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Chesapeake Bay News: Places

Jul
03
2017

Learning from history to shape the future

An aerial view showcases the broken windows and the beauty of Petersburg, Va., a town of over 32,000 people located on the Appomattox River about 20 miles south of Richmond. (Photo by Tom Saunders/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

“Close your eyes,” commands Michelle Peters, Director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Petersburg, Virginia. Her voice – buoyed by optimism – floats over the roomful of officials, government agents, nonprofits, businesses and Petersburg citizens gathered at the meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup. “It is the year 2030. It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg. Petersburg is an economically, environmentally, socially vibrant community… The spiritual, physical, emotional health of our community has been raised… It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg.”

When a speaker employs an envisioning exercise, most audiences listen politely and allow their gaze to wander –but this was in no way a typical meeting. The Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup chose to hold their quarterly meeting in the city of Petersburg in a conscious effort to put into action those methods that spark real change: to listen, to engage with a community and to be present where change needs to happen. In the auditorium of Virginia State University on the thirteenth of June, faces across the room were tilted up, seeing this revitalized and thriving town. It is in a town like Petersburg that a time capsule jump carries weight—for, here, time behaves strangely.

Petersburg, Virginia has a long history as a market town and leading tobacco center. Twenty-four factories made chewing tobacco, and the manufacturer Brown & Williamson was king. The civil rights movement in the sixties was energized in the city of Petersburg, which is the home of the important Underground Railroad hub Pocahontas Island and two of the oldest black Baptist congregations in the nation. Demographics were relatively equal and the city was dynamic. As the city grew and needed to expand, it hit a roadblock of legal zoning. With annexation illegal, the size of Petersburg was set. The middle classes, both white and black, left Petersburg for the more desirable Chesterfield and other nearby areas. Brown & Williamson, the largest employer for the area and the driving force of Petersburg’s economy, pulled up stakes and left the town for Georgia in 1983. And then: time stopped.

“The saddest day in the city of Petersburg was when Brown & Williamson left Petersburg,” Reverend Betty Jackson proclaimed at the meeting. “We had poured so much into one industry and were codependent.”

Close to forty years have passed since the loss of the tobacco industry, but the feeling in Petersburg is that it might have been mere months since the departure. Marcus Comer, environmental research specialist and assistant professor of agriculture at Virginia State University, explained the phenomenon and its after-effects: “When different industries left, they took their earnings but left their pollution and toxins. Historically, Petersburg has been on the negative side for so long that it’s hard to overcome.”

Dr. Lucious Edwards speaks at the Diversity Workgroup meeting held June 13th at Virginia State University. Retired from decades as VSU archivist, Edwards is still active in the welfare of his community. (Photo by Reggie Parrish/EPA)

Stepping out of the past and embracing that envisioned future is exactly the hope of the day for all parties involved. Listening and understanding the starting place – historically and psychologically – is crucial to bringing about true change for the city, and realistic ideas for action grew from the protracted conversation rooted in that sense of place.

“’Oh, dear. Do you drink the water?’ When you tell someone you live in Petersburg, that is the first question you will be asked,” states Comer. According to him, “the perpetuation of negative perceptions has kept Petersburg down,” creating a learned helplessness.

“[At nearby military base] Fort Lee, [visitors] are told not to take a left turn towards Petersburg,” stated Annie Mickens, former mayor and longtime Petersburg resident. It is in discussing and realizing these limitations that residents found new strength and strategies. Through the course of the day, Petersburg citizens took ownership of their town and their own ability to improve conditions.

University of Virginia President Makola Abdullah put those ideals into action when he bought a home within the city of Petersburg and encouraged his staff to do the same, seeing investment in the city from within as the key to moving forward.

“Let’s change the way Petersburg views itself,” said Ronald Howell, special assistant to the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, to general applause. “Let’s look not from the outside in, but from the inside out… These are the resources we have. We don’t have the optics to garner people from the outside… Let’s look at who is driving the economy in Petersburg right now, and let’s see if we can bring that back home. That’s where we start. There should be a network of farmers, internal training, certification and development. If no one wants to come from the outside, let’s build from the inside.”

