Nearly 18 million people reside in the Chesapeake Bay region, with more moving to the area each year. Growing disputes over land use have conservationists working hard to protect the robust natural resources that can be found within the Bay region. A significant part of these efforts include developing and improving public access points as means for people to experience, explore and develop connections to the land, water and wildlife.
Nestled in between Accokeek Creek and Potomac Creek, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford, Virginia serves as one of the state’s highest land conservation priorities in the past 10 years. “This is a priority site because it’s such a large intact ecosystem. You have thousands of acres of mature hardwood forest on the coastal plain in Virginia,” explained Michael Lott, Crow’s Nest Manager and Northern Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
In addition to around 2,200 acres of mature hardwood forest, the site boasts 750 acres of nearly pristine wetlands and more than 10 miles of hiking trails, and it acts as a safe haven for wildlife and countless viewing opportunities for critters such as migratory waterfowl, white-tailed deer, river otters and beavers.
The preserve and those who manage it have faced many obstacles over the past few decades, including population growth and development encroaching on the area. “In the 1970’s, there were around 30,000 people in Stafford County; a few of the subdivisions were vacation homes for people in D.C. Now, the population is about 130,000. This is the best remaining tidal marsh in Stafford County, so our priority here is conservation,” said Geoff Austin, Northern Region Operations Steward with DCR.
Despite the vastness of the preserve and the great potential it holds for environmental education and recreational opportunities, the property is largely closed to the public until further operational resources can be effectively implemented.
The dynamic duo of Lott and Austin dedicate 90 percent of their working hours toward maintaining the preserve and trying to make it accessible to the public, but one major hurdle stands in their way – a mile-and-a-half long access road. “The big obstacle is the access road to the [completed] parking lot. We need to raise the money to fix that road. That road has been there since the colonial era, it’s been dug down and needs a lot of work before it’s passable for cars,” explained Austin. The team – with help from volunteers - keeps the trails clear, maintains the parking lot and plans to install proper trail signage once the road is completed.
Lott and Austin measure their success one victory - no matter the size - at a time, their latest being the installation of a handicap-accessible boat ramp to be opened to the public within the next couple of months. The ramp overlooks acres of tidal marsh, provides access to Accokeek Creek and lays adjacent to a half-mile trail complete with benches for wildlife observers. “It’s a great birding spot,” said Austin. The launch is part of a larger plan to connect a water trail system along the Potomac River.
DCR wants the public to be able to experience the preserve’s natural wonder. “In the past, this landscape did not lend itself to farming very well, and so a lot of the soil we have out here is still very much intact. Researchers have said that throughout the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, you can’t find soil like this in very many places anymore, which is why the forest out here is so productive," explained Lott. “A lot of the forest, particularly in the ravines, hasn’t been logged intensively since the Civil War, so it’s trending back toward mature forest. [For this reason] we keep the trails clear and have been holding open houses twice a year for five years now, so people have had the opportunity to see it and enjoy the trails.”
Tending to nearly 3,000 acres of forest and wetlands is no simple task for two people, but the work is done out of a place of deep caring and passion for protecting and sharing the special places in life with the public. “I grew up in this area and it’s nice to have an intact piece of hardwood [forest] that is going to be preserved in the area for years to come. It’s great to be able to walk out there when I’m working or hunting and see the big trees; you don’t see that in many other places in this area. As stewards of the land year-round you spend a lot of time here – it means a lot to be able to take care of this place.” said Austin.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
It takes a lot of work to protect the critical land that borders the Chesapeake Bay and its streams, rivers and wetlands. Mary Owens, conservation and education coordinator for the Maryland Critical Area Commission, takes us through a typical day in her job in our latest “From the Field” feature.
The calendar tells me that it is spring, and I am looking forward to a day in the field. As a natural resources planner for Maryland’s Critical Area Commission, my days are varied and involve a combination of tasks and activities that frequently have me outdoors. I love this part of my job!
The Critical Area Program is a natural resources protection and conservation program. Through the Critical Area Program, Maryland works cooperatively with local county and municipal governments to regulate land use and development activity within the state’s “Critical Area.” The Critical Area includes all land and water within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and tidal wetlands. Because of the Chesapeake Bay’s irregular shoreline, as well as the Atlantic coastal bays and all of the tidal rivers and creeks that feed into the bays, this “strip” of land includes about 680,000 acres -- about 11 percent of the state.
