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Once Reviled, Wetlands Awaken to Preservation’s Touch

EIP’s Nanticoke & Indian River Mitigation Bank is featured in the Delaware News Journal.

Once Reviled, Wetlands Awaken to Preservation’s Touch

The News Journal

by Molly Murray

Nick Dilks saw the potential even as he first laid eyes on 1,200 acres of forest west of Georgetown. It had been ditched, drained and cut over. In short, the 1,200 acres purchased late last year by Ecosystem Investment Partners told the story of the toll that land clearing, farming, forestry and development take on Delaware’s wetlands. 

Nick Dilks photo

Nick Dilks, a partner in Ecosystem Investment Partners, stands in the Jones Tract, part of 1,200 acres EIP acquired in the Nanticoke Watershed, west of Georgetown, with the intention of restoring its degraded wetlands and forests. The group hopes to harvest the pine trees in the tract and replace them with indigenous hardwoods. (The News Journal/SCOTT NATHAN)

With millions in private investment dollars, the for-profit company plans to restore the land and re-create the significant wetland habitat that was once here. It was working land — land valued for the trees that grew here. Roads and ditches were carved and dug to get to the trees. They were cut and removed. Then, more trees grew and they were harvested. The cycle repeated again and again as part of Sussex County’s once-thriving timber industry.

But for Dilks, it is the wetlands — or what is left of the original wetland — that are most valuable. The company has plans to undo what previous owners did to fill and drain the land by re-creating the wetland habitat that once dominated the forest.

Someday, it will look like the wet and wooded, blackwater forests that were once common in the low-lying areas of western Sussex County — swampy forests with tannin-stained pools, craggy knees of bald cypress trees and a canopy of hardwoods overhead.

“Someday,” said Dilks, a founding partner with the investment group, “it will look like Trap Pond State Park. … We really focus on acquiring properties that are of conservation significance.”

The investment group, based in Towson, Md., is a for-profit company that plans to restore the degraded, deforested wetland and create a wetland mitigation bank. Land developers can purchase credits from the bank to replace wetland losses on properties within the same watershed.

project map

While Delaware has state regulations to protect its tidal wetlands, there is no state law to protect the state’s significant freshwater wetland resources — places like cypress and Atlantic white cedar swamps around Trap Pond and along the Nanticoke; ecologically rare Delmarva bays near Smyrna and Townsend (seasonally flooded, these wetlands are formed from rainwater or snow melt in late winter and dry out by late summer); and globally rare sea-level fens west of the Inland Bays. Fens are open freshwater wetlands at the upland edge of a salt marsh and so far have been identified in a handful of locations in Sussex County and on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Some scientists believe wetlands are the building blocks of any ecosystem, serving as natural filters for the underground drinking-water supply, protecting nearby areas from flooding, an incubator for juvenile fish and crabs and a valuable habitat for plants and animals. 

cypress tree

The roots of cypress trees create a natural contrast to the calm, shallow waters of Trussums Pond, near Laurel, earlier this month. A movement is afoot to restore Delaware’s freshwater wetlands and ponds to their pristine beauty. (The News Journal/SCOTT NATHAN)

But for people, they have been inhospitable places — tangles of briars and confusion, places trucks and tractors get stuck and cash crops don’t grow. So, decades ago, Delawareans set out to tame the vast expanse of marsh and swamp that covers the state. They were successful. Better than half of the state’s original wetlands are gone and along with them, the natural filter, the natural sponge and the habitat.

Imagine a Delaware with mist rising among the cypress trees at locations beyond Trap and Trussum Pond, the call of spring peepers on an unseasonably warm winter night throughout southwestern New Castle County. Imagine a Delaware with fall’s symphony of waterfowl returning to Newport — where in the 1950s, 15,000 pintail ducks were counted in a single day. Imagine a sunrise at Lewes’ Great Marsh, without invasive plants like phragmites grass or the once mighty Pocomoke restored from the tea-colored trickle at Cypress Branch near Gumboro.

