Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: A Sinking Treasure

Got a sinking feeling?

If thinking about the COVID-19 Pandemic, the impending presidential election, climate change and the myriad environmental challenges we face gives you a sinking feeling, that sensation might be more accurate than you know—especially if you live on the eastern shore of the U.S.  The Mid-Atlantic Region, part of the North American Continental Plate, especially along the east coast, is sinking, while at the same time sea level is rising here.  This subsidence of the land or isostatic rebound, as it is called, is thought to be the result of glacial melting which allows other portions of the plate to rise as the massive weight of melting ice sheets decreases.  In contrast, glacial melting in Alaska and Iceland for instance, also part of the North American Continental Plate, are causing the land there to rise and the sea level to lower.  This double whammy of natural and manmade environmental changes might make you think, “Run for the hills!”.  However, unlike a seesaw, the rise and fall is not uniform across the plate but undulating much like a piece of warm elastic.  This was news to me.  I knew about sea level rise, but not the land sinking.  

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (BNWR) in Cambridge, Maryland is a case study for researchers and scientists studying these simultaneous climate forces, which makes the region particularly valuable and vulnerable. Here the changes aren’t theoretical, they are happening at an accelerated rate and can be seen clearly in the ghost forests, the easily flooded roadways, the disappearance of some wildlife species, and the encroaching water at local doorsteps. 


Follow the Public Lands’ Money

Complicating these landscape and environmental challenges even more, the 50 plus year bipartisan marriage between the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the energy development industry’s support for public lands and conservation projects might go down the drain if the President’s proposed 2021 Budget is approved.  Despite public comments of support via Twitter for full and permanent funding of LWCF within the proposed legislation (S.3422) The Great American Outdoors Act, the truth is that the President’s proposed budget for National Parks is cut by roughly $500 million for 2021.  The new bipartisan legislation with the support of 59 Senators from both sides of the aisle seeks to remedy the routine raiding and re-directing of LWCF funds to other non-public land uses.  As an example, in 2019, of the $900 million deposited to the LWCF, only $495 million actually made it to LWCF projects which flies in the face of a $20 billion backlog of maintenance and infrastructure needs within public lands, and over $22 billion LWCF dollars diverted over 55 years of its history.  The President has also led an effort to open once protected lands out west to mining and private enterprise.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a beneficiary of LWCF money, is comprised of roughly 28,000 acres of wetlands, forest and open water. In his 11 years at this wetland refuge, Matt Whitbeck, resident wildlife biologist at BNWR, has seen changes in a decade that one might expect to occur over the course of a century. He co-authored a report in 2013 with The Conservation Fund and the National Audubon Society detailing the accelerated rate of sea level rise. The report also forecasts the loss of the marsh by 2100 and the realization that maintaining the current footprint of the refuge isn’t possible. He supports the new non-traditional approach that seeks to preserve and acquire land where the marsh is likely to migrate in hopes of a better long term survival strategy.


A New Strategy In Preservation: Let it Move

Since becoming a refuge in 1933 areas that were once forested are now drowning and transitioning to wetlands, and in other areas what was once marsh has become open water.  It has been reported that some 5000 acres of coastal wetlands have been lost or converted to open water since the 1930s.  As the land sinks and sea level rises the wetland is migrating from its 1933 borders and officials are trying to stay ahead of the up slope movement of the wetlands and how that will impact the refuge, the wildlife and the local community. 

1938 Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy BNWR
1974 Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy BNWR
1989 Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy of BNWR

The Blackwater River was dredged in 2017 bringing up 26,000 cubic yards of mud to a submerged area of marsh, and plugged with 220,000 sprigs of native water-loving vegetation.  This effort is a more traditional approach that tries to keep the marsh closer to its current footprint.  In a new approach,  The Land and Water Conservation Fund has assisted in the acquisition of large upland land parcels as they become available where researchers and surveyors expect the refuge to continue its march in hopes that identifying and protecting these areas will be a better approach to preservation. 

