The erosion of history

August 20, 2006

Despite its undeniable appeal for artists, nature lovers and loners, Smith Island - Maryland's only inhabited island not connected to the mainland by bridge or patois - isn't everyone's idea of paradise. The sublimely beautiful marshes are filled with some of the hungriest mosquitoes this side of Panama. The alluring creeks and guts that cut through the quaggy archipelago are littered with too much manmade detritus. Summer storms can pound the houses and crab shacks like a giant mallet. And winter's icy winds can cut through the best mail-order outerwear.

But should Smith Island, which has lost more than 3,300 acres of valuable wetlands over the past 150 years and 2,200 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation since the 1990s, be allowed to disappear into the bay? If Congress, when it returns from recess, doesn't include funding for breakwater construction and other erosion controls in its $11.7 billion Water Resources Development Act, the island's marshes and its three watermen's villages could face extinction by the end of this century. If that happens, add Smith's name to Sharps, Barren, Cows, Herring, Punch and Powell - all Chesapeake Bay islands that have vanished since European settlers first stepped ashore in search of real estate in the 1600s.

The $14.5 million estimated to protect the most vulnerable parts of Smith Island may seem a hefty price if we consider that its population, which once numbered close to 1,000 in the heyday of commercial crabbing and oystering, has dwindled to fewer than 300. But look up the bay a few miles to the site of the new Poplar Island, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a $427 million project to restore (with fill from dredging) it as a wildlife habitat. Similar plans are being drafted for Sharps Island at the mouth of the Choptank River and for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County. We support these endeavors - if there's money available - but need to point out that, unlike Smith Island, nobody will ever live on Poplar or Sharps islands or at the Blackwater refuge.

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