Eastern Neck Refuge Spared from Closure, but Funding Crunch Continues

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The Tubby Point boardwalk at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. (Richard Pos, US Fish & Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hiring a new manager at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, sparing a natural area popular with hunters, anglers and birdwatchers from at least partial closure.

The refuge, located in Maryland on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, was left without a full-time manager in September 2017 when that official took a job elsewhere in the Fish and Wildlife Service. Lacking funds to hire a replacement, agency officials began warning Eastern Neck supporters this summer that public access to the refuge was in jeopardy.

Although the agency hasn’t received any additional money, it announced in August that Eastern Neck will remain open to the public. That decision came about three weeks after the Bay Journal reported on the potential closure and the growing outcry from user groups and elected officials.

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island at the confluence of the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, about 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, hunt deer and turkeys, and hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh.

“We’re very excited [about the decision],” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “I think they did not realize how much the refuge meant to the constituency and the country in general.”

Baile added that her group’s work isn’t over. Federal funding has been shrinking for the refuge system during this decade. If Eastern Neck supporters don’t stand guard, they could be facing another closure threat within a few years, she said.

To pay for the new staff member, the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the region’s refuges, will have to reallocate funds it had reserved for other causes, said Terri Edwards, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman. So far, no timeframe has been set for making the new hire.

In July, Marcia Pradines, the Chesapeake Marshlands’ project leader, told the Bay Journal there was a possibility of a full shutdown at Eastern Neck and a gate turning back visitors at the entrance. “It’s not something we want to happen,” she said at the time. “In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The staffing decisions wouldn’t have affected access to the county road that traverses the island, Pradines said. It would have remained open to Bogles Wharf, home to a county-maintained boat ramp and small pier.

By early August, Fish and Wildlife officials softened the potential blow. The entrance gate would remain open, allowing hunting, fishing, birdwatching and “other wildlife dependent uses,” regardless of staffing decisions, they said in a message posted to the refuge’s website.
The fate of the visitor center, along with the five walking trails, two boardwalks and maintenance activities, remained in limbo.

As the agency pondered its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County shared the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to complete other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island. At times, the island is devoid of paid or volunteer staff, save for a lone volunteer clerk manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group.

The Friends group, Baile said, wrote letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff to keep their beloved refuge open. They lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, the Patuxent Bird Club and the Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The movement attracted the help of Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, among others. In December, he wrote a letter to Fish and Wildlife’s parent agency, the Interior Department, calling for the position to be filled in light of Eastern Neck’s importance to Kent’s economy.

Van Hollen applauded the move to keep the refuge open. But like Baile, he counseled vigilance. “Filling this position will help the Refuge better serve visitors, the local community, and area wildlife,” he said. “I will continue working to ensure our state has the federal resources necessary to support our economy and our environment.”

Eastern Neck’s supporters also looked to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party. Harris said in a statement that earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, but that he was actively seeking other solutions.

Eastern Neck is not alone in its budget challenge. Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Over the last 15 years, national refuges across the country have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts.

In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008–09.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved by the Republican-controlled House along party lines in July sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. The Senate passed its own version, sending the legislation to a conference committee to hash out the differences.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” Sorenson-Groves said.

By Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Salisbury, MD, where he also teaches communications courses at Salisbury University.

Supporters Rally to save Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge from Closing

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Photo by Dave Harp

A national wildlife refuge that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to the Chesapeake Bay may be forced to close to the public soon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering shuttering the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge because it lacks the funding to hire a new refuge manager, said Marcia Pradines, project leader at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the Chesapeake region’s national refuges.

“If the position isn’t filled, that’s a possibility,” Pradines said, “It’s not something we want to happen. In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island lying on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake. About 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, to hunt deer and turkeys, and to hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“People just like to drive down there sometimes,” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “You just feel the peacefulness. It’s just easy to get away when you go down there.”

The manager position has been empty since last September, when Cindy Beemiller left for a refuge on Long Island, NY. The financially strapped Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have the funding to fill the position, Pradines said. Beemiller was one of two paid employees assigned to the property; the other, a maintenance worker, is the only one who remains.

If Congress doesn’t appropriate significantly more money for the refuge system for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Eastern Neck may have to close to the public, she said, adding that it’s unclear when Fish & Wildlife will make that call.

The extent of the shutdown would depend on funding availability, Pradines said. The county road that traverses the island would remain open as far as Bogles Wharf Road, at the end of which are a county-maintained boat ramp and two small piers. But the road leading further south on the island would be closed, barring access to the visitor center and to the five walking trails and two boardwalks. It’s also possible that trail maintenance and other activities would cease, Pradines added.

As the agency ponders its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County have been sharing the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to cover other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island.

At times, the island is devoid of personnel support, save for a lone volunteer manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group. Although refuge staff installed a panic button, many of the older, female volunteers feel unsafe.

Shutting down the refuge, he said, would cause it to fall into disrepair and potentially attract relic-hunters who operate “like ninjas in the night.” The island is a trove of Native American artifacts. Cicconi worries that thieves might strip anything of value from the visitor center building, a renovated 1930s-era hunting lodge.