The LWCF has always enjoyed bipartisan support, investing earmarked energy drilling revenues, rather than tax dollars, back into conservation of public lands and support for national parks since the ‘60s.  However, in all these years it has yet to receive permanent funding from Congress despite being a widely supported, budgetary mainstay on both sides of the political aisle. Given recent environmental rollbacks related to coal production and clean water regulations, the lack of permanent funding as well as the diversion of funds away from LWCF and national parks is cause for alarm.  At Blackwater, as an example, water quality monitoring is now being handled by a team of individuals and non-profit conservation groups as staffing at the refuge has been shrinking under the stress of rising costs and flat line funding.

. . . decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”  Michael Honeycutt, chairman, EPA Science Advisory Board

Scott Newman and Colin Dwyer, “Trump Administration Cuts Back Federal Protections For Streams And Wetlands”, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/23/798809951/trump-administration-is-rolling-back-obama-era-protections-for-smaller-waterways ,NPR, Jan. 23, 2020 10:37 AM ET

Furthermore, recent rollbacks in E.P.A clean water restrictions, driven by the Trump Administration, threaten to rewind years of progress—not just here at Blackwater, but nationally. This, coupled with the budgetary threats to LWCF, puts these environmental treasures at tremendous risk. Given the President’s pattern to conceal his genuine intent, his Twitter-promises to LWCF seem to belie a different truth for public lands–one that does not seek to protect but to profit, no matter the cost to the land.

Moonrise over Blackwater National Refuge

The wetland water of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay, is still challenged by pollutants.  The rollbacks remove protections for seasonal/ephemeral waterways, ground water, or sources not adjacent to large bodies of water allowing industrial and agricultural chemical dumping, pesticide use and the destruction or filling in of natural wetlands in construction projects even though it’s well established that pollutants find their way into the greater water supply system via wildlife or unseen connectivity.  The E.P.A’s very own advisory council reports that these rollbacks lack justification and defy scientific impacts to the greater watershed systems.  It’s hard to imagine that there’s any denial of the connectivity of natural watershed systems—some of which may be hard to trace.  Similarly, the rejection and undermining of science is what Matt Whitbeck points to as one of his greatest concerns.  He makes the point that science by its very definition is unbiased, but he’s seen that belief challenged. His job is to protect this habitat for the wildlife that thrives within it, and the global forces behind the changes described are presenting a risk to wildlife and humans alike.  He shows visitors the undeniable sea level changes, and lets them come to their own conclusions.

BNWR Visitors Center

Besides serving as a filtering system for the bay and a buffer during storms, the marsh is also one of the largest breeding grounds for American Eagles and other migratory birds along the east coast.  No longer considered an endangered species, the breeding eagle population is strong at Blackwater.  It’s a favorite spot for bird watchers,  photographers, kayakers, fishermen, hunters and cyclists.  Younger visitors may not recall a time when eagles and osprey were endangered because of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT which interrupted normal breeding and poisoned the birds via contaminated water from direct or runoff water sources and contaminated fish they consumed.  Additionally, the refuge is still recovering from damage caused by the vegetation ravaging rodent called Nutria, whose apparent eradication has not been officially confirmed, but expected.


Unexpected Discovery

I only discovered Blackwater Refuge two years ago, during a weekend trip, and now I find myself visiting and exploring frequently in the early morning to capture photos of the landscape and the wildlife.  It’s less than two hours from Washington, D.C.  I usually arrive before dawn.  Once I turn off the main road to the shore points, time slows.  It’s quiet here, even in the summer.   In the winter it feels abandoned.  I usually see something new each visit: a quality to the light, a chance encounter with an eagle or some other creature.  On this day it’s snowing lightly. The air and wildlife move about freely in a quiet rush of feeding and surveying.  I’m an intruder and watched by the wildlife and the locals.  The flat land lets the wind glide along with little interruption which adds to the feeling of remoteness and wildness.  In the winter, the unfettered, damp wind can be brutally cold.  Cambridge, Maryland’s business district is fifteen minutes away, buffered by a multitude of farms of varying sizes and conditions.  The occasional car will pass.  I’m noticed immediately by a dog when I stop at dawn to take a photo of an older farm house decorated for Christmas.  I move along not wanting to cause disruption, but I may be too late for that. 