Delaware needs to “recognize the asset that they have,” said Andrew Manus, director of conservation programs with the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Dilks and his partners see the potential in investing in Delaware’s wetlands even if many longtime residents haven’t come to appreciate what makes these spongy lowlands so environmentally and ecologically significant.

Despite the loss of about 50 percent of the Delaware’s wetlands since Colonial settlement, the state is still rich with a diverse assortment of wetlands and the unique habitats they provide. Many of the state’s rare and endangered plants are found in wetlands and because of this diversity, Delaware has more species of frogs than Florida’s Everglades. Delaware has 16 species of frogs and toads ranging from the bull frog to the barking tree frog.

Besides the ecological value, Delaware’s wetlands act like sponges to absorb excess runoff during flooding. They filter pollution, and are carbon sinks, sequestering an element that can contribute to global warming and climate change.

Yet wetlands have been like the drunken, wealthy uncle at the family reunion. Everybody knows he’s there. Most people recognize how rich he is, but no one will acknowledge him.

“It’s time to reopen the debate” over how the state protects these freshwater wetland resources, said David B. Carter, program manager with Delaware’s Coastal Management Program. “We need to have this discussion. Yes, it’s contentious, but it needs to take place.”

Roundtable established

It has been more than a decade since state environmental officials last pushed for a freshwater wetlands protection initiative — back in the waning days of then-Gov. Mike Castle’s administration.

State officials had been relying on the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look out for the state’s thousands of acres of freshwater wetlands. But there were concerns that land was being filled or altered despite federal rules.

Meanwhile, some landowners complained that the federal regulations were onerous or inconsistently enforced. They complained about takings without compensation and loss of property rights.

Castle appointed a roundtable group to look at wetland protection proposals and signed an executive order that directed state agencies to minimize impact on freshwater wetlands and instead conserve and enhance them.

Castle was prompted by concerns raised in Delaware’s Environmental Legacy report, which concluded that while wetland loss had been ongoing since Colonial times, about 21 percent of the losses occurred since the mid-1950s — about 1,500 acres a year. That’s enough land loss to build 65 Christiana Malls every year. The roundtable met for months, concluding freshwater wetland protection was needed, but a state effort to build a consensus among stakeholders failed and the legislation died.

Since then, federal regulators have continued to look after Delaware’s freshwater wetland resources.

But that has been frustrating, said F. Michael Parkowski, a Dover attorney who has long represented clients in wetlands matters. Both the rules and their enforcement are “at best, I can say, bizarre,” he said. For instance, you can’t fill in a freshwater wetland but you could go in and cut all the trees or spray the undergrowth with a herbicide, and “you destroy all the functions of the wetland.”

You can excavate so long as you don’t double-handle the material you remove, he said. There is also inconsistent enforcement from region to region, he said.

“Currently, what we have is chaos, frustration,” he said.

But Parkowski doesn’t believe state regulation would work because the federal law would still trump an innovative state approach to protecting the most valuable and productive wetlands.

“At the state level,” he said. “what you should be concerned about is protecting areas that should be protected … what they ought to be looking at is programs to preserve habitat.”

Carter believes that even with regulations, the losses continue. While large-scale grading, filing and ditching may no longer be a problem, the incremental impact from all the small alterations adds up, he said.

“Not protecting those wetlands is costing the general public” in terms of everything from flood to groundwater protection, he said. If you compare the acre-to-acre cost of protecting rather than restoring, “it’s … cheaper to restore them.”

In the years that followed the freshwater wetland roundtable recommendations, Delaware has developed at an astonishing rate.

The construction of 51-mile-long Del. 1 alone impacted 174 acres of wetlands. Of that, 150 acres were forested and highway officials were required to replace every lost forest wetland acre with two acres of created wetlands. By the time the project was complete, transportation officials had built 324 acres of wetlands at nine locations along the highway route.

Protecting biodiversity

Meanwhile, at the state’s mosquito control section, staffers were working to connect the drainage ditching system in salt marshes to allow mosquito-eating fish species such as killifish and mummichugs to return to marshes and feed on the insect larvae.

Environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and Delaware Wild Lands started projects to reclaim wetlands.

