In rural West Virginia, a fisherman casts his bright green line into a mountain stream. The stream is clear, the fish are biting and it takes just minutes to make a catch.
Dustin Wichterman, Potomac Headwaters Project Coordinator with Trout Unlimited, dips his net into the water and reveals a 10-inch brook trout. Its olive green body is flecked with red and gold, and its mere presence here is a welcome sign of health for the Pendleton County waterway.
Native to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the eastern brook trout is a sensitive species that needs cold, clean water to survive. But as regional water quality has declined, so, too, have brook trout populations, leading to lost revenue and diminished fishing opportunities for headwater states.
Brook trout play a critical role in the watershed: they are an important part of the region’s natural heritage, a driver of economic growth and an indicator of environmental health. For these reasons, brook trout restoration was a listed outcome in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay Watershed. And for the past two years, brook trout conservation has been a top goal for the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Through the Bay Program’s Habitat Goal Implementation Team, whose members work to protect and restore wetlands, woods and other habitats across the watershed, brook trout have benefited from stream restoration, fish passage renewal and tree plantings.
As odd as it might seem, the health of a fish depends not just on the health of the creek, stream or river that it calls home; it is also tied to the health of the surrounding land. And poor land management, increasing development and expanding urbanization have been cited as leading factors in brook trout decline.
“This fish is a living symbol of how actions on land affect the health of our local waterways,” said team coordinator Jennifer Greiner.
The removal of streamside trees, for instance, is a common consequence of agricultural or residential development, as seedlings are trampled by grazing cattle or trees are felled for suburban growth. But a missing forest buffer means bad news for brook trout when stream banks erode, excess sediment ruins spawning beds and an absence of shade pushes water temperatures into a range that brook trout cannot withstand.
When, on the other hand, trees and shrubs are allowed to grow along waterways, their runoff-trapping roots keep the water clean and their shade-producing leaves keep the water cold.
So Greiner and her fellow team members have worked to bring brook trout into the land-use discussion, pushing the latest brook trout distribution data out to doers and decision-makers in the watershed. Because when land managers know where brook trout are, they are more likely to take the fish into account in land-use decisions.
Land trusts in headwater states have also found that brook trout can push private landowners to conserve, and Goal Implementation Team partners—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Partnership among them—are using the iconic fish to promote on-the-ground restoration of riparian forest buffers.
Whether a farmer installs a fence that keeps livestock out of local rivers or a landowner decides to plant a series of streamside trees, education and engagement are critical to conservation.
“By becoming educated and engaged, landowners are able to protect the streams on their land for future generations,” Greiner said. “By protecting and restoring stream habitat, the brook trout, along with other species, are also protected for future generations to enjoy.”
On any given afternoon, thousands of cars and trucks speed along Route 301 on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, rolling past forests, rivers and soybean fields on their way north to Delaware or south to the Bay Bridge.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Staff with Adkins Arboretum hope motorists will soon travel on Route 301 for another reason: to see the road itself.
Since early 2002, the arboretum has led the Eastern Shoreway Alliance, a partnership of local organizations and individuals interested in conserving the rural character of this well-traveled road. The group's mission is to protect the stretch of Route 301 between Queenstown, Maryland, and the Maryland/Delaware state line from the development and urbanization threatening many of the Eastern Shore's most scenic areas.
“We want to preserve a sense of place, so you know where you are in the world,” said Ellie Altman, executive director of Adkins Arboretum and co-chair of the Eastern Shoreway Alliance. Much of that “sense of place” has already been lost around the Chesapeake Bay region, as chain restaurants and retail stores make once-unique towns look like any other place in the United States.
Take a drive north on the Eastern Shoreway — the name the Alliance has chosen for Route 301 — into Delaware, and the threat becomes a reality. New homes, stores, hotels and restaurants sit atop land where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago. Bulldozers and “land for sale” signs along the road indicate that more development is on its way.
(Image courtesy AARoads)
This type of development is not unique to Delaware. Across the Bay watershed — and the country — new construction is concentrated along existing major roads. Although roads are necessary to modern life, they are often gateways to development and the first places where gas stations and strip malls pop up.
Back on the Maryland portion of Route 301, the scene is much closer to the traditional image of rural Delmarva. Volunteers with the arboretum have been working hard to protect this landscape by removing invasive plants and restoring meadows along the road. Dozens of signs mark these areas, which soak up excess polluted runoff and provide habitat for beneficial birds, bugs and butterflies.
With the addition of these meadows, the Eastern Shoreway now acts as a “linear arboretum” where travelers can see some of the Eastern Shore's native plants and flowers outside of Adkins' 400-acre facility in Ridgely, Maryland, according to Altman.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Through its website, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance markets the road as a travel destination for tourists from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And next year, one of the group's biggest goals will be achieved when the Eastern Shoreway is printed in the Maryland State Highway Administration's Scenic Byways Guide. It will be one of the state's few high-speed roads designated as a "scenic byway."
“Normally you think of scenic byways as backroads, not highways,” said Altman. “But highways can — and should — be beautiful, too.”
From the beginning, the State Highway Administration has been a willing participant in this project. The Eastern Shoreway Alliance is working with the agency to reduce mowing along the highway and put up signs at the crossings of the Chester and Sassafras rivers, two Bay tributaries. The group also wants to add literature on the road's significance to the highway's welcome center.
The effort isn't perfect. Billboards litter a few points along the road, advertising politicians, available land and car insurance companies. Although encroaching development can't be stopped entirely, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance hopes that future structures can be built in a way that does not harm the road's natural scenery.
Most importantly, the group has managed to garner support and build a sense of urgency among the area's residents to protect the land along this “beautiful highway.”
“People think it will be here forever,” said Altman of the road and its unspoiled scenery. “We want to interpret, protect and restore the road's environment and show travelers that you can have development that fits in with nature.”