The forest is whispering its true nature let's listen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Whose woods these are in Worcester County I'm not so sure. The option to develop them belongs to Goodwin "Goody" Taylor, a Virginia developer.

For this block of forest and farmland, nearly a square mile in all, he plans about 650 housing units, a golf course and a huge marina, big as a dozen football fields.

But what does the forest say? Just now, as a friend and I tramp through a section shaded by red maple, sweet gum and cinnamon fern, the forest is whispering, fairly clearly, "Wetlands."

My friend acted as interpreter on a recent trek through Riddle Farm, as the block of land is known to the regulatory agencies that soon will decide its future, and that of Herring Creek, the pretty little tidal thoroughfare which borders it.

My friend, whose occupation of "wetlands delineator," scarcely existed a decade ago, makes his living interpreting for the forest, translating for the soil, divining nature's intent like some modern-day oracle.

Sometimes it's easy. "Oh, screamin' at me now, screamin' wetlands all around," he says, pushing through thickets that squish underfoot, and where sweet pepper bushes and a shy little orchid revel in obvious swampiness.

In a few places the vegetation proclaims "dryland." In other places, the answer is unclear. Is the wetness hidden below the surface? How many inches below? For how many days of the growing season? The answers are crucial to a legal determination of wetlands, which in turn determines where a landowner's rights diminish and the public's rights to environmental protection begin.

It used to be simpler; protection focused on tidal wetlands, such as the marshes in Georgia that inspired Sidney Lanier to write: A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade . . . Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!

Ye get the idea; but protecting tidal wetlands was not enough. Now we also protect nontidal wetlands -- the sloughs, bogs, ponds, river bottomland and even lands that are flooded only seasonally.

Such places, covering hundreds of thousands of acres in Maryland, are critical both as habitat for plants and animals, and in maintaining water quality by absorbing and filtering polluted runoff.

How do we identify these wetlands? How do we talk with our own back yards?

We are still fledglings at this, even the best of us, and the language of nontidal wetlands, as contained in present guidelines of the Army Corps of Engineers, is a clumsy translation indeed.

Plants and trees in the corps delineation jargon become "obligative" and "facultative." The former have to live in wetlands; the latter may or may not. Facultative, or "fac" species, are further split into "fac plus," "fac neutral" and "fac minus," depending on their likelihood of occurring in wet or dry soils. All this, plus soil chemistry and hydrology -- how well or poorly drained an area is -- are weighed to determine whether we protect a place as wetlands.

At one spot on our strictly informal survey of Riddle Farm, white oaks are plentiful. White oaks, my friend says, are officially "fac minus," meaning you take points away from awarding wetland status because the species is primarily upland; except that these are young white oaks, which in his experience do fine in wet soils until they get bigger, when they usually die.

It may sound hopelessly arcane; but I think the fact that we are trying to talk to the forests is one of the most hopeful trends imaginable. Our temporary problems in sorting things out reflect less on the complexity of wetlands than on the disconnection we moderns have suffered in our intimacy with nature.

But there is no escaping the fact that big money will ride on decisions about delineation of wetlands. To save even pieces of our open spaces from development, the excruciatingly detailed interrogations of the plants and soils must proceed.

Which brings us back to an important question: In how much of Riddle Farm will society allow Goody Taylor, the developer, a free rein?

Five years ago, when the language of wetlands was only beginning to be described, a delineator-translator for the Army Corps of Engineers walked this tract and designated less than a dozen acres as nontidal wetlands.

But it's obvious, from even a cursory stroll, that this was a gross misinterpretation. Some knowledgeable people think the real wetlands acreage might range between 200 and 500 acres of the 1,000-acre site.

The Corps of Engineers has elected to let its old decision stand through 1995, before considering any re-delineation of the site's wetlands, says a corps official.

Now, from one flawed decision, many others are about to flow. On June 2, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources will recommend that the state Board of Public Works give its go-ahead to dredging for the mammoth marina.

The excavation, and the resulting spoil disposal, will occur almost entirely on uplands, not wetlands, the state explains. Legally that will be true; but aquatic life in Herring Creek won't care; it will only know it is protected by fewer wetlands than before.

The corps also must decide soon whether to second the state's decision. Despite objections from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the corps is considered likely to give approval.

A group of several dozen nearby residents has formed the Friends of Herring & Turville Creek. Says Ron Cascio, a member: "We're not trying to stop the development; I'm a homebuilder myself and others are local business people."

They think that most of the development could be accommodated on the site without disturbing any wetlands. The group does oppose the huge marina, noting that so far the county has authorized a total of only 50 slips there.

For the group, more than two years of meeting with the developer, paying for environmental studies and making the rounds of state and federal agencies have proved fruitless.

Mr. Cascio points out that the aim of a new but unrelated study ordered by Congress is to protect the water quality of Worcester County's coastal bays -- into which Herring Creek drains. Not protecting the creek "goes against the whole thrust of the study," he says.

The corps says it has to consider "fairness, and the equity of the landowner." Not to mention the interests of Goody Taylor, who received his favorable ruling on wetlands fair and square.

Perhaps some compensation would be in order, if the development plans have to be modified; but now that we can hear what that forest is really saying, it would be a tragedy if we choose deliberately not to listen.

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