Discarded bottles, empty bags of chips and errant playground balls littered the shoreline of the Fort McHenry Wetland, a 7.5-acre hub of biodiversity home to hundreds of plant and animal species.
"Anything that floats ends up downstream," said Laura Bankey, director of conservation for the National Aquarium, the wetland's steward since 1999. "Because this is a soft shoreline with vegetation, it ends up here."
To combat pollution plaguing the marsh habitat, about 250 volunteers picked up trash, dredged debris, planted trees and tended the wetland's gardens Saturday as part of a cleanup event hosted by the aquarium and the National Parks Conservation Association.
Over the course of about two-and-a-half hours, groups of volunteers led by the National Park Service, Maryland Conservation Corps and National Aquarium Conservation Team scoured the marsh's shore for trash, slogged through its waters to pick up debris, prepped pollinator and rain gardens and planted 40 trees along a wetland embankment. Another group built a new shed for the aquarium's equipment.
Matt Tanner, who volunteered with a group from military contractor Raytheon, said Saturday's cleanup was his second such event.
"I actually did a wetlands cleanup in Las Vegas," said Tanner, who moved to the area last year. "We try to get out and volunteer whenever we can."
Though wetlands once covered much of Baltimore's shoreline, industrialization and fear of diseases believed to be endemic to these environments led to the eradication of many aquatic habitats, and few remain today in the bustling port city.
The Fort McHenry Wetland's location — adjacent to the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, just south of the I-95 tunnel — makes it particularly prone to pollution, Bankey said. Volunteers collect thousands of pieces of trash each year and since 1999, volunteers have helped pick up almost 600,000 pieces of debris, she said.
Built in 1982 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as compensatory restoration for constructing the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the wetland had three small culverts through the area's outer foundation that allowed for tidal exchange with harbor waters. Years after its creation, however, silt buildup largely had cut off fish migration and tidal exchange.
"None of that was happening anymore," Bankey said. "The water quality was degrading because of it."
The National Aquarium assumed stewardship of the wetland in 1999, and for the next several years, it worked to reconstruct the marsh by collecting debris and supporting natural tidal flooding. Now, the area is home to 20 species of mammals and 20 species of fish, Bankey said, and birdwatchers have identified 261 species of birds in the wetland.
"This is pretty much the only green place in the area," said Ed Sterli, NPCA's Chesapeake Bay field representative. "It's definitely a valuable space in Baltimore."
Saturday's cleanup, the National Aquarium's latest semi-annual Fort McHenry Field Day, was held as part of the NPCA's Freedom to Float Campaign, a grassroots program that aims to increase access to the Chesapeake Bay shores for fishing, boating and other recreational activities.
Founded in response to a 2009 executive order signed by President Barack Obama that called for the creation of 300 new public-access sites on the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, the campaign organizes restoration events to promote environmental stewardship while opening the bay to greater numbers, said Sterli, the project's director.
Less than 2 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's more than 11,600 miles of shoreline is publicly accessible, Sterli said.
"These are the places where people come to recreate, so where they come to fish, go paddling, to go hiking, to go birding and so on," Sterli said. "[We] said, 'Hey, we need to rally the people that are enjoying the waters of the Chesapeake, the people that are out there paddling, out there fishing, out there recreating, and get them on board with what is going on to create more public access and get invested into the restoration goals of the Chesapeake."
To that end, the Freedom to Float Campaign brings together a network of small businesses, civic groups, nonprofits and outdoor recreation enthusiasts to participate in both hands-on restoration projects and advocacy work at the local, state and federal levels.
"We've been up and running for about a year," Sterli said. "So far, we've had great success both on the legislative side and also with the sincere excitement that a lot of [people] that are recreating have shown in getting involved and creating more public access.
The Chesapeake watershed's 55 national parks recorded more than 54 million visitors in 2010, contributing to more than $1.5 billion in spending and more than 20,000 jobs, according to the Freedom to Float Campaign website, and the NPCA initiative's work helps drive that economic boost upward, Sterli said.
"The small businesses, these outfitters, these groups that work in the bay, they're the businesses that benefit the most from having increased public access," he said. "So it's definitely in their interest to get on board."
Though volunteers at Saturday's cleanup largely remained landlocked, Sterli said upcoming campaign events will incorporate paddling, such as a June 7 "Canoe N' Scoop" event to clean up the shoreline at Middle Branch Park in Baltimore.
"We want people to get out and enjoy the Chesapeake as well as being involved," Sterli said. "We want to get them to realize these beautiful places that we have … and just enjoy nature."
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