As if the wetland isn’t reason enough to protect this area, it’s also the home to one of the greatest American heroes of the Underground Railroad—Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery herself and returned, it’s said, 13 times to lead other enslaved people to freedom.  (The Harriet Tubman Museum is a must stop here. https://visitdorchester.org/harriet-tubman-museum-educational-center/)  Driving the area, one can only imagine the physical, 19th Century hardships one would endure trying to navigate, surreptitiously, on foot out of this area. 

This is a place and a story I will continue to document, to preserve, and to protect. If you visit, please leave no trace.

©Amy Linn Doherty and Pawpro Media

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Linn Doherty with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


sources

Scott Neuman, Colin Slyer, Trump Administration Cuts Back Federal Protection For Streams And Wetlands, www.npr.org/2020/01/23/798809951/trump-administration-is-rolling-back-obama-era-protections-for-smaller-waterways?utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_source=facebook.com&fbclid=IwAR3BPp2pqXzZ5h04ENqycfUQXHZcK6c8LvMrdmSf1o83_OM3NVLWqGLiKGc&fbclid=IwAR0i53fZ7C1JevBFGUQBKBblrirpx9_CCKhgKuwX373Tw-wHjI_f-rF1DQQ , NPR, January 23, 2020 10:37 AM ET, Updated at 3:20 p.m.,

Coral Davenport, Trump Removes Pollution Controls on Streams and Wetlands, January 22, 2019, http://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2020/01/22/climate/trump-environment-water.amp.html, The New York Times

Daniel Strain, The Future of Maryland’s Blackwater Marsh, January 14, 2015, www.climate.gov/news-features/features/future-marylands-blackwater-marsh , Climate.gov

https://www.lwcfcoalition.com/tools, fact sheets, LWCF General Fact Sheet, Great American Outdoors Fact Sheet

Happy 100th Grand Canyon: And Many More?

What started as a crazy Grand Canyon notion among an assorted group of empty nesters, mid-lifers, one twenty-something, and an eleven-year-old from Northern Virginia became a collective reality, and a substantial Southwestern adventure accomplishment for me and my son back in 2014.PAW4953GrandCanyonboyhiker

All I wanted to do was take my youngest child–on the precipice of becoming a teenager–on a memorable, somewhat significant trip.  In all honesty, I had never heard of hiking the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim, and I certainly never imagined doing it in one day.  The more conventional experience is to hike down to the famed Phantom Ranch, spend a night or two camping at the bottom of the canyon, and then hike out to the North Rim.  Instead, we were going to hike from one rim to the other in one day

Ranging in age from 11 to 62, our group of 15 men and women, and one child hiked the rim-to-rim in 2014.  This undertaking includes 23.4 miles, 11.5 hours, 7 miles down the South Rim, 9 miles across, and 7 vertical, winding miles up and out to the North Rim.  Weather conditions can make any crossing experience vastly different and more-or-less extreme from one day to the next.

SouthKaibabRestStopPawpro
Entering Cedar Ridge

This isn’t a hike recommended by park rangers, I assume because hikers so frequently misjudge hydration and fitness needs even for the shorter hikes, and become stranded.  Indeed, not long after we attempted this hike the National Park Service made similar hiking groups acquire a Special Use Permit in order to attempt a rim-to-rim in a group of this size.  You’ll see online that some websites specifically discourage rim-to-rim hiking, while others promote ultra-style, rim-to-rim-to-rim runs of the canyon, and the like.  All I can tell you is, as we began our ascent up to the North Rim, we passed a tiny helipad, and minutes later a small aircraft took off with a woman who had reportedly broken her ankle.  The risks and logistics are real, and the rescues difficult, not guaranteed, and expensive.

PAW_5012GrandCanyonRimtoRim

PAW_5030GrandCanyonrimtorim

PAW_5020GrandCanyon

That said, we too had a new hip in the group, knees that needed replacement, tendinitis, tight IT Bands, lower back issues, poison ivy, and blisters.  In fact, my son had been rushed to an urgent care after landing in Phoenix two days earlier because of a sudden ear infection. So, while we were a tough, conditioned group–most of whom met via a 6a.m., all-year-round, outdoor, boot camp–we had plenty of potential health issues that could have become an issue at any point.

An Early Start

The day of the hike started at 4:40 AM when we all met outside our South Rim cabins to catch the shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead, the shorter, but more steep way down.  It was an ideal 38˚F.  We were told no water is guaranteed on these trails until you hit the bottom, so everyone carries their own.  We paused at the start of the trail in the company of other hiking groups heading out for adventures of their own.

