When Nancy Baker was in sixth grade, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a forester. She had spent every Christmas, summer and most weekends visiting her family’s land in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, and would follow in her father’s footsteps—literally—as they roamed the woods.
But when a guidance counselor asked her what she wanted to be, “forester” turned out not to be an acceptable answer. “She said, ‘Nancy, girls can’t be foresters,’” Baker remembers. “And I was crestfallen—I was just crushed.”
“I went home and I told my dad… that I couldn’t be a forester,” Baker recalls. “And he said, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’”
So that’s exactly what she did. Baker is now a forest ecologist, and for close to 40 years she has owned the 163 acres she grew up visiting (the land has now been in her family for more than 150 years). She’s the former president of the Bradford-Sullivan Forest Landowners’ Association, part of Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Steering Committee and one of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Chesapeake Forest Champions. She’s also a leader in the Women and Their Woods initiative: a program to connect women forest landowners in northeastern Pennsylvania and teach them the skills and confidence they need to care for their forests.
According to the most recent National Woodland Owner Survey, 21 percent of forest landowners are women. Whether through outliving their spouses, inheriting property or outright purchasing land, more and more women are becoming primary owners of forests. But a study by the National Association of State Foresters showed that, while 83 percent of women who inherit forestland were interested in managing it, only 34 percent felt they had enough knowledge to make informed decisions.
That’s where Women and Their Woods comes in. Whether the women have received their land through the passing of a husband, by inheritance or after purchasing it themselves, participants can access the knowledge and resources to feel confident in caring for their forests. At meetings, women forest landowners can connect, share knowledge, meet with experts and ask questions. The program also hosts four-day retreats full of hands-on activities that teach the women how to manage their forestland.
“I think there are a lot of women who—the window sort of opens for them, and it’s no longer just a green place out there,” Baker says. “It actually begins to make sense to them.”
It’s the hands-on experience that Baker feels the women might not get enough of otherwise. “Gentlemen are so nice to do things for us that we never learn ourselves,” she laughs. “As soon as you say, help me cut this off, the guy will just—not being intentionally mean or anything—they’ll just pick up the chainsaw and be very nice to you and cut it right off. And you’re standing there and you don’t get the experience.”
But chainsaws, herbicide sprayers, ATVs and even propane torches (“We almost took the eyebrows off somebody,” Baker jokes) are all fair game at the Women and Their Woods meetings. Attendees also learn how to identify plants and trees, how to measure a tree and how to talk to a forester: what questions to ask and what different terms mean.
Although some participants may be looking to learn how to garner the most income from their forests, research has shown that women tend to be far less interested in the economic value of their land. Instead, they tend to focus on its aesthetic, recreational and peace of mind values. Women and Their Woods teaches them how to care for their forest land as an ecosystem, giving them the skills they need so that, should they decide to focus on its economic returns, they can do so in a sustainable way.
Since Women and Their Woods began in 2008, about 80 women have gone through the program. Funding and support comes from several partners, including Delaware Highlands Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service at Grey Towers, Penn State University Natural Resources Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
On her own land, Baker works with her consulting forester to manage the health of her forest. A few fields, once cleared by her grandfather and great-grandfather, she keeps open. Otherwise, with Baker keeping a careful eye and stepping in where needed, the forest is free to take over. The two streams running along her property—Crane Creek and Panther Lick—have buffers growing alongside them that haven’t been cut since the late 1800s.
Slowly, the makeup of her forest has changed, whether through Baker’s careful management or through circumstances beyond her control, like disease, pests and climate change. Areas once home to ash trees have fallen prey to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, leaving only a smattering of the trees standing. And while Baker could salvage and sell what timber is left, she prefers to let nature take its course: “My neighbors say, ‘Nancy, it’s all going to waste!’ No, it’s not going to waste. It’s being recycled.”
Years ago, Baker traveled to a conference on fire ecology—the study of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment. In attendance: 171 men and her. Today, Pennsylvania is home to a small but growing professional group of women foresters, many of whom lend their expertise to Women and Their Woods.
To Baker, this network of support is one of the most vital pieces of the program. “That’s the major thing that comes out of it, is that they do not feel alone anymore,” she says. “They have somebody that they can reach out to.”
To see more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Photos by Will Parson
Researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conduct the 2015-2016 blue crab winter dredge survey in the lower portion of the Chesapeake Bay on March 8, 2016.
From December through March of each year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and VIMS conduct the winter dredge survey in the Maryland and Virginia portions of the Bay, respectively. Between the two agencies, 1,500 sites are visited over the course of three and a half months. Dormant blue crabs are hauled out of the mud to be weighed, measured and have their sex determined before getting tossed back into the water.
At the conclusion of the survey, researchers have an estimate of the number of blue crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay. The data helps fisheries managers determine how many of the crustaceans can be harvested without hampering the crab’s recovery.
Each summer, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) releases its Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, providing guidance to support blue crab management. As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program, CBSAC—which includes representatives from state agencies, academic institutions and federal fisheries experts—supports the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team. Last year, numbers from the winter dredge survey helped these experts determine the blue crab stock was sustainable.
Learn more about the winter dredge survey.
From its headwaters in Sussex County, Delaware, to its mouth at Tangier Sound in Dorchester County, Maryland, the Nanticoke River flows for close to 64 miles through one of the most pristine watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Significant portions of the Nanticoke’s watershed are protected by state parks, wildlife refuges and natural heritage sites, and the river is also home to an array of historical and cultural landmarks. Whether you’re a first-time traveler to the Nanticoke or a frequent visitor, discover the natural beauty and unique culture of the waterway by exploring these eight sites.