The island was one of the first English settlements in Maryland. In 1650, Maj. Joseph Wickes received a grant for 800 acres of land and constructed a mansion that has since disappeared. Eastern Neck became Kent County’s seat; Wickes, its chief justice.

The Friends group’s latest task, Baile said, is writing letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff, urging them to keep their beloved refuge open. They have lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, Patuxent Bird Club and Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The Friends group also has partnered with their counterparts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to create a website to fan public support: friendsofblackwater.org/help-eastern-neck.html. “We’ve done everything we think we can do,” she said.

But it may not be enough. Eastern Neck is the latest refuge in a growing list that has faced cutbacks and potential closure because of a lack of federal investment, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” Sorenson-Groves said. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Across the country, many refuges over the past 15 years have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open, she said. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts. In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008-2009.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved in July by the House of Representatives sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. That slight increase, if passed in the Senate, would have little effect on the refuge system’s staffing and maintenance woes, Sorenson-Groves said.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” she said.

Eastern Neck’s supporters look to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, as their best hope for action. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party.

But Harris said his hands are largely tied. “The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable resource in Maryland’s first district,” he said in a statement. “While an amendment earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, I am actively investigating this issue and exploring solutions that will allow the refuge to continue providing services to Marylanders.”

For her part, Baile said she hopes to find a sympathetic ear when the refuge system’s Northeast district head, Scott Kahan, visits Eastern Neck during his annual field trip toward the end of August.

“People love this refuge. We have good visitation. It services not only our local community but also people from all over the country,” Baile said. “You’re willing to close down a whole refuge over $25,000 or $30,000? It’s a question of him prioritizing other things over us.”

By Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox is based in Salisbury, MD.

FERC Approves PA-to-WV Pipeline

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Over objections from environmentalists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given its green light to building a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline through western Maryland and under the Potomac River.

With one of its five commissioners voting no and another dissenting in part, the five-member commission approved the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project. The 3.5-mile pipeline, proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission, would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, passing through Maryland just west of Hancock.

Environmental groups and some western Maryland residents have waged a lengthy campaign against the “Potomac Pipeline,” as they call it, staging repeated protest demonstrations and garnering several local-government resolutions against the project. Opponents argue that the project’s construction risks harm to the river and drinking water supplies, both near the underground crossing and downriver. They also contend that it will accelerate climate change by encouraging more natural gas production and consumption.

Photo: The Potomac River just upstream of Hancock, MD, where TransCanada’s Eastern Panhandle Expansion pipeline would pass under the river into West Virginia. (Royalty-free photo by Aude, via Creative Commons)

In its 53-page order, the commission majority brushed aside those concerns, saying the company’s plan for tunneling beneath the Potomac addressed the risks and potential impacts of a leak or blowout.

Environmentalists had asked the commission to require Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of TransCanada, to follow a lengthy list of conditions for tunneling beneath the river that the Maryland Department of the Environment had proposed in approving a state permit for the project. But the federal panel declined to do so, saying it would encourage but not require the company to adhere to the state conditions.

The panel’s majority also dismissed contentions that the pipeline would stimulate more gas production using hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a controversial technique blamed for instances of drinking water well contamination and other problems. They likewise said they lacked information to determine whether the pipeline could significantly exacerbate climate change by allowing for more gas to be produced and consumed, as environmentalists contended.

But two of the five panel members took issue with the majority on those last two points. Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur concurred with the majority in approving the pipeline, but she disagreed with its decision to ignore the project’s climate-change impacts. Commissioner Richard Glick opposed the project, arguing that the commission had abrogated its legal responsibility by refusing to consider those impacts.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our security, economy, environment and, ultimately, the health of individual citizens,” Glick wrote. He said the majority “goes out of its way to avoid seriously addressing the project’s impact from climate change” by disregarding the potential emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that might result from increased gas production and consumption.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network issued a statement decrying the FERC decision. Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls said the group is “considering all of our legal options in response to this unfortunate decision.” He vowed to continue rallying opposition to the pipeline and called on Gov. Larry Hogan to deny Columbia Gas the easements it still needs to build the project through western Maryland.

By Tim Wheeler, Bay Journal News Service

Life on the Disappearing Edge by Tom Horton

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“Hey there, thanks for making my property worth even less!” You get calls and emails like that when you make a movie that raises public awareness of climate change, rising sea levels and worsening erosion.

The collateral damage of such efforts is they don’t exactly boost housing values for those already living along the low-lying edges of the Chesapeake.

“High Tide in Dorchester,” the Bay Journal film I just finished with photographer Dave Harp and producer Sandy Cannon Brown, shows how Maryland’s fourth largest county by land area could shrink to 14th (of 23) by 2100 if we don’t get serious about mitigating climate change.

Attachments : “I stopped being emotionally attached here after [Hurricane] Isabel, we lost so much,” said Kathy Blake, who lives in Hoopersville, MD. Even now, her treasured pictures are leaned up against the walls “so I can throw ‘em in a box quick if I have to get out.” (Photo by Dave Harp)

Kathy Blake of Hoopersville in lower Dorchester County, the latest “fan” who called, didn’t need our film to raise her awareness. She and her husband, John, have lost six cars to high tides in their yard in the last 15 years, not to mention several bicycles. “If it’s at ground level here, sooner or later it floats away,” she told me during an interview in her yard near the Honga River.

