It’s Monday morning and Keith Underwood is preaching biology and physics in the Green Cathedral, 700 acres of protected forest and wetlands on the Severn River.
Two decades ago, Underwood’s engineering transformed a degraded stream valley off Howard’s Branch into a wetland complex with sand and gravel that water seeps through, slowing it and filtering it. Years have passed and the area is now filled with pools of water, spagnum moss and Atlantic white cedar. It’s a bog, Underwood, a landscape architect, said, an ecosystem that sequesters carbon.
“The cedars are weird birds,” Underwood said, standing over some tangled roots. “The annual roots die off every winter. And it’s like, what are you doing? How do you make a living doing that?”
But death is the foundation of life in the bog. Underwood pointed below the roots. Water in the bog blocks oxygen and creates an anerobic environment that slows decay, turning dead vegetation into a low-nutrient substance called peat.
That layer of peat can extend meters deep, trapping carbon in the ground so it can’t contribute to greenhouse gas pollution as carbon dioxide. The United Nations says land with peat covers 3% of the world, but stores 30% of the world’s soil carbon. It estimates that 15% of the world’s peatlands have been drained for uses such as development, agriculture or mining. When bogs are drained, the carbon they store is released, contributing to climate change.
There are more bogs in Anne Arundel than any other county in the state, but not as many as there used to be, Underwood said. Hardwoods grow instead. They’re ugly to him.
“This is a symptom of what we did to the landscape, with forest harvest, agriculture, sediment runoff,” he said. “The bog rots, the peat rots and releases all those nutrients including heavy metals, and the hardwoods thrive. It’s a completely different system that’s not performing as it needs to.”
County Environmental Policy Director Matt Johnston wants to identify more bogs as the administration prepares to craft a plan for land use for the next 20 years.
“We need to keep finding the bogs, mapping our natural resources and protecting them,” he said.
So if you’re aware of an unmapped bog, let the county know. A map of bogs identified and protected under county law can be found online.
Underwood’s project also shows that environmental engineering can successfully rebuild these lost geographic features. He has done similar work on other properties, including St. Luke’s in Annapolis, where Underwood said he spotted a state-endangered pink bog orchid earlier this summer. A rose pagonia orchid was spotted on a tour in June.
Sherwood Forest environmentalist Billy Moulden said the project has created the largest Atlantic white cedar forest this far west of the ocean in the Western hemisphere. He also says monitoring has shown that the water leaving the Howard’s Branch site is clean.