Real-time change was apparent as attendees and speakers alike slipped in and out of the meeting throughout the day to vote in a general election. Community members were taking action on the words of former mayor Mickens: “We don’t speak for people who have no voice. They have a voice. We have to get those people to the table, to say, ‘I elected you. Accept my voice.’”

The South Side Depot in Petersburg, Va. Built in 1854 as the passenger depot for The Southside Railroad, this Petersburg landmark is the oldest railroad station in the state of Virginia. (Photo by Ron Cogswell/CC BY 2.0 license)

Dr. Lucious Edwards, archivist and historian, spoke on the historical tourism opportunities of Petersburg and its mark on the shaping of America. “[We need to] engage, to blend, to see the value of and interpret the African American experience,” said Edwards. “We should move away from the expectations of confederate history, slavery, plantations and towards others. Petersburg is a jewel for architecture and industry.” Planning departments and cultural affairs departments are merging in Petersburg, in line with a new plan to revitalize through the lens of historical identity.

Before adjourning to tour the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center—one of the examples of internal Petersburg innovation—attendees settled on the takeaway action items for the Diversity Workgroup.  EJ Screen is an environmental justice knowledge tool that provides maps with overlapping layers of data, combining both environmental and demographic indicators that allow users to make informed decisions. Incorporating community input on the city’s role in health concerns, EPA is considering adding a new data layer to EJ Screen showing failing infrastructure lead lines in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Diversity Workgroup will work to assist in Train the Trainer workshops and include lead remediation as a potential avenue for a green jobs workforce, while working more closely with local non-profit organizations and key community leaders on local issues.

By structuring meetings around the heart of communities and with an understanding of their history, as with this Diversity Workgroup meeting, it may truly be a great day in Petersburg and towns like it.

Learn more about the efforts of the Diversity Workgroup and the positive changes taking place throughout the partnership.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.



Jun
30
2017

Photo of the Week: Growing CommuniTree in West Virginia

Danielle French, right, and Roanin Cabrera plant a tree at Deerfield Village outside of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, at an event on April 29, 2017. Adult and youth volunteers planted 28 trees as part of the Carla Hardy West Virginia Project CommuniTree program.

CommuniTree is an initiative of the Cacapon Institute—a watershed protection organization located in Great Cacapon, West Virginia—and is the largest tree steward program in the state. The purely-volunteer program promotes tree planting and education on the public lands that surround the headwaters of the Potomac River.

This spring’s tree planting event marked the fourth one held at Deerfield Village, following plantings in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Of the 72 trees planted during those prior events, 60 have survived to provide clean air, shade and other benefits to their communities. This year, volunteers planted 12 trees to replace those that had failed to establish, as well as 16 new trees as part of an old apple orchard.

Trees are a critical piece of a healthy ecosystem: they soak up polluted stormwater, provide habitat for wildlife, absorb and trap air pollution and enhance quality of life for local communities. That’s why Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to expanding tree canopy in urban areas by 2,400 acres by 2025, providing air quality, water quality and habitat benefits throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

Learn more about CommuniTree, or learn about our work to increase tree canopy in the watershed.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Jun
29
2017

From the Field: How invasive species could be impacting vital salamander habitat

Within five minutes of entering Corcoran Woods, Susan Lamont is bent over what looks like a large puddle, gently holding a gelatinous mass. The mass is made up of salamander eggs, and what she’s bent over is no puddle, but a vernal pool.

Vernal pools are ephemeral forest ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater. They only stay wet for about seven months out of the year, but in that time, they host a wealth of animals. Amphibians like salamanders and frogs lay their eggs in vernal pools, which have fewer predators like fish due to their temporary nature.

Today, Lamont, a biology professor at Anne Arundel Community College, is leading a group of students and volunteers in a survey of vernal pools, looking for egg masses lain by spotted and marbled salamanders. They’re exploring the more than 200-acre Corcoran Environmental Study Area, which lies in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, just west of the Chesapeake Bay.

Anne Arundel Community College student Dominic Ollivierre, right, pulls leaves from a net while surveying a vernal pool with classmates and biology professor Susan Lamont, second from left, at Corcoran Woods, part of Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County, Md., on March 24, 2017. For three years, Lamont has brought her students and volunteers out to survey the woods’ vernal pools.