Kathy and John grew up in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, which received ocean-going vessels coming up what is now the Anacostia River until around 1835. By 1898, a writer noted that only a canoe could still navigate to the “port” of Bladensburg, filled in by sediment from tree clearing and poor farming practices.

When I visited their current 1890s two-story home on Hoopersville Road, it was easy to see how they fell in love with the place in 1996. Across a breathtaking sweep of saltmarsh and Bay, I could see Solomons Island and Calvert Cliffs, highlighted by the morning sun on the Western Shore.

“It was so peaceful, so safe and quiet, a playground for our kids,” Kathy said. Only later would the Blakes learn that they had moved to a place where the tide carries greater implications than the mere ebb and flow of water in and out of the Bay every six and a quarter hours.

Her first memorable high-water experience seemed more of a nuisance than anything — a couple of inches of water across the road as she took the kids to the school bus. “This is nothing,” the bus driver told her, and all morning it kept coming, up the front steps, to the front door sill, into the living room. “Oh well, we bought the house,” she said.

Kathy has long been in the habit of moving their vehicles across the street to slightly higher ground when she knows high water is coming, but sometimes there’s no warning. Last February on a bitter cold morning, she came downstairs to find the house surrounded by glistening water. “There was six inches in the Toyota Highlander . . . a total loss.”

She hauled her five-year-old granddaughter to the bus in a canoe that day. The water didn’t make it into the house, “but it was so close I knew if a truck came by, the wave from it would swamp the living room.”

The “big tide” — the biggest in recorded history for many parts of the Chesapeake — came in 2003 with the remnants of Hurricane Isabel. The Blakes had five feet of water in their home and evacuated in a hurry. “I left without even a pair of clean underwear,” Kathy said.

Uninsured, they put more than $70,000 of their own money into restoring their home, this atop the nearly $30,000 they’d already put into the place.

“I stopped being emotionally attached here after Isabel, we lost so much,” Kathy said. Even now, treasured pictures are leaned up, not attached to the walls, “so I can throw ’em in a box quick if I have to get out.”

And Kathy does want out. She called me because our High Tide film mentioned the need for governments to consider buying out homes vulnerable to rising seas and erosion. Governments in other locations have been buying out properties for decades along floodplains of streams and rivers — it’s cheaper in the long run than setting people back up for future disasters after flooding.

They could move anywhere; Kathy’s a semi-retired grant writer and John’s a plumber working on the Western Shore, coming back on weekends. But they can’t afford to sell. A hunt club might pay a little for their six-and-a-half acres, much of it saltmarsh, “but nobody else in their right mind would buy here.”

Anna Sierra, director of emergency services for Dorchester County, said officials are looking into possible federal-state grants for a “demonstration buyout” that would include the Blakes’ home and another in the Neck District west of Cambridge. The latter home might be moved to a vacant lot in Cambridge and its land used for public water access. “But this is all very preliminary,” Sierra stressed.

The two properties are just the tip of the iceberg, not only for Dorchester County, but for all of the nation’s coastlines; seas are expected to rise up to six feet in the next century, simultaneously threatening and devaluing properties.

Another concern for Hoopersville: The long bridge and causeway connecting the tiny community to the mainland is showing serious damage from storms and needs around $16 million in repairs — several times what it cost to build it in 1980. Neither state nor county road budgets have money for that.

Kathy’s plan B? “Hit the Powerball [lottery],” she said. “Or . . . it’s horrible to think this, but we’re insured now for flooding. The rates just went from $1,600 to $2,000 annually. If another Isabel hit, I could just take the money and leave.”
She wouldn’t go far from tidewater, though. “I love the Bay,” she said. “I just don’t love sharing my house and cars with it.”

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Washington’s Mount Vernon opposes Dominion Energy’s Planned Gas Facility along Potomac River

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The guardians of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, who have preserved the historic Virginia estate on the Potomac River since before the Civil War, are rallying against a present-day foe — one they say could mar a Potomac River view that’s been untarnished for centuries.

Across the river in Charles County, MD, not far from a shoreline that looks much as it did when Washington took in the vista, Dominion Energy is planning to build a natural gas compressor station. The company says the facility will help deliver fuel to a planned power plant nearby that’s intended to supply electricity to portions of both states — and that it will be out of sight from Mount Vernon.

But the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which claims to be first national historic preservation organization in the United States, warns that the compressor station might in fact be visible and ruin the unspoiled panorama across the Potomac from the first president’s home. The association hosted a press conference last week to raise the alarm, supported by a dozen preservation, environmental and community groups from both sides of the river.

The project is also opposed by residents who live in the wooded areas surrounding the planned facility — including more than 400 properties that are themselves barred from certain types of development because they are next to a national park that was established to protect Mount Vernon’s view.

The Charles County residents also are concerned that the compressor station’s emissions could could diminish local air quality, pose a fire or explosion risk and negatively impact the surrounding wetlands and forests. Local environmental groups are beginning to track the project, too, concerned that it could also impact local water quality.

Charles County officials denied the project a special-use permit to build on a 50-acre parcel zoned for rural conservation uses, but Dominion has sued the county. The company says a waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission overrides the county’s zoning ordinances.