After stepping outside and realizing that the weather has turned back to a wintry chill, I get a fleece vest, scarf and gloves (just in case). In this line of work, you soon realize that it is always colder and windier near the water. While this is great in August, it can be a little rough in early April. It’s difficult to review a proposed development project or evaluate a forested buffer when all you can think about is being cold.
My first task for the day is to talk with my boss about a problem with a development project in southern Maryland. The project I am reviewing is an 11-lot subdivision that involves clearing a mature forest, which has been identified as Forest Interior Dwelling Species (FIDS) habitat. This type of habitat is very important to Maryland songbirds. Many songbird species have experienced significant population declines in the last several decades. The dwindling numbers are largely due to fragmentation of the large forested tracts (usually 50 to 100 acres) that songbirds need to nest and breed. To offset the impacts associated with clearing FIDS habitat, developers are usually required to plant and protect similar habitat on another property.
The problem is that a suitable FIDS mitigation site has not been identified for this project. So we have to notify the planning staff that the project cannot proceed without addressing this requirement. We agree to send a letter to the planning director to request a meeting to resolve this issue before any additional permits are issued.
My next activity is also related to FIDS mitigation, and it involves a FIDS Mitigation Bank that we have been working on for over a year. Over the last two years, Commission staff have worked very closely with several local governments and the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage to develop FIDS Mitigation Banks throughout the Critical Area. This effort is essential to the successful protection and conservation of FIDS species.
I have just obtained updated survey information, aerial imagery and a forest management plan for a proposed bank. I meet with DNR Heritage staff to go over the information as we move toward “certifying the bank” as suitable for FIDS mitigation. The meeting goes well, and it looks like we have just over the necessary 100 acres that we hoped to protect on this property. Hopefully this “bank” will be “open for business” in the next month or so.
After these two meetings, I finally get on the road and head out to a site visit in Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC). It’s rainy, windy, and cold, so I am glad I have extra clothes in the car. The purpose of my field trip is to meet with a horticulturist and other HSMC staff to explore the possibility of using goats to remove invasive plant species. Yes – goats! Low tech perhaps, but highly effective, since they eat undesirables like poison ivy and multiflora rose.
Within the Critical Area and particularly within the buffer (the first 100 feet adjacent to tidal waters, tidal wetlands and tributary streams), maintaining natural vegetation is very important. Unfortunately, this is the area where most people want to clear all of the vegetation so they can have a panoramic water view. Massive clearing, grading and bushogging are not allowed in the buffer because they remove natural forest vegetation, which is extremely important to water quality and habitat. These activities can also create severe erosion and sedimentation problems in tidal waters and wetlands.
Fortunately at Historic St. Mary’s City, they aren’t proposing to “clear” large buffer areas to create a view. Rather, they are looking at creative ways to address a serious invasive species problem. We walk around several areas of the property to look at the condition of the landscape and assess topography, soils, vegetation, and existing uses and access. In various areas, the invasive species have literally taken over the natural forest. Without eliminating these undesirable species, it is impossible for the buffer to function optimally. Often, removing invasive species and judiciously pruning trees can create a great view without compromising the value of the forested buffer. This type of work requires a Buffer Management Plan to ensure that the work is properly managed and that mitigation, in the form of supplemental planting, is provided if necessary.
The meeting with the owner of Eco-Goats goes well. It seems like using the goat herd may be a cost-effective and ecologically friendly method of addressing the invasive species problem. The owner tells us that the goats especially like many of the species that are present. The goats can also get to steeply sloping areas that are generally inaccessible to equipment and dangerous for humans. Using the goats is definitely preferable to applying herbicides, especially close to streams, wetlands and waterways. In the roughly one-half to 1 acre area that is identified as a good test site, he estimates that it would take 30 goats less than a week to munch the invasive species down to stems.
After this meeting, the HSMC staff wants to show me a site where they are proposing to construct a special events pavilion. The proposed location is outside the 100-foot buffer, which is good. Unfortunately, it is located in an area where there is an existing stormwater management facility, so that facility will need to be relocated. Fortunately, there are many new stormwater treatment technologies available, so it is likely that we well be able to use several smaller practices such as rain gardens, submerged gravel wetlands or infiltration practices. It’s really beneficial to have the opportunity to discuss various options at the beginning of the design stage, because planning is very important when you are proposing projects in the Critical Area.