The southeastern section of Corcoran Woods is dotted with these temporary pools. Lamont breaks the students up into groups and shows them the pools they’ll be surveying. Armed with nets, boots and GPS markers, they begin scouring their pools for evidence of amphibian breeding.

Along with the surveying that her students and volunteers are doing, Lamont is setting traps for adult salamanders to help determine how they use the pools. In the past, she and her students would find adults by looking under rocks and logs. “I want to know how much they’re using the pools,” she says.

Now in her third year of the study, Lamont’s research not only answers her own questions and provides her students with an outdoor learning opportunity, it also serves the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which owns Corcoran Woods. They were concerned about the vernal pools and if they were at risk of drying up. “If you’re managing the pools, you have to know what’s happening with them,” says Lamont. “They don’t have the staff to come out and do [the surveying], and it’s easy to get the students—they love it.”

A spotted salamander egg mass develops in a vernal pool at Corcoran Woods. Anne Arundel Community College biology professor Susan Lamont is studying the impact on vernal pools at Corcoran following the removal of invasive plants.

About a half mile away, the northwest corner of the forest tells a different story. There are no vernal pools here, but there is an even more dramatic difference: this corner of the woods, unlike the southeast where Lamont’s students are surveying, is plagued by invasive species.

Much of the land was cleared of invasives last year, treated with herbicides and replanted with native trees. The hope is that the natives will grow large enough to shade the area and help keep invasives out. Until then, it will have to be carefully looked after to prevent regrowth of invasive species.

A slight turn in the trail reveals the vastly altered landscape. A forest of plastic tree tubes blankets the area of what used to be acres of invasive plants like oriental bittersweet, English ivy and multifloral rose. Some original trees still remain, but pale-green tubes stick out like hundreds of hair plugs.

Susan Lamont, a biology professor at Anne Arundel Community College, stands at the edge of a large invasive species removal and tree planting site at Corcoran Woods.

“The red plot was severely infested,” recalls Lamont. “Before they treated it, all you could see were invasives. Vines were over the tops of the trees.” Thick vines still hung from a few of the remaining trees, but hovered about six feet above the ground where they had been severed from their roots.

Along with sunlight, invasive species require a lot of water, and in turn could have lowered the groundwater table. “This is a drier area than the vernal pool area,” Lamont notes. “We’re not sure if it’s drier because [the invasive species] were here, or if that’s why the invasives took over.” If the former is true, it could spell bad news for the vernal pools if the invasive species make their way south east.

Groundwater is generally talked about in terms of drinking water and irrigation, but forest plants and animals need it just as much as humans. In Corcoran Woods, groundwater is vital for feeding the vernal pools that salamanders and other amphibians rely on, but this corner of the woods is much drier and noticeably absent any pools.

That’s where Lamont’s new research comes in. She’s going to put groundwater monitoring wells in the area where the invasives are to see if the removal efforts make the area wetter. She’ll also put some groundwater wells in the vernal pool area to compare water levels within Corcoran Woods.

“[Maryland DNR is] very interested in protecting the pool habitat and restoring the part of the woods that was decimated by invasives,” Lamont says. By measuring the effect of invasive species on groundwater—and, in turn, the vernal pools the salamanders use—Lamont and her students can help DNR support the interconnected ecosystem at Corcoran Woods.

Images by Will Parson

Joan Smedinghoff's avatar
About Joan Smedinghoff - Joan is the Communications Office Staffer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. Originally from Chicago, she was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay region through the streams of central Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she first discovered her passion for storytelling.



Jun
29
2017

By the Numbers: 23

In our watershed, a fish that is no more than 10 inches long is a sentinel of climate change. Because brook trout need cold, clean water to survive, their presence in the region’s headwaters is a sign of stream health. As urbanization and other factors have raised the temperature of streams across the region, scientists have documented the disappearance of this sensitive fish. But experts now believe future increases in stream temperature will be less uniform than once thought, marking a shift in our understanding of how climate change could impact the only native trout in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The single most important factor in predicting whether brook trout will inhabit an area is water temperature.

According to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, brook trout began to disappear from the region when early agriculture, timber and textile industries prompted the removal of forests and pollution of streams. Today, urbanization threatens remaining brook trout habitat: paved surfaces push sediment into waterways, while dams and poorly designed culverts isolate brook trout populations from one another. The large, non-native brown trout—which is often stocked in rivers and streams to support fly fishing—has also been found to out-compete brook trout.