Despite their environmental and safety issues, residents seem to think their best bet for stopping the project lies across the river, in the hands of the well-funded estate that has officially set its sights on stopping the station.

“Dominion Energy can move their compressor station. We can’t move Mount Vernon,” Doug Bradburn, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the name of the nonprofit run by the ladies’ association, said Tuesday at a press conference on the estate’s lawn.

The crux of the conflict with Mount Vernon comes down to the height of two exhaust stacks that would emit carbon monoxide and potentially ozone-forming gases that are byproducts of the power-generating turbines burning natural gas. The higher the stacks, the more likely they are to be visible at Mount Vernon. But stacks that are too low could deliver more air pollutants to the communities and forested areas surrounding the site on the Maryland side.

Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said neither the Charles Station compressor’s buildings nor its emissions stacks would be visible from Mount Vernon, pointing to a sightline study conducted by the Chesapeake Conservancy that found 50-foot stacks would be hidden behind a bluff of trees.

But Mount Vernon advocates say those plans could change, and they note that a far taller stack height of more than 113 feet is mentioned as a “best practice” in permitting documents. The facility’s air quality permit is currently being reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which could have a say in the height of the stacks.

Uncertainties about the height of the stacks is one of the reasons the Chesapeake Conservancy, after completing the sightline study for Mount Vernon, joined the effort to oppose it.

“Higher stacks would lessen the local air quality impacts, but would likely negatively affect the historic view,” said Susan Shingledecker, vice president and director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Lower stacks would remain shielded by tree canopy, but could mean increased harmful environmental health conditions for surrounding communities. This is not a tradeoff we can accept.”

Preservation advocates also fear the construction could lead to more industrial development in a portion of Maryland they’ve worked hard to keep forested.

“Their promises to us are not binding,” Bradburn said. “They cannot guarantee that the industrial development will not have a long-term negative impact on the forest canopy that protects that view.”

A dozen organizations from both sides of the river — including the Chesapeake Conservancy, the Alice Ferguson Foundation and groups representing Maryland residents near the planned facility — have joined the campaign to “Save George Washington’s View.”

Also last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Mount Vernon estate and Piscataway Park to its annual list of the most endangered historic places in the United States, along with Annapolis’ City Dock, a move intended to galvanize national support for ongoing preservation.

Behind the effort is the educational and fund-raising prowess of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ group, a nonprofit that raises almost $50 million annually to manage the estate’s $250 million in assets, according to Charity Navigator.

Sarah Miller Coulson, regent of the Ladies’ Association, which has maintained Mount Vernon for 160 years, said the group’s members considers it their “sacred and moral responsibility” to protect Washington’s home, tomb and viewshed from projects like the one Dominion has planned. And they have a record of doing so.

In the 1950s, the organization stopped an oil refining company from buying hundreds of acres across the river in Maryland. A decade later, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission planned to use eminent domain to build a three-story sewage treatment plant across from Mount Vernon, intending to soften the blow to the view by making the plant a replica of the estate. A congresswoman who was also a member of the Ladies’ Association helped redirect those plans.

“We won’t stop until we’re successful,” Coulson said of their latest campaign.

At Mount Vernon, efforts to protect the property’s view culminated in the 1960s with the creation of Piscataway Park on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland. The group also had a hand in hundreds of conservation agreements with landowners that limit the height of buildings and how many trees can be removed.

Piscataway “was the first park in the nation created to protect the viewshed” of another property, said Lori Arguelles, president and CEO of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental nonprofit based across the river from Mount Vernon in Accokeek, MD. Dominion’s compressor station would be within 50 feet of the park.

Dominion officials say environmental concerns about the project will be addressed through the local and state permitting process, which is underway now. Dominion has been expanding its network of energy infrastructure across the region with a growing focus on natural gas as an alternative to burning coal for power. Dominion says the Charles County compressor station would connect to existing underground pipelines to pump new natural gas supplies to the Panda Mattawoman Energy Project, which is planned to be built in Prince George’s County, MD.

The compressor station is part of a project that Dominion says on its website “will bring much-needed new natural gas supplies” to the region that includes Charles County, MD, and Mount Vernon, which Bradburn said is heated by a mix of electricity and natural gas.

Dominion has won at least one other battle over whether it can place energy infrastructure within sight of historic properties. On a portion of the James River near Williamsburg, an effort last summer fell short in protecting a trio of historic sites from the view of a power line spanning the river. Despite opposition from historic preservation groups — that portion of the river landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered places in 2013 — the project received final federal approval. Lawsuits from preservation groups are pending.

Coulson said the Ladies’ Association had been meeting with Dominion officials as recently as the day before the press conference and wants to help the utility find an alternative location for the compressor station.

But Dominion’s Neddenien seemed befuddled by the press conference at Mount Vernon and the rallying cry to stop the project.

“We have worked with Mount Vernon officials since the initial stages of planning for this project about two years ago. We designed our facility to minimize visuals at Mount Vernon,” he said.

For Mount Vernon, those visuals are of paramount importance to their mission of preserving the estate and its historic vista. Several U.S. presidents are among the more than 87 million people that have visited Mount Vernon over the years, the most recent being President and First Lady Trump.