My day wraps up in a good way as the sun finally comes out, and it feels like spring. I’ve driven quite a few miles, walked a couple of miles, and learned a lot about goats! As I head homeI drive past the St. Mary’s River, and the sun sparkling on the water is absolutely beautiful! It reminds me that it often does take many small efforts to accomplish things. Small steps, taken together, can eventually take you somewhere. It’s always good to not just focus on the destination, but to enjoy the journey as well.
Maryland has surpassed its goal to preserve 9,700 acres in 2010. The state permanently protected 12,812 acres last year, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The land was conserved through state Program Open Space acquisitions and conservation easements purchased through the Rural Legacy Program and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
Land conserved in 2010 includes:
Maryland tracks its environmental goals using BayStat, an online tool that assesses, coordinates and targets restoration and conservation programs.
Visit Maryland's website to learn more about the state's land conservation goals.
Land conservation is a critical part of restoring the Chesapeake Bay, and governments need to maintain their current pace of conserving land to achieve new land preservation goals, according to a new report issued by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the Chesapeake Conservancy.
The report, Conserving Chesapeake Landscapes: Protecting Our Investments; Securing Future Progress, recommends six actions to accelerate progress conserving land throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The Chesapeake Bay’s land-to-water ratio of 14:1 is the largest of any coastal water body in the world. This means that what we do on the land has a significant effect on the health of the Bay.
“Land conservation is vital to the Bay’s and the region’s health,” said Maryland Senator Thomas McLain "Mac" Middleton, chair of the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission. “What happens on the land profoundly influences water quality.”
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have surpassed their original Chesapeake 2000 goal of permanently preserving 20 percent of the watershed’s land. New goals have been set to conserve two million acres of land and create 300 public access points. Virginia has set a separate goal to protect 400,000 acres of land by 2014.
To achieve these new goals, the government and private sector need to maintain the pace of conservation set during the past decade, when Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia protected 1.24 million acres of land, according to the report.
The report states that there is a large and untapped potential for conserved lands to contribute to pollution limits established under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. For example, if two million acres are conserved in targeted areas and conservation practices are established on those acres, several million fewer pounds of nitrogen could reach the Bay each year.
To achieve the greatest benefit for the Bay’s health, the report recommends that land conservation efforts follow six main principles:
Visit the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s website for more information about the land conservation report.
Virginia has permanently preserved more than 424,000 acres of land since 2006, surpassing Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine’s goal of 400,000 acres conserved during his term.
The 424,000 acres of land were conserved so they could be protected from development and used by Virginia residents and visitors for outdoor activities such as fishing, boating, hiking and birding.
“Virginians expect to be able to explore and enjoy those lands purchased with public funds,” Governor Kaine said. “We have been mindful of the fact that we are stewards of their lands and resources.”
The land will be used to create five state forests, three state parks, three wildlife management areas and 13 natural area preserves.
Some of the protected parcels of land include:
The state of Maryland has preserved nearly 4,500 acres of land in Cecil, Charles and St. Mary’s counties, including 20 miles of Potomac River shoreline that was once explored by Captain John Smith.
The state’s land investment protects a diverse array of natural areas, including forests and wetlands that filter out pollutants and protect clean water in the Bay and its rivers. Maryland plans to use the land as wildlife habitat and public access points for boating, hiking, hunting and other recreational activities.
The preserved land, called the Maryland Province Property, is comprised of four separate parcels: Old Bohemia in Cecil County, Cedar Point in Charles County, and St. Inigoes and New Towne Neck in St. Mary’s County.
In addition to their significance to protecting the Bay, the preserved lands are tied to some of the earliest settlers in Maryland. Old Bohemia was part of the first Catholic settlement in the state, and St. Inigoes was originally acquired in 1634 from King Charles I of England.
Captain John Smith mapped several parts of land along the Potomac River during his 1607-1609 exploratory voyages of the Chesapeake Bay, according to the Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail. Cedar Point, St. Inigoes and New Towne Neck will offer access points to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail, the nation’s first national historic water trail.
For photos and additional information about the protected lands, view this presentation from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.