PAW_5047
Along the South Kaibab Trail of the Grand Canyon.

By the time we reached the bottom the temperature could reach 90˚F or higher, but we were lucky and these extreme conditions didn’t materialize on this late May day. However, there was a little lightning as we hiked, another regular threat, but it stayed well in the distance. (Distance being a relative term on foot and within the Grand Canyon.) We each also carried a change of clothes and toiletries for when we reached the North Rim Lodge, which seemed more like a dream as the day progressed and the miles underfoot accumulated.

GrandCanyonTrailPawpro0432
Hiking within the canyon, lightning in the distance.

We marveled at the awesome natural spectacle of the early morning canyon, the tips of the layered, red rock walls painted with a warm glow of sunlight as our feet and toes hammered down the well-traversed, sometimes stepped trail, spattered by mule dung and giant, puddles of vaporizing mule urine that by the time we reached the North Rim functioned as smelling salts for at least one in the group–me.  I can only imagine how more intense this smell would have been on a hot day.

As we descended, the excitement grew as we caught the first glimpses of the distant, calm, emerald green portion of the Colorado River we would soon cross on the heavy gauge wire and plank suspension bridge.PAW_5102GrandCanyonbridge

We stopped and ate the boxed lunches at Phantom Ranch, which we’d pre-arranged via the National Park Service system. Some of us soaked our feet in the super cold water of the nearby stream, which was a mistake I would later regret.

img_1133
Soaking my feet mistake.

Rain, thunder and lightning could not dampen the group spirit as we headed towards our last break at the encampment called Cottonwood early in the long 5400 foot climb up the North Kaibab Trail.  The average grade is 21%.   We took only two extended breaks during the day to eat and use the rustic, hole in the ground bathroom facilities, and limited our time at these spots.  We wanted to finish in daylight, but were prepared with headlamps if we didn’t make it in time.  We nibbled on trail mix and various incarnations of jerky.  We continued to be amazed by the grandeur of the canyon at every turn, but more and more our gazes remained on our feet, and the strikes of the hiking poles getting deeper as we began the long climb out.

As the Day Wore On

While we stopped and posed for photos frequently on the way down, this activity became an unnecessary use of valuable time and energy on the climb out.  I had developed a few blisters, and the pounding of my toes within shoes not quite sized right had started taking a toll. At least that was the slightly dehydrated thinking that was going through my brain. The camera mounted on my forehead was beginning to chafe the skin as it bounced up and down, but that pain was nothing compared to the one manifesting in my feet and thought process.  I had long since packed away my Nikon D7000.  I took only two photos on the climb out, while being chided by the climber sporting a new hip for not taking in all the scenic points behind me.  I was in too much pain.  Plus, I failed to dry my feet completely after soaking them in the stream earlier, which spurred the hot spots developing.  During some relentlessly steep stretches and endless switchbacks my breathing sounded as if I had just completed a series of wind sprints.  “I was in better than average shape.” I was saying to myself, “And this climb is kicking my ass!”  Thinking back, I was probably carrying too much water and too much camera gear, AND had spent too much time making sure my son was eating and drinking enough.

In the end, it was the 11-year-old and twenty-something who finished first, youth and two days of antibiotics working their magic, I tell myself.  The rest of us finished in small clusters, grateful for the chance, the place, the cool temperatures, and the camaraderie.  We had all done it!  We had successfully hiked the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim in one day.

PAW_5181_2_3GrandCanyonNorthRimSunrise

We spent a glorious night at the North Rim Lodge.  I couldn’t tell you what I ate that night.  The dining room overlooks the canyon.  We could see the lights of the South Rim as nighttime came.  My son fell asleep at dinner, the table served as his pillow.  We woke the next morning to the full scale glory of a sunrise at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These places face a growing threat–economically and environmentally.  The Grand Canyon was officially protected and preserved 100 years ago so that future generations can enjoy it.  We must remember we aren’t the first, and we shouldn’t be the last to see it and experience it.

© Amy Linn Doherty and Pawpro Media 2009-2019.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Linn Doherty with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.