“Our mission is clearly protecting biodiversity,” said Manus, of the Delaware Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

The group is working to restore forested wetlands and forest habitat near Milton. Manus said he believes people don’t have a good understanding about how valuable wetlands are. Wetlands play host to a wide range of trees, from bald cypress to the Atlantic white cedar to willow oaks, red maples and sweet gums.

“There’s an ecological infrastructure in the state that we kind of take for granted,” he said.

It is Delaware’s wetland assets that Ecosystem Partners hopes to capitalize on. The group — a private, for-profit investment company — purchased the land with plans to restore the wetlands and then use those wetlands as a mitigation bank, selling credits to developers who need to offset wetland losses.

“It’s cutting-edge conservation,” said Blaine T. Phillips Jr., the mid-Atlantic director of The Conservation Fund.

The land is part of the Glatfelter Pulpwood Co.’s once-vast holdings in Sussex County. The company is selling the land. State officials and conservation groups, including The Conservation Fund and Mount Cuba Center, have teamed up to acquire large tracts of Glatfelter property.

“We don’t have the money to protect all of these properties,” said E. Austin Short III, the state forester.

Dilks, who used to work for The Conservation Fund, said conservation groups often struggle to come up with money to preserve land.

“We were always challenged by the large projects,” he said. What money is available “doesn’t go very far.”

But in this case, private investors pay for the land and the restoration and the sale of the mitigation credits is the payback, Dilks said. Once the credits are sold, the property will be turned over either to the state or to a private conservation buyer subject to permanent conservation easements. In all, the investment group plans to restore between 350 to 700 acres of former wetlands on the property.

“Our mission is really to be a private mitigation and conservation banking group,” said Adam Davis, one of the three founding partners. 

 Davis said the group relies on nonprofit conservation groups to help select property primed for restoration. Besides the Delaware site, the group is also doing restoration work in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.

While land developers can compensate for wetland losses on their own, Davis said the value of a large wetland restoration bank is that it avoids “postage stamps and isolated fragments … ecologically, they become very insignificant.”

Davis’ group has raised $43 million from investors willing to underwrite the cost of the land and the restoration.

“To me, it’s very, very exciting stuff,” Davis said. “The more conservation we do, the more money we make.”

The other upside is that traditional nonprofit conservation groups often work to protect the most pristine land. In this case, there is value in degraded property, he said.

“We’re actually looking for stuff that used to be beautiful but degraded over time,” Davis said.

Ditches to fight mosquitoes

Delaware once had hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands. In the Inland Bays watershed alone, more than half of the wetlands are gone. A total of 30,000 acres remain; 45,000 acres have been dredged, filled or otherwise destroyed. Marshes were drained, dug and filled to make room for homes and boat docks. There was less habitat for waterfowl along with the sheltered wetland areas were juvenile fish and crabs grow and mature.

In Kent County, the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps dug ditches across vast salt marshes in an effort to control mosquitoes.

In northern Delaware, the earliest European settlers worked to dam and dike the marshes around New Castle to create farm and grazing land and control tidal flooding.

The construction of I-95 damaged even more marshland.

Carter, once described by a colleague as a “marsh maniac,” pushed fellow environmental officials in the early 1990s to begin work on a massive wetland restoration effort in northern Delaware. The project has touched thousands of acres, with the money coming from a variety of sources, including federal grants, state money and from penalty funds. The key has been to restore badly damaged wetland areas, but it hasn’t always been easy.

Scientists quickly understood what was wrong with these wetlands and they knew that restoring the hydrology would correct that problem, said Tom Moran, the state division of Fish and Wildlife Regional Manager for northern Delaware mosquito control.

“It wasn’t too hard to see what needed to be done,” he said. But take the 210-acre Broad Dyke Marsh in New Castle. Unplugging the marsh so that tidal flow would be completely restored meant flooding of some nearby property. There were other issues at the 44-acre area at Newport Marsh. Testing for chemical pollution in the marsh gave scientists a surprise.

