DNR is implementing a plan to re-establish the 1,900 acres of grasslands that once covered Soldiers Delight. By using controlled fires, similar to the techniques Native Americans once employed, the DNR is allowing grasslands to regenerate.

"The open grassland is what we call a successional state. When it is not undergoing regular burnings, what you get is the Virginia pine," Arnold Norden, the DNR central planner, said.

Since the inception of the program, Maryland's grasslands have been restored along with several rare species of plant.

"It works beautifully," Norden said of the burnings. "You want to be cautious and do it in bits and pieces."

Although the thin serpentinite soil is not habitable to several species, it is ideal for the Maryland Geological Survey's delicate machinery. The ground on the serpentine barrens is especially sensitive to seismic waves that result from movements in the earth's bedrock, such as earthquakes.

"That's where we installed our seismometer, because the soil's so thin," said Baum.

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