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Going back in time to save little streams and rescue the brook trout | COMMENTARY

Jim Gracie, an expert in restoring degraded streams, at Deep Run Creek on the Howard/Anne Arundel County line in June 1995.
Jim Gracie, an expert in restoring degraded streams, at Deep Run Creek on the Howard/Anne Arundel County line in June 1995.(ALGERINA PERNA)

It seems like something so obvious, and yet I never really appreciated it until Jim Gracie sat on a rock with me in 1993 and gave a history lesson: The Maryland landscape was not always as it appears. To get that in your head, you had to take a trip back in time.

Long before there were farms with vast pastures in Carroll County and large paddocks in Baltimore County, long before sprawling lawns in Howard County and housing developments in Harford County, there were trees. Millions of trees. This was, as Gordon Lightfoot told it in song, “long before the white man, and long before the wheel, when the green dark forest was too silent to be real.”

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Centuries ago, the trees provided a vast, cooling canopy for the rivers and creeks, licks and runs that flowed to the Chesapeake. With colonial settlers came the ax and plow, came mills and waterwheels. In time, the trees were gone — Maryland lost 97% of its forest between the 17th and late 19th centuries — and the land turned to pasture and crops.

The streams became muddy and warm, or they were blocked by dams. The exquisite brook trout that had lived in them for ages disappeared. Some of the little creeks they left behind ended up looking like — and serving as — drainage ditches.

It’s one thing to understand this as a history lesson, quite another to attempt to reverse it.

Jim Gracie was into that.

He became fascinated with local streams as a boy, as many of us did. If you were fortunate to grow up near a river or creek, even a murky and smelly one, you found what for a kid constituted high adventure there. You found life there: fish, frogs, turtles and crayfish, maybe muskrat, kingfishers and heron, damselflies and pollywogs.

Men and women who grew up in Baltimore have shared memories of the herring, gudgeon and shad runs in local rivers each spring. My neighbor tells me her dad allowed her to play hooky one day each April just so they could fish for shad together.

This was before eight hours of television a day, before seven hours in front of digital screens. Studies show Americans losing a connection to nature that was once more commonplace, even in big, wheezing industrial areas like Baltimore.

Jim Gracie, born during World War II, became enamored of creeks and the native brook trout, or brookie, a beautiful creature that could live in the smallest of waters as long as they stayed cold.

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By the time I met him, on a rock along the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County, Gracie had become a brook trout advocate and a passionate conservationist. He had started a company that did stream restoration work.

Farms were becoming housing developments by then, putting even more pressure on the land and aquifers, and time was running out to restore streams where brook trout once lived.

Gracie, who died the other day at 78, was the first person I knew who referred to trout as “the canary in the coal mine.” If trout disappeared, that meant a stream had become too warm, too degraded, and it signaled a lower level of water quality, affecting habitat downstream, all the way to the bay.

“What we want to do in conservation,” Gracie said, “is restore streams to their historic best.”

He meant bringing them back to pre-colonial conditions, and that sounded impossible to me.

But I’ve since come to believe that, while it can’t happen everywhere, it can happen in some places. And while it seems particularly far-fetched for a heavily populated metropolitan area like ours, wise stewardship and careful management of resources can beat the odds.

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Gracie and I were both members of Trout Unlimited, a conservation organization, not a fishing club, though most of the members I’ve met in Maryland are anglers. Gracie had been in the middle of stream conservation and restoration efforts for decades. He was bullish about it. He wanted to see the brook trout return to some of the small streams and runs that feed the Jones Falls and the Gunpowder.

So, he was a trout hugger. But he was not alone.

No conservation effort happens unless people care. It starts with that. Harold “Howdy” Burns, a feisty attorney whose home is near Dipping Pond Run in Baltimore County, has fought a battle for 30 years to keep a housing development away from that precious stream where brook trout once lived. Some houses have been built, but the battle continues in court, Burns confirmed yesterday.

I spoke recently with two of the riverkeepers on the Potomac, Brent Walls and Dean Naujoks, and I heard fire in their voices, a passion for saving “the nation’s river” from municipal sewage, pesticides, herbicides and industrial waste. It’s an ongoing battle, and it will become even more complex and challenging with climate change.

There now, I’ve just mentioned the “CC” words. Climate change looms over everything, and makes the small, local efforts at environmental healing seem unimportant. But they’re not. Even in this cynical age, we need to keep our vigilance and our stewardship. If you own land with a small creek that looks like nothing more than a ditch, learn to love it and plant trees. You might reverse the damage done by earlier generations. You might even see brookies again. Time and technology push us forward, always forward, but some things are worth a trip back in time.

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