5:07 PM EDT, August 25, 2012
The message arrived last month with something like the urgency of a gold strike: Native brook trout, lots of them, discovered in the twin ditch creeks of an old farm in Hereford, in northern Baltimore County. Environmental scientists get pretty excited about this sort of thing.
They found brown trout, too, and other smaller fish that a kid splashing around in summer might call minnows: sculpins, black-nosed dace and rosy-sided dace.
Signs of life, to be sure, but more than that — signs of a delicate species' survival in a stream degraded for decades by the practices of men trying to earn a living off the land.
Way back, in an effort to turn marshy acres into arable land for corn or soy, the farmer here had widened two creeks on either side of a hill, creating drainage channels big enough to handle a gully-washer. It worked. Storm-water moved fast off his land, muddy and ferocious at times, pulling away yards of stream bank as it flowed southeast, under Interstate 83, downstream to the Gunpowder River. It went on like that for decades, and nobody cared.
Then, a few years ago, the last farmer on the place retired. He couldn't sell his 75 acres for housing because of zoning restrictions, so he sold the land to a Jarrettsville-based environmental-repair company called Ecotone.
Scientists from that company and Baltimore County surveyed the ditch creeks in July. They're the ones who netted and reported dozens of these twitching pieces of God's gold — little fish alive and well, including the native brook trout. That meant the water was healthy and cold, fed by robust springs in what is known as the Piney Run watershed.
Dozens of wild trout were placed in coolers and evacuated to a summer refuge upstream so that the next phase of the company's project could begin: Restoration of the wetlands the farmer decades ago drained.
And imagine that.
Even in the wake of the nation's economic downturn, the Chesapeake Bay region continues to lose forest and wetlands to all sorts of development. But here, on this slice of old farm in Hereford, someone decided to do the other thing — restore what probably was there, no stretch to say, before the Colonial age.
Scott McGill and his partner in Ecotone, Jim Morris, have been in the middle of the effort to reduce the losses of forest and wetlands for years. They've been working with developers to help them comply with state and local requirements to mitigate the environmental impact of their projects.
If, say, a drugstore chain needs to cut down trees for a new location in Catonsville, it has to pay to get new trees planted elsewhere. Or, if wetlands along Pulaski Highway are lost for a new car dealership, McGill and Morris might identify a few acres of pasture that could compensate for the loss; the developer pays Ecotone and the landowner to get credit for the restoration.
Ecotone navigates the environmental laws, designs projects and monitors them — forest plantings, stream bank improvement, wetlands restoration. It's a busy company.
A few years back, McGill and Morris went a step further. They decided to buy land themselves and sell off the mitigation credits to developers. Since then, they've restored nearly 50 acres of forest in Parkton, and they've started to re-establish a lush flood plain and forest over 80 acres along a stretch of Deer Creek, also in northern Baltimore County.
Five years ago, they invested $730,000 in 75 acres of Hereford. They named the place Wooly Bugger Farm, left about 20 acres in corn, sold off $1.2 million in credits to developers, and recreated the forest and wetlands that were there before the farming started.
They removed those old storm channels. The deep ditches are gone, and the cool waters of Piney Run have been redirected into narrow and healthy-looking licks. The water has started to seep into the bottom land. If all goes according to design, a triangular stretch of barren farm will turn lush and green again, and trees will start to grow. The whole spread will begin to look as it did centuries ago. And Ecotone will make a profit on its effort to restore land to its historic best. Nice work.
McGill says he and Morris will sell Wooly Bugger Farm, hopefully next year, to a "conservation buyer," someone who can be content with 55 acres of woods and wetlands, and those little wild fish who give us hope.
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