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.