Environmental Center's Lessons Focus On Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem

`Little Island' Works To Expand, Draw Visitors<

October 06, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

Taking in the water gleaming through trees changing colors in the October light, Sally Brucker was mesmerized during her first visit to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center grounds.

"I don't want to leave. I'm so happy there are no shopping malls," said Brucker, an art therapist from Takoma Park.

At the high-powered government facility, they will be happy to have her back.

SERC, as the Edgewater campus is known, is opening its doors wider than ever. A slew of new fall programs designed to educate visitors on the fragile beauty of the Chesapeake Bay's estuarine ecosystem is expanding public access to the pristine former tobacco plantation.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Friday's Anne Arundel edition incorrectly identified Ross B. Simons as the director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. He no longer works at the center; the current director is Anson H. "Tuck" Hines.
The Sun regrets the error.

About 35 miles east of the Smithsonian's museums on the National Mall, a marsh walkway and a sanctuary for wildlife, including wild turkeys and great blue herons, make for scenic hikes and outings. A deep country quiet, without a trace of city noise, completes the contrast to Washington, Baltimore and nearby Annapolis.

"People tell me, `I've always driven past and don't know what happens here.' And I say, `We're here, come see us,'" said Karen S. McDonald, the center's first outreach coordinator.

"This is its own little island, but we're trying to change the view. We'd like people to see what we're doing for the Chesapeake and the world."

The concerted effort at the research center is a way of saying that what happens there is not only academic. Scientists working there would like more residents of the county and state to know about the jewel in their midst.

"The science we do, such as studying ultraviolet radiation and habitat destruction, provides answers to how to improve stewardship, both to policymakers and the general public," Anson H. "Tuck" Hines, the center's director, said yesterday.

"The bay is the shining star of the coastal zones, but it's also had enormous problems. Our natural resources illustrate directly the science of the ecosystem to visitors."

Hines, a scientist who has worked on the SERC campus for 27 years, estimated that the center draws 12,000 visitors a year, most of them schoolchildren.

"We'd like to expand that number, whether through evening lectures, people dropping by to walk the trails or electronic field trips that reach millions of schoolchildren," he said.

The Rhode and West rivers also border the campus, but the nexus between science and recreation becomes clearest on Muddy Creek.

Paddlers on the new 3-mile canoe and kayak trail pass by the site of the world's longest running carbon dioxide study, which measures its effects on plant growth in the area's marshes.

On the creek at high tide, McDonald, 30, compared the reedy marshes lining the banks to "the kidneys of the earth." Besides cleaning and filtering water, marshes also provide a nursery where young crabs and fish can mature and shelter from storms for bay creatures.

In the face of rapid climate and coastal change, a consensus has formed that more public awareness is needed to heal environmental damage observed and recorded over the 40 years since the center was established.

"Everything's connected, on water and land, in surprising ways," Denise Breitburg, a marine biologist, said in her sunny office.

The sea nettle population has shrunk because the creatures depend on scarce oyster shells for habitat. As a result, the population of its food source, nonstinging jellyfish, increases and they eat more young fish and oysters, throwing nature's system further out of balance.

The center's secluded 3,000 acres by the bay includes 14 miles of shoreline for 18 main research divisions to study. Forest canopy, jellyfish behavior and the depletion of overfished oysters on Maryland's side of the Chesapeake Bay since 1987 are among the subjects scrutinized.

The researchers are also looking skyward.

Maria Tzortziou, 30, who grew up by the Aegean Sea in Greece, is a Smithsonian research associate experimenting with ocean water optics, using NASA satellites to examine water quality.

"We look at the color of the water to analyze water composition," she said. "We look at coastal water and large areas at the same time to see how pollution is transported to the open ocean."

Meanwhile, while wading in the water, a field trip of fourth-graders from Montgomery County learned fish seining.

"Half the kids had no clue about the bay and had never been down to the water," said teacher Dan Vogel of Garrett Park Elementary School. "Mucking around like this makes their [science] much more vivid."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

SERC is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Weekend events include a "hot cider session" on live birds of prey at 1 p.m. Oct. 14; a fall canoe excursion at 9 a.m. Oct. 21.; and a salt marsh colors hike at 10 a.m. and a "hot cider session" on bats at 1 p.m., both on Oct. 28. A 10 a.m. workshop on making corn husk dolls and a 1 p.m. "hot cider session" on SERC women in science and research are scheduled for Nov. 4. For a full calendar of events and registration information, visit www.serc.si.edu.

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