Solar Fields in Place of Cornfields: A Win-Win if There Ever Was One by Doug Boucher

In a recent article in the Bay Journal, the Chesapeake’s monthly environmental newspaper, senior writer Timothy B. Wheeler speculated that that the growth of large-scale solar collection fields on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, at the expense of cornfields, might have “unforeseen consequences on land use, