Blackwater Preserve's Natural Balancing Act

A 28,000-acre refuge on the Eastern Shore faces the double threat of rising sea levels and 6,000 new homes.


BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE - Bill Giese's boat was thundering across a marsh powered by a fan the size of an airplane propeller, flying over coffee-black water, surfing through bulrushes and jumping a muddy peninsula.

Giese, an officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, slowed the boat and pointed to a river flushing into the wetlands. More than 6,000 homes will soon be built around the entrance to the Blackwater wildlife refuge, he said, and their storm water will pour down this stream into a fragile breeding ground for birds, fish and crabs.

Firing up the boat's engine, he cruised to an underwater forest, where dead trees claw up out of the murky shallows. He said these two places - the drowned woodlands, and the outfall from suburban sprawl - represent twin threats squeezing the Chesapeake region's largest remaining wetlands.

The managers of the sprawling 28,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore recently achieved what they consider an environmental victory by trapping and killing perhaps 90 percent of the rat-like South American nutria that were devouring marsh grass.

But new fronts are now emerging in the battle to protect an ecosystem that contains about a third of the state's wetlands and serves as a cradle for much of the marine life for the Chesapeake Bay, Giese said.

To the north, three large subdivisions are planned on farmland that drains into the Little Blackwater River, which feeds the wildlife sanctuary. Each has adopted the name "Blackwater" into its advertising, to lure buyers into what had been unspoiled scenery.

From the south and west, rising sea levels are driving more salt water into a marshland that requires a healthy mix of fresh and salt waters. The rising is caused by global warming, which is melting glaciers and polar ice caps, and the natural sinking of the Eastern Shore's lowlands, Giese said. The result is the drowning of up to 400 acres of the refuge each year, transforming what had been grassy marsh into a open expanse of water.

"There's a lot of development coming, a lot of cement and a lot of asphalt and rooftops, and they are going to flush a lot of contaminants into the ecosystem," said Giese, 52, who has been working to protect the refuge for more than three decades. "That's a lot more water coming down suddenly into an area that is already drowning because of rising sea levels. The system can't take what's being put into it."

To try to slow the loss of wetlands, the Army Corps of Engineers is studying a proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service to pump into the marsh mud dredged every year to clear the bay's shipping channels. Workers would then plant bulrushes and other native plants on top of artificial islands, said Dixie Birch, supervisory biologist with the federal agency.

The service has rebuilt 27 acres of flooded wetlands over the past 20 years, Birch said. But the price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars to raise the 12 square miles lost over the past half-century makes federal funding a challenge, she said.

"Of course, the difficulty with wetlands restoration is limited funding," Birch said. "But the recent hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico have shown how important it is to keep wetlands as a buffer against storms. That's true in the Chesapeake Bay area, too."

About five miles north of Blackwater, along Egypt Road and Route 16 in a recently annexed area of Cambridge, developers are planning the 3,200-home Blackwater Resort Community, the 793-home Blackwater Crossing, and the 185-home Blackwater Landing subdivisions, said Anne Roane, planner for Cambridge. A golf course, pool, tennis courts, roads and other developments are also planned in the area, and will bring about 7,000 new homes to a city with a population of about 13,000.

To help control rainwater flushing over the blacktop of the Blackwater Resort Community, the developer plans to plant trees along a 100-foot buffer strip beside the Little Blackwater River and build storm water retention ponds and an artificial wetlands, said Kenneth Usab, an engineer working for Egypt Road LLC, the developer.

"We are very confident that the water running off this site will be of a higher quality than it is today," Usab said.

But Giese said he remains worried about the suburban-style project that will become the new gateway to the wilderness preserve.

His agency hasn't taken an official position on the development. But as he cruised in an 18-foot airboat through the marsh's maze of hundreds of grassy islands, he told of his personal attachment to what has been called the "Everglades of the North."

His father and grandfather were farmers nearby, raising tomatoes and corn before rising sea levels brought salt water that withered vegetables. Since he was a boy, Giese has been paddling through the mosquito-infested wonderland of 350 bird species, including bald eagles, golden eagles, swallows, osprey, Eastern screech owls and snowy egrets.

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