1. Nanticoke River Water Trail
One of the best ways to journey the Nanticoke’s landscape is on the water. Stretching 26 miles through Sussex County, Delaware, the Nanticoke River Water Trail follows the river to the Maryland state line. The trail overlaps in part with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, allowing paddlers follow the historic voyages Captain John Smith made along the Nanticoke. Waterways also offer some of the only access to protected wildlife areas, such as the Nanticoke portions of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
The nearly 725,000 acres of land that flow into the Nanticoke River are home to a diverse range of wildlife, including more than 100 rare species. To protect some of that wildlife habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gradually been adding parcels of land along the Nanticoke to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge—the main portion of which is located near Cambridge, Maryland. Since 1993, close to 1,500 acres along the Nanticoke have been incorporated into the refuge, including the home of one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles in the northeastern United States.
3. Trap Pond State Park
One of Delaware’s first state parks, Trap Pond near Laurel, Delaware, sits along one of the upstream tributaries of the Nanticoke. The park is home to the northernmost natural stand of bald cypress trees in the United States, and nearby James Branch Nature Preserve and Trussum Pond are also home to bald cypress stands. Visitors can hike, kayak, canoe, fish and more throughout the park’s more than 2,600 acres.
4. Nanticoke Heritage Byway & Woodland Ferry
This driving route gives a tour of Sussex County, Delaware, passing through Seaford, Bethel and Laurel before ending at Trap Pond State Park. Visitors can enjoy both nature and culture as they drive through scenic farmland, forests and historic towns.
Part of the byway includes crossing over the Nanticoke River on the historic Woodland Ferry, a 200-year-old ferry boat that is one of the oldest continuously running ferries in the United States. But don’t worry, you won’t have to leave your car: the ferry can fit six vehicles at a time as it crosses the 500-foot river span.
5. Seaford Museum & Governor Ross Mansion
Operated by the Seaford Historical Society, the Seaford Museum is dedicated to commemorating the history of Seaford, Delaware, which sits on the banks of the Nanticoke. More than 60 exhibits portray the area’s history and culture, including the life of native tribes, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the shipbuilding industry and the Nanticoke River’s connection to the Chesapeake Bay.
Just up the road from the museum is the Governor Ross Mansion & Plantation, also operated by the Seaford Historical Society. The estate was once owned by William Henry Harrison Ross, who was governor of Delaware from 1851 to 1855. Visitors can tour the restored Victorian Italianate mansion, see the only documented log slave quarters in Delaware and explore the 20 acres that remain of the original 1,400-acre plantation.
6. Handsell & Chicone Village
In 1665, Thomas Taylor received a land grant called “Handsell,” giving him 700 acres of land along the Nanticoke River, which he established as a trading post with the Nanticoke and Chicone tribes. Today, the Handsell plantation house—built on the site in 1837—is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the surrounding 1,400 acres are protected by a Rural Legacy Conservation Easement.
To honor the Eastern Woodland tribes who once lived on the land, Chicone Village was constructed: a replica longhouse—built using the materials and techniques that would have been available pre-1600—along with a waddle-fenced garden and lean-to work shelter. Both Handsell and the Chicone Village are open year-round during daylight hours. The Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance also hosts an annual Chicone Village Day each spring, when native interpreters and tribal representatives come to Handsell to celebrate their history.
7. Adkins Historical & Museum Complex
Dozens of small, historic towns dot the landscape of the lower Eastern Shore. One such small town is Mardela Springs, Maryland, which sits along the shores of Barren Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River. Many of the town’s less than 400 current residents can trace their ancestry back to the mid-1600s, when the town was first settled and known as Barren Creek Springs.
To preserve the town’s history, the Adkins Complex has preserved ten historical buildings, each furnished as closely as possible to the period it was built. The complex includes the Brattan- Young’s Purchase Farmhouse, built in 1724; Taylor Country Store, built in 1838; and the Cannery Warehouse, built in 1903. Tours are free and open to the public by appointment.
8. Sussex County Potato Houses
The mild climate and rich soil of Sussex County, Delaware, once made the area a hot spot for growing sweet potatoes. In 1868, the Delaware State Directory said, “the sweet potatoes of southern Delaware have a richness and a sweetness of flavor” not found in potatoes from other states. But a potato blight in the 1940s destroyed most of the crops, removing many farmers’ primary source of income.
Today, one of the only standing reminders of the area’s sweet potato industry are the potato houses: structures built to store and cure potatoes before they could be sold. Fewer than 15 of the houses have survived, most of them along the banks of the Nanticoke and its tributaries, and all are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What’s your favorite spot along the Nanticoke River? Tell us in the comments!
Bill Anderson, President of the Little Juniata River Association, catches a 15-inch wild brown trout in the Little Juniata River in Blair County, Pennsylvania, on May 19, 2015.
The Little Juniata River—often called the “Little J”—is a tributary of the Juniata River, which flows into the Susquehanna. It’s well-known to fly fishermen on the East Coast who hope to catch brown trout in its cool, clear waters. But its popularity is a relatively recent development: just a few decades ago, the Little J was what Anderson describes as “literally an open sewer.”
Years of pollution from nearby tanneries, a local paper mill and municipal sources degraded the health of the Little J until the brown trout were barely able to survive. But with the help of the Little Juniata River Association, the river has recently been declared by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a wild Class A trout fishery. This means the waterway can support a large enough natural population of trout to sustain a sport fishery, with no stocking needed.
Various partners have helped the Little Juniata River Association in its work, in particular the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. In 2011, a project between the agency and the nonprofit received more than $57,000 through the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants program, which is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and primarily funded by the U.S. EPA Chesapeake Bay Program. Through the grant, the partners were able to plant forest buffers, restore eroded stream banks and remove invasive plants along the Little J.
Learn more about the Little Juniata River Association’s work to restore their waterway.
Image by Will Parson