Making new wetlands for Maryland Landowners are creating swamps and returning drained fields to nature


SNOW HILL -- In the age-old struggle between man and nature, Bruce Nichols is helping the other side.

The bearded biologist is taking low-lying Eastern Shore farmland that had been laboriously drained over the centuries to raise corn or livestock and making it swampy again.

Roaming back roads like a traveling salesman, Nichols and other conservationists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been persuading farmer after farmer to let them flood fields and woodlands.

He figures they have returned about 1,000 acres to their natural marshy state in the past few years. He says they can do the same with thousands more.

"It's going to change back to what it was," says Nichols, the agency's district conservationist for Worcester County. "All these areas previously were wetlands."

Nichols is in the vanguard of a new environmental movement. After decades of bitter wrangling over protecting wetlands with laws, many involved in the struggle are coming together to voluntarily restore these dwindling and once-maligned natural systems.

Driving the change is a growing recognition of the vital role wetlands play in protecting drinking water, preventing floods and sustaining wildlife.

Elected officials from President Clinton on down have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to creating new wetlands or restoring those that were drained or bulldozed years ago.

"We seem to be on the verge of a major new effort to restore wetlands and the physical structures of rivers and estuaries," said Timothy Searchinger, with the Environmental Defense Fund Washington.

Duck hunters have long valued wetlands. Hunting groups and government wildlife agencies have been creating or restoring swamps to improve waterfowl hunting for more than 50 years.

Within the past decade, though, large-scale efforts have been launched in the name of flood control or pollution cleanup to restore marshland along the Mississippi River, in Louisiana's bayous and in Florida's fabled Everglades.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, state and federal officials hope creating and restoring wetlands will help revive America's largest estuary, polluted by fertilizer running off farmland and suburban lawns. Until now, much of the bay cleanup has focused on expensive overhauls of sewage treatment plants.

Without setting a deadline, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to create or restore 60,000 acres of marshland. That would replace what the state has lost to development since World War II.

Nationwide, the Clinton administration has set a similarly ambitious goal of increasing the nation's wetlands by 100,000 acres a year, beginning in 2005.

The high-profile attention to replacing lost wetlands is a bonanza for Nichols, 48, who says he first got his feet wet re-flooding a farmed-over swamp in Florida 25 years ago.

With all the government and private initiatives to restore marshland now, he said, "we've never had so many tools before."

"We've lost so much through man's activities," Nichols said. "This gives us an opportunity to replace some."

Centuries of draining

Once reviled as dreary mosquito havens, wetlands have been drained and filled since Europeans colonized North America. About half the nation's original bogs, marshes and swamps have been destroyed.

In the late 18th century, 24 percent of Maryland's total area was wetlands, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now it's down to 7 percent.

For the past 26 years, since Congress passed the Clean Water Act, wetlands have been protected by regulations that require landowners to get permits before destroying them and to replace what they bulldoze. Maryland and other states have adopted their own restrictive laws as well.

The regulations have slowed but not halted wetland losses. Nationwide, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 117,000 marshy acres disappear annually. In the Chesapeake region, while tidal wetlands losses have been reduced to about 5 acres a year, about 2,800 acres of freshwater marshes vanished annually through the 1980s. No recent figures are available.

Meanwhile, Congress and the courts have become battlegrounds in a running dispute over what lands are wetlands and whether their environmental importance merits limiting the owners' right to use their properties as they wish.

In a highly publicized clash in Maryland, Interstate General Corp. and its chairman, James Wilson, were convicted on federal charges of illegally filling more than 50 acres of wetlands while building a Columbia-style planned community in Charles County.

An appeals court overturned the conviction late last year, freeing the company from having to replace all the low-lying spots it was accused of destroying. However, IGC took some steps anyway to create marsh near its Dorchester Estates subdivision.

Disappointing efforts

Even when landowners do replace wetlands sacrificed for development or highways, the results are often disappointing.

The reasons are both technical and political. Mimicking nature is no easy task, especially the complex ways in which ground-water and surface runoff interact to make soils soggy for extended periods of time. Man-made marshes rarely match natural ones in the richness of their plant and animal life, at least not for many years.

Often, regulators have failed to see that the required replacements are built properly. A 1990 review by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that two-thirds of the man-made marshes the government had required in Maryland were flawed -- too wet or too dry.

Some were never built because landowners dodged their legal responsibility. One cited in the 1990 report still has not been constructed, 12 years after the natural marsh it was supposed to replace in eastern Baltimore County was bulldozed for a new highway.

Federal and state regulators say they have gotten better in recent years at overseeing the replacements. But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported last year that fewer than half of the man-made marshes built in Maryland by the state itself, not by developers, could be considered successful.

"We don't have this down to a science," said William Street, the bay foundation scientist who reviewed the state's wetland projects. "It's a little bit of a crapshoot."

$100,000 per acre

And a costly one at that.

The Maryland State Highway Administration spent $2.5 million, or about $35,000 per acre, to carve 70 acres of wetlands out of an abandoned sand and gravel mine in Anne Arundel County. Another project -- aiming to replace 10 acres of badly needed wetlands along the Anacostia River in suburban Prince George's County -- is costing upward of $100,000 per acre.

Those involved in creating wetlands say 20 years of experience has taught them how to replicate some kinds of marshland. But they have repeatedly come up short when trying to replace forested wetlands, the type most often bulldozed for development in Maryland and the mid-Atlantic.