Bradburn stood with the Trumps on Mount Vernon’s piazza during the April visit of French President Emmanuel Macron — and brought up with Trump the risk of a pair of exhaust stacks appearing on the horizon.

“The president said, ‘This should be preserved. This is fantastic,’” Bradburn said.

by Whitney Pipkin

Bay Journal staff writer Whitney Pipkin covers food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Facing a Finite Future, Smith Islanders put Their Faith in Jetties and God By Jeremy Cox

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Only in a place like Smith Island would someone get choked up about a jetty, a man-made wall of stones that functions like a bulwark against waves and water currents.

Eddie Somers, a civic activist and native of the island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, delivered remarks at a recent press conference called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mark a milestone in the construction of two jetties off its western flank. He was close to finishing when he suddenly stopped, holding back tears — tears of joy.

“Those barrier islands were in danger of breaching in a couple places, and when that happens, you’re one hurricane away from losing your home,” he said when asked later about the moment. “So, for a lot of people, it’s emotional — not just me.”


Two men in a small boat motor toward the community of Ewell, on the north end of Smith Island. (Jeremy Cox)

On Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island with no bridge connection to the mainland, residents prize self-reliance. But for more than two decades, Somers and his neighbors had been pushing for outside help to save their low-lying island properties from slipping away into the surrounding Bay.

Now, they’ve gotten it. Since 2015, federal, state and local sources have invested about $18.3 million in three separate projects on and around Smith Island, adding about two miles of reconstructed shoreline, several acres of newly planted salt marshes and hundreds of feet of jetties.

That money may buy a lot of jetty stones and sprigs of cordgrass, but all it can really buy is time, according to climate researchers and Army Corps officials.

As seas rise and erosion takes its toll — and the population shrinks — some homes have been abandoned on low-lying Smith Island, including this two-story house in the community of Rhodes Point. (Jeremy Cox)

Smith Island is an archipelago, with a population spread across three small communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Since 1850, erosion and rising sea levels have put about one-third of the islands underwater. By 2100, the Bay is expected to rise by at least 3 more feet – bad news for a land that’s mostly less than 3 feet above current sea level.

Clad in fatigues, Col. Ed Chamberlayne, head of the Army Corps’ Baltimore District office, boarded the Maryland Department of Natural Resources research boat, Kerhin, after the press conference to tour the new jetties with an entourage of state and local officials. He described the $6.9 million project, which also includes dredging a boat channel and using the fill to restore about 5 acres of nearby wetlands, as a temporary fix.

“How long this will last is an obvious question,” Chamberlayne said. “As far as what this does to Smith Island long-term, this is not a cure-all.”

Col. Ed Chamberlayne, Baltimore district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speaks with Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton on a ferry ride to Smith Island June 21 to view the completed jetties. (Jeremy Cox)

Nor are any of the other projects. So, with each inch of sea level rise and dollar spent fighting it, an old question gains more urgency: To what lengths should society go to defend Smith Island and other places believed to be highly vulnerable to climate change? Facing land losses of their own, coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana are getting ready to relocate to new homes farther inland.

A similar debate hit Tangier Island, about 10 miles south of Smith Island in Virginia waters, after a 2015 Army Corps study declared that its residents may be among the first “climate refugees” in the continental United States. In the wake of a CNN report about the shrinking island last year, President Donald Trump, who has referred to global warming as a “hoax,” called its mayor to assure him he has nothing to worry about.

In a view shared by many on the boat, State Sen. Jim Mathias expressed confidence that the island would be around for a long while. “It’s man’s hand intervening,” said Mathias, a Democrat who represents the lower Eastern Shore. “We have the top engineers working for us. We’ll figure it out.”

When the final phase of the jetty project is completed this fall — channel dredging and marsh restoration remain — it will mark the end of a chapter in the community’s history that started with, as some residents interpreted it, its proposed destruction.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy walloped the New Jersey coast and flooded lower Manhattan in New York City, and in Maryland caused extensive flooding in Crisfield and along the Bay shore in Somerset County. Smith Island suffered relatively little damage by comparison.

Still, state officials, conscious of the long-term threat to Smith posed by rising seas, set aside $2 million in federal relief money to buy out voluntary sellers. Plans called for homes or businesses acquired by the state to be torn down and future development to be banned on the properties.

“The people didn’t want to be bought out, and they were sort of insulted by it,” said Randy Laird, president of the Board of County Commissioners in Somerset County, which includes Smith island. “They felt like they (state officials) were trying to close down the island.”
The buyouts would have created a domino effect, Mathias said.

“Once it starts, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “It goes from one parcel to another parcel. And another family falls on hard times, and the state shows up with a check.”

Enter Smith Island United

The archipelago has lost nearly half its population since 2000. Among the fewer than 200 who remain, one-third are age 65 or older. Most young people leave after finishing high school for lack of jobs on the island. “We didn’t really have a voice in government,” Somers said.

To push back against the buyouts, residents formed a civic group and began hosting regular community meetings. Those talks turned into Smith Island United. Somers, a part-time resident and captain of a state icebreaker boat, was installed as its president.