However, the single most important factor in predicting whether brook trout will inhabit an area is water temperature. While individual brook trout populations can acclimate to regional water temperatures, brook trout experience stress when stream temperatures reach 20 degrees Celsius and are typically absent when temperatures exceed 23 degrees. Scientific consensus has placed the limits of brook trout survival between 0 and 23 degrees Celsius (about 32 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit).

In Maryland and Virginia, high water temperature has been named the greatest disturbance to brook trout populations. In light of this fact, the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have supported efforts to predict how climate change will impact brook trout habitat in two national parks in an attempt to resolve the uncertainties of our changing environment at a scale that would be relevant to natural resource managers.

Field work at Shenandoah National Park has helped researchers realize that future increases in stream temperature will be less uniform than once thought, marking a shift in our understanding of how climate change could impact brook trout habitat. Photo by Ken Lane/Flickr.

Craig Snyder and Nathaniel Hitt are researchers at the USGS Leetown Science Center. Through field work in Shenandoah National Park and statistical modeling and simulation, Snyder and Hitt found that climate change would not affect brook trout habitat in the way previous research has largely assumed. Instead, the localized upwelling of cold groundwater into streams will create a varied pattern of stream temperatures and a patchy distribution of suitable brook trout habitat.

“We’ve learned that you need to account for groundwater to anticipate stream responses to climate change,” Snyder said. “The future will be more complicated—and thermally fragmented—than prior research has recognized.” In other words, as the region experiences more widespread effects of climate change, the temperature-related fragmentation of brook trout habitat will play a bigger role in determining the viability of the region’s brook trout populations.

While accounting for the effects of cold groundwater on stream temperature make Snyder and Hitt’s predictions less pessimistic than some others, all of their scenarios predict habitat loss in Shenandoah National Park. “The general consensus is that a 1.5-degree Celsius increase [in the region’s mean annual air temperature] is unavoidable. The question is, will we hit 5 degrees Celsius? And if so, when?” Under such an increase, “basically all habitat [in the park] becomes unsuitable, regardless of groundwater effects,” Hitt said.

“Our research indicates that stream warming will not proceed in a systematic or spatially uniform way,” said Snyder. “It’s going to more closely resemble a shattering of thermal habitat than a systematic change.”

Brook trout that have responded at an evolutionary level to heat stress could be good candidates for reintroduction to historically occupied habitat. Photo by Dave Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated.

Just what this “shattering” of suitable habitat will do to brook trout populations is unclear. While it is likely to diminish brook trout occupancy—or the presence of the fish in a particular area, which is used instead of the more variable abundance to determine the health of brook trout populations—some unknowns remain. For instance: what conditions will brook trout swim through in order to find suitable habitat? How much cold habitat is necessary for a self-sustaining brook trout population to thrive? And can local populations adapt to heat stress over time?

This kind of research could help our partners expand brook trout populations rather than merely holding onto the habitat that currently exists. If scientists find brook trout that have responded at an evolutionary level to heat stress, for example, they could use these populations to reintroduce fish to historically occupied habitat and, in turn, move closer to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement commitment to increase occupied habitat.

“This species has existed for millions of years,” Hitt said. “They’re survivors. A loss of a cohort in one year has little effect on population dynamics. But three or four back-to-back years of bad recruitment—that’s where the problem is. Our research helps us predict where brook trout populations will be more resilient to coming environmental changes.”

Snyder, Hitt and Zachary Johnson recently used remote sensing data to model the effects of groundwater on stream temperature. Their work showed that landform features and precipitation records can predict where groundwater affects fish habitat, and the results of this work have been mapped by the USGS Eastern Geographic Science Center.

“Our research shows that stream temperature data are valuable not only for understanding current thermal habitat conditions for brook trout, but also for anticipating future changes,” said Johnson. “Our work can help prioritize streams for long-term brook trout conservation.”

Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work to restore and sustain brook trout in the region’s headwater streams.

Catherine Krikstan's avatar
About Catherine Krikstan - Catherine Krikstan is a web writer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She began writing about the watershed as a reporter in Annapolis, Md., where she covered algae blooms and climate change and interviewed hog farmers and watermen. She lives in Washington, D.C.



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