“It came out largely clean, Moran said. But by restoring tidal flow with the Christina River, there was concern that the legacy of chemicals and heavy metals in the river would pollute the restored marsh, he said.

“The wildlife don’t know any better,” and they would feed on the restored marsh whether it was polluted or not, he said. “We have to be very careful.”

Today, the project is a success, but back in the late 1990s, “it was a hard sell,” Carter recalled. “I had plastic acetates laid over wetlands” to show what a restored marsh could be like.

The northern Delaware wetland network used to be one of the state’s most important habitats for waterfowl, providing habitats for as many as 1,500 waterfowl per square mile in the 1950s — waterfowl like pintail, Carter said. As it was dammed and drained and dredged, wildlife officials and landowners created impoundments farther south and the displaced waterfowl began using those areas instead. But in its day, “it was probably the most productive freshwater marsh in the state,” Carter said.

While restoration is good, the real key is protection, he said. And a second critical piece of the puzzle is to understand which ecological systems you can replace.”What is restoration?” he asks. “It’s removing as much human impact as you can.”

‘Sudden Wetland Dieback’

Today, Delaware’s marshes face more than human impacts. At Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge east of Smyrna, scientists estimate that as many as 1,160 acres of the 16,000-acre refuge has vanished since 1979. Marshland has been replaced by water. Scientists are trying to figure out why some marshes — both here and throughout the mid-Atlantic — are thriving and others are in trouble.

Some suggest it is damage to the marsh caused by snow geese. The birds pluck vegetation — root and all — from marshes and fields as they feed. Others worry that normal marsh sedimentation is not keeping up with rising sea level. Upland sediments flow into marshes and build them vertically over time.

Along Delaware’s Inland Bays, scientist Chris Bason was doing field work in the summer of 2006.

“It’s summertime, so what you normally expect to see is this lush, green grass,” he said. The marsh cord grass sometimes is knee-high, other times higher.

But as Bason and the team did their field work, they discovered something else.

“Everything around you is green except for this salt marsh.”

The cord grass was brown, dying from the tips down.

“You know something is different,” he said. “It’s a shock if you’ve never seen it before.”

The phenomenon that Bason saw is called Sudden Wetland Dieback.

Bason, who works for the nonprofit Center for the Inland Bays, said the group started getting calls from residents who wondered what was going on with the marshes.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” he said. “It really was alarming.”

The salt marsh cord grass died above and below the ground. What remained were vast mud flats. In other areas, the surface vegetation died but plant matter survived beneath the surface. Even today, no one is sure why the salt marshes started to brown up and die.

“The grass is the glue that holds the marsh together,” he said.

One theory, by researchers looking at a similar phenomenon in the Mississippi Delta, is that severe drought may trigger dieback. Without rain, the marshes dry out, which could lower pH and create soil stress with additional acidity. The soil acidity may cause a release of sequestered iron, aluminum and magnesium. While these metals, in small doses, don’t hurt plants, a larger dose could cause problems.

“We have to quit looking site-by-site,” he said. “We need to look at the landscape.”

Carter described small and local restoration projects as “random acts of kindness” with little real effectiveness.

In Delaware, state and center scientists are working together to try to find out what is going on. With the help of state transportation officials, the center has taken elevation readings in dieback marshes. They are installing wells to look at water levels and are monitoring pH levels.

Early last summer, scientists noticed some recovery, but they can’t explain that, either.

“We think they’re well-protected,” Bason said of the salt marshes. “But they’re seriously stressed.”

That was what state environmental scientist Amy Jacobs and her team found, too.

The remaining marshes in the Inland Bays, though intact, have been altered by ditching and other factors, she said.

“A lot of our rare plants and species depend on wetlands,” she said. Among the rarities that favor wetlands are a tiny dragon fly called the elfin skimmer and a plant called a ten-angled pipewort.

Jacobs and her team are trying to come up with a way to assess wetlands and develop a restoration plan.

But even with increased awareness of wetland values, Jacobs said, they found problems such as people using wetlands as garbage dumping grounds.

“The majority have been degraded,” she said.

Contact Molly Murray at 856-7372 or mmurray@delawareonline.com