Soon, the organization persuaded the state to drop its buyout offer in favor of a “visioning” study. The report, finalized in 2016, outlined several possible actions for reversing the downward course, ranging from creating a seafood industry apprenticeship program to providing more public restrooms for island visitors.

That same year, Maryland named Smith Island a “sustainable community,” giving the community access to a suite of revitalization initiatives from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and grant programs. The island received a $25,000 grant last year to fix store facades because of the program.

In the meantime, long-stalled plans to shore up Smith Island’s marshy coastline began to materialize. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a $9 million “living shoreline” in the Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy island that protects Smith’s north side from erosion. Then came a $4.5 million county project, completed in late 2017, that created another living shoreline on the island’s west side near Rhodes Point, the smallest of the island’s three communities and its most endangered spot.

The Army Corps complemented that work with the construction of two jetties earlier this year, one on either side of an inlet called Sheep Pen Gut. Workers are expected to return in the fall to dredge the channel, deepening it from 3 feet to 6 feet. That will restore vessel passage through the island, eliminating the circuitous, gas-wasting journey to the open Bay that some watermen have had to take since the inlet became too shallow.

Everett Landon caught a glimpse of the construction while standing on the second-floor balcony of a home still under construction. “It looks very good,” said Landon, a Rhodes Point native who last year took over as pastor of the island’s three churches. “With the erosion we’ve been facing, people have been wondering how long until it makes them move away.”

The Rhodes Point jetty project had been on the books at the Army Corps since the mid-1990s. Some residents had all but given up hope that it would ever get built. “You get a community that struggles a lot, and you get a project like this — it puts the wind in your sails. It just shows persistence,” Landon said.

He added that the help is especially welcome in Rhodes Point, where the 40 or so remaining residents live on an ever-shrinking strip of high ground. For his part, Landon measures that loss in the gradual disappearance of a beach once visible — high and dry — beyond the marsh that fringes Rhodes Point. “My grandmother told me that when she was younger, she could sit on the second floor of her home and all she could see was sand,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was just a narrow strip and then marsh. When my kids came along, it was just gone.”

Most Smith Island residents have incomes tied to the seafood industry, from the crabs they catch or pick or the oysters they dredge. Support for Trump was near-unanimous on the island in 2016, and most share his skepticism toward human-caused climate change. They concede that their island is vanishing, but they prefer to speak of it in terms of erosion instead of sea level rise.

Marianna Wehnes moved to Smith Island in 2011 to live with her boyfriend, and she quickly fell in love – with the island. After her relationship with the man ended, Wehnes moved back to the mainland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but soon returned. She missed the community’s tranquil way of life and knowing her neighbors. She now works in one of Ewell’s gift shops, where it is considered a busy day if eight customers walk through the door.

The new jetties and restored marsh will help keep the island above water for a while, Wehnes agreed. Beyond that, she added, Smith Island’s fate will be up to a higher power. “It’s been here 400 years, and it’s going to be here for 400 years. The only reason it won’t be is if the good Lord tells it to go.”

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer and a communications instructor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, where he is based.

Chesapeake Bay’s Dead Zone to Grow this Summer; Breaks with Wave of Good News

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The Chesapeake Bay’s infamous “dead zone” will be larger than average this summer, scientists suggest in a new forecast that breaks with a wave of encouraging signs about the estuary’s health.

If their prediction is correct, 2018 will be the fourth year in a row that the size of the Bay’s oxygen-starved area has increased. The forecasted expansion can be chalked up to nutrients flushed into the Bay during the spring’s heavy rains, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.

“The size is going to go up and down every year depending on the weather,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and one of the report’s authors.

A “dead zone” is a popular term for waters that have very little oxygen (hypoxic) or none at all (anoxic). Fish tend to flee, and any marine life that can’t escape — usually shellfish — could suffocate.

New evidence seems to arrive almost daily suggesting that humans are turning the tide against the Chesapeake Bay’s many woes. Bay grasses are flourishing. Waters are less murky. Despite a harsh winter, the blue crab population’s rebound appears undaunted. Officials and scientists at a press conference on June 15 celebrated the Bay’s ability to maintain moderately healthy conditions in 2017 for the third year in a row.

But the dead zone has remained persistently large over the years, though it has been disappearing slightly earlier at the end of the summer.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, higher than average spring rains brought more than 85 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay from the Susquehanna River, the primary source of nutrient pollution in the main portion of the Chesapeake. The Potomac River delivered another 30 million pounds to the Bay.

As a result, the dead zone is expected to be an average of 1.9 cubic miles this summer, a 5 percent increase over 2017, according to the forecast. That area of “hypoxic,” or low oxygen, water represents about 15 percent of the Bay’s total volume. Those numbers haven’t changed much over the years, said UMCES researcher Jeremy Testa, a co-author of the report.

Dead zone conditions already appeared to be forming in May, according to water quality-tracking by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The DNR Eyes on the Bay website showed that dissolved oxygen levels measured in early June had dipped into the danger zone for fish and shellfish from the Baltimore Harbor south to (and extending into) the Patuxent River. Along the Eastern Shore, the north-south boundaries are rougly the same — from Tolchester Beach in Kent County south to Dorchester County, across from the Patuxent.