The wetlands built on Jack and Mary Davis's 100-acre farm near Aberdeen in Harford County are typical. Late last summer, the couple let the state bulldoze two saucer-shaped depressions in an old pasture that had always been too muddy to plow.

"The wildlife is just waiting for this," predicted Jack Davis, 62, a retired lacrosse equipment designer, as he poked at the bare soft ground with his walking stick.

Patience required

The former pasture is now lush with grasses, but cattails or other wetland plants have yet to grow up around the pond. Tree seedlings, many with fledgling leaves, can be seen poking out of the water. Frogs and tadpoles cruise about in the water. Still, it may be 50 years -- if ever -- before this 2-acre wetland can be considered forested, though that is what it was meant to replace.

Matthew C. Perry, a biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, has found that many of the tree seedlings planted on man-made wetland projects either die off or grow very slowly.

Nature sometimes picks up the slack, as tree seeds are spread by wind or animals. "But you and I won't live long enough to see a forested wetland," said Perry.

Restoring wetlands where they used to be is usually faster, easier and cheaper than trying to create marsh out of upland.

It can be as simple as plugging a ditch draining water from a field. But in many cases some excavation is required. Depending on how much the topography and drainage have been altered, restoration can cost about $1,500 per acre or less.

"If we can restore them for that, why are we spending $100,000 per acre?" asked Billy Teels, head of wetland restoration for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under his agency's Wetland Reserve Program, more than 100,000 acres nationwide are restored each year, at a cost of $100 million, or $1,000 an acre.

That is just one of several government and private efforts under way to create or restore wetlands.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, approved last year, is offering $200 million in federal funds for Maryland farmers to create water-purifying buffers along the bay and its tributaries, including 10,000 acres of wetlands.

Nationally, about 360,000 acres have been restored in the past decade under a voluntary program called Partners for Wildlife.

Landowners get federal funds and technical help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while agreeing to protect the restored habitat for at least 10 years. Private groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, also contribute millions toward wetlands and other wildlife habitat restoration.

Restoring wetlands on a large scale could go a long way toward reviving the Chesapeake Bay, where an oversupply of nutrients is fouling the water. Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution studying a restored marsh on Kent Island found that it soaks up 40 percent of the nitrogen in the fertilizer-enriched runoff from a nearby cornfield.

"The quality of water that comes out is better than what went in," said Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian's Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. Wetlands -- even relatively new restored ones -- also are "magnets for birds, amphibians and insects," he said.

There is no shortage of land that could be made swampy again. In Worcester, Nichols, the conservationist, noted that two-thirds of that county has "hydric soils," meaning the ground either is or was soaked with water for long periods of time.

He figures the county is crisscrossed by 1,200 miles of ditches, dug to drain water quickly off the land. If those ditches are simply plugged, water backs up and floods the land again.

Government role reversed

It's a role reversal of sorts for government agricultural agencies. "In some areas where we promoted drainage" to give farmers more land to cultivate, Nichols said, "we're now going back and doing just the opposite -- promoting the development of wetlands."

Hundreds of thousands of acres in Maryland -- and millions nationwide -- were boggy before they were drained to grow crops. While many former wetlands in the built-up Baltimore-Washington region are irretrievably covered by pavement or buildings, the Lower Eastern Shore and the coastal plain of Southern Maryland have had vast tracts of marsh converted to croplands.

"My vision of the future is: Everywhere you have a drainage ditch you have a wetland," said the Environmental Defense Fund's Tim Searchinger.

But getting farmers to take land out of cultivation can be a tough sell.

"It may be marginal cropland to a biologist, or to you and me, but to the guy tilling it, it's mother's milk," said John "Ned" Gerber, director of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage. His group, based in Queen Anne's County, converts old cropland into wildlife

habitats. It uses public and private funds to pay farmers and do the work, which includes restoring some wetlands.

Waterfowl habitat

Gerber and other restoration experts often find the most willing ears among wealthy landowners -- "gentlemen farmers" -- who enjoy hunting waterfowl. That means restoring open marshes favored by ducks and geese, not the wooded wetlands that are most in need of replacement.

For Jody Powell and Frank Moore, wetlands are a means to an end: shooting ducks.

The two Georgia natives, who were aides to President Jimmy Carter 20 years ago, work in Washington. But they frequently escape with their wives to their 265-acre Dorchester County farm on the banks of the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers.

With the help of the state Department of Natural Resources, the two have converted three fields to marsh. The result has been a waterfowl bonanza, they said.

"Look at them," Powell, 54, said as he and Moore, 62, watched ducks swooping in to land on one of the state-designed ponds on a blustery day earlier this year. "I love it when they start circling and circling and circling."

The two friends simply wanted ponds to attract waterfowl, and state conservation workers offered to help design and build open marshes in two fields, for a cost to them of about $30,000.

But in addition, the pair agreed to set aside a third field, where the state carved out at public expense what officials hope will become a wooded wetland one day.

"We know what we want 20 or 30 years down the road," said Kevin Smith, wetland restoration chief for the state Department of Natural Resources. "Whether it will look like that, it may surprise us all."

Some worry that the push for restoring wetlands may lead to relaxed legal protections for natural marshlands, because of the relative ease with which they can be replaced.

Indeed, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, argues that voluntary restoration has been so successful that federal regulations restricting development of wetlands ought to be scrapped entirely.

But critics say the amount of wetland restoration going on in the country is overstated. Many groups and agencies, which often collaborate on financing the work, are taking credit for the same projects.

"I believe we need to hang onto every acre we've got and then do restoration," said Gerber of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage. "We know so little."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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