Dead zones form are caused by excessive nutrients in the water, which cause algae to bloom. Ultimately, the algae die and sink to the bottom, where they are consumed by bacteria in a process that uses up the oxygen in the water. Low-oxygen waters are found throughout the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

The Chesapeake’s dead zone has ballooned since recordkeeping began in the 1950s as growing cities and farm fields shunted more nitrogen into the Bay, researchers say. One of the main goals of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay restoration program is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads — and shrink the dead zone.

The typical summer dead zone has measured about 1.7 cubic miles of water since 1985, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The largest recorded was 2.7 cubic miles in 2011.

While hypoxic water remains stubbornly abundant, anoxic conditions — the very worst areas where there is virtually no oxygen — are gradually improving, Testa said. This year’s anoxic portion of the Bay is expected to be 0.43 cubic miles.

Testa attributes the improved anoxic conditions to gradual reductions in the Susquehanna’s nitrogen concentration that began in the 1980s. Scavia said this year’s forecasted expansion isn’t too concerning because rain appears to be the main culprit.

“It’s the long-term trend that really matters,” he said.

by Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox teaches communications at Maryland’s Salisbury University. He has written for daily newspapers since 2002, most recently as an environment reporter for the Daily Times in Salisbury, where he is based.

You can Own the Chesapeake without Property by Tom Horton

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I grew up middle class but land rich: roaming hundreds of acres of woods and marsh, hunting properties owned by my dad’s poultry company and his best friend. And I always dreamed that someday I’d be wealthy enough to afford my own wonderful, big chunk of Chesapeake, a dream that receded after I chose newspapering over chicken moguldom.

But there are a lot of ways to “own” land, as it has turned out — and many ways to become “rich.”

The most obvious way is to know and support the lands you, as a citizen, already own — your nearby national treasures, which for me include Assateague National Seashore and the Chincoteague and Blackwater national wildlife refuges.

Despite the millions who visit its beaches, Assateague’s remote, hike-in or paddle-in campsites are underused, partly because so many people focus only on summertime visits, when the sites are deadly buggy. Cool and cold weather adventuring is a taste easily acquired and opens up all sorts of territory.

I’m as road-averse as any greenie, but the need to access lands for logging and fire control means our region’s forestlands are full of roadways. Most are off limits to cars, but accessible for walkers, horseback riders and bicyclists (if the latter are willing to ditch those skinny racing tires). With Google Earth and similar mapping apps, and some ground-truthing to determine which of the mapped woodland roads are really there — or, conversely, are there but don’t show on the apps — I’ve been able to “acquire” thousands of acres of land around the Delmarva Peninsula where I live.

Farther afield, there’s massive back country access in Pennsylvania’s state forests — Michaux in southcentral Pennsylvania is one beloved by off-road bikers. Its 85,000 acres sprawl through several counties and are convenient to central Marylanders.

Many off-the-beaten paths also traverse private lands, or lands owned by private nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy. I find most aren’t often used by their owners, with the major exception of firearms deer season, which in most places occupies only a few weeks per year. Similarly, those who paddle marshways may want to know when it is duck season.

As a Salisbury University professor who runs a lot of field trips, I’ve several times driven up to a private landowner’s place and asked permission to explore or camp. Many have been quite cooperative. I now have “anytime access” to a wonderful patch of riverine forest where you can see what Eastern Shore woods might have been like hundreds of years ago.

Last year, I decided to explore the Chesapeake shoreline of Virginia’s rural Accomack County, simply turning onto every little road that ran west toward the Bay. There are a lot of those, and to my surprise I found more public access to little beaches, scenic views and launch spots for paddlecraft than most any other tidewater county I know of in Maryland or Virginia.

As my ecological comprehension of the region has grown, I’ve come to “own” the landscape wherever I travel. Riding through farmland, I notice the deep drainage ditching that makes agriculture possible. I know also that here, pre-drainage, a great cedar-cypress swamp once covered 60,000 acres, and beyond that I know the underlying wetland soils would immediately revert to swampiness if we could plug those ditches.

And while I favor swamps, I can appreciate where a green gloss on winter cornfields means the farmer is using cover crops to stop nitrogen fertilizer from running into the Bay. I also notice where farmers are plowing on the contour, installing grass swales and natural buffers to keep soil and nutrients out of the water.

Beware though: A keen appreciation for the land also risks heartbreak whenever you see the pipes and survey markers that mean field and forest will soon be stripped and paved for development.

Lately, I’ve been looking at the big power lines and gas pipeline right-of-ways that arrow across the landscape and wondering why we can’t make these do double duty as hiking-biking corridors.

The possibilities came home to me after some happy weeks roaming the Netherlands with lifelong Dutch friends. While that people-dense nation hasn’t 1 percent of the untrammeled landscapes of the United States, it is so interlaced with trails that there is scarcely a single citizen who cannot quickly hop onto a trail network that connects them to everywhere in the country.

Even where access is restricted, there are ways to push the edge. A friend of mine, who loves fishing and progging the remote seaside edges of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has outfitted his skiff with a foldout platform so he can pitch a tent on the bow while anchored alongside barrier islands that are off limits to overnight stays. Last year, he took a whole high school class along for a week with tents lashed to a barge.

I suppose if I’d gotten rich, I’d own more land than the tenth of an acre behind my home. But think how much time acquiring that wealth might have taken away from a lifetime spent roaming the Chesapeake.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

Chesapeake Region Unlikely to Meet 2025 Bay Cleanup Goals, Unless it Picks up Pace

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The Chesapeake Bay is getting healthier, but its recovery is “fragile” unless state and federal governments pick up the pace of their actions, environmental groups warned Wednesday.

As the halfway point toward the 2025 cleanup deadline approaches, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported that the region is generally on track toward meeting pollution reduction goals for phosphorus and sediment but is far off pace for nitrogen.

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus create algal blooms that cloud the water and lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the Bay. Nutrients, the Bay’s primary pollutant, enter the Bay and its rivers largely through sewage, fertilizers and animal waste.

Regional Bay cleanup efforts have been under way since the 1980s. They intensified in 2010 when the federal government put the Bay under a Total Maximum Daily Load [TDML], often called a “pollution diet,” that requires state actions to meet federal clean water standards.

Those efforts have spurred improvements in the Bay’s health, but CBF President Will Baker cautioned against too much optimism, noting that Lake Erie was declared recovered decades ago but is now “worse than ever.”

“Unless the states and their federal partners expand their efforts and push harder, the Bay and its rivers and streams may never be saved,” Baker said. He expressed concern that the states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might back off on their commitments to take all needed cleanup actions by the end of 2025. “CBF, and I imagine others, will use every means available, including possible litigation, to oppose any attempt to delay the deadline,” he said.

The possibility of allowing a delay has been floated behind the scenes, but officials familiar with the conversations say they expect that the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program will ultimately keep the original deadline.

The Bay Program failed to meet two previous cleanup deadlines, which led the EPA to impose the TMDL as a more enforceable cleanup program that set established pollution limits for each state and river draining into the Bay.

This summer is roughly the halfway point between the 2010 establishment of the TMDL and the 2025 cleanup deadline.

States were supposed to achieve 60 percent of their assigned pollution reduction actions by the end of 2017. But the Bay Foundation, using preliminary computer model estimates from the Bay Program, said the region as a whole has achieved only about 40 percent of its nitrogen goals, though it has met the mark for phosphorus and sediment.

The CBF and Choose Clean Water — a coalition of 240 regional groups working on water issues that jointly released the analysis — credited pollution reductions for recent improvements in the Bay’s health. Underwater grass beds, a key Bay habitat, reached record levels last year, the Bay’s “dead zone” has been shrinking, and the population of important species like oysters and blue crabs have shown encouraging signs.

“We are at a critical point in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. We are seeing some incredible progress,” said Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

But the environmentalists warned that the Bay’s health was still in jeopardy and that pollution reduction efforts among the four jurisdictions it examined — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia — were uneven.

Pennsylvania, which contributes the largest amount of nutrients to the Bay, is far behind in its nitrogen reduction goals, largely because of the nitrogen generated by its large agricultural sector. Pennsylvania accounts for the lion’s share of the regionwide shortfall for nitrogen reduction.

All four jurisdictions met or exceeded their goals for reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plans. Because wastewater accounts for a large portion of the nutrients from Maryland and Virginia, those efforts helped offset shortfalls in controlling runoff from farmland and stormwater in those states.

Because most treatment plants in the region have been upgraded, the majority of pollution reductions in coming years must come from farms and developed lands, where reductions have been harder to achieve.

“As the clock ticks down to 2025, we know the second half is going to be more difficult,” Baker said. Further, he noted, new problems — such the filling of the reservoir at Conowingo Dam, which was once an important trap for nutrients and sediment — are making the cleanup job harder. The region’s changing climate is an added challenge, too, increasing the amount and intensity of rainfall that washes greater amounts of pollutants into the water.

Baker said that efforts were also threatened by the Trump administration, which “regularly releases new plans to undercut clean air and clean water nationwide. Those plans, if implemented, would have adverse impacts on the Bay.” In particular, he expressed concern about multiple efforts to roll back air pollution controls. Air pollution is a significant contributor of nitrogen to the Bay.

The EPA is expected to release its own midpoint analysis of the cleanup in July. It will evaluate the progress of individual states, which could result in actions against those that have fallen behind in their cleanup schedules, either statewide or in particular sectors, such as stormwater or agriculture.

Environmental groups are split over what action the EPA should take, though, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Baker called for the EPA to exercise its “backstop” authority under the TMDL, which allows it to impose sanctions against states that fall behind. Such sanctions could include withholding grant money or exercising more oversight for new discharge permits.

“At the very least, the EPA needs to exert its authority in Pennsylvania while also putting Virginia and Maryland on notice that pollution from urban and rural runoff must be addressed more effectively,” Baker said.

But Coleman said many of the coalition’s members would oppose taking backstop actions against Pennsylvania, especially if they involve withholding funds. “Pennsylvania is so far behind in the cleanup that taking away money at this point would be quite detrimental to the cleanup as a whole,” she said.

She said there were other actions that could help meet goals, including efforts by senators from the region to bring more support for farmers as Congress considers a new Farm Bill.

“There is a golden opportunity as the Farm Bill moves through Congress to increase funding in the Chesapeake region for conservation practices on farmlands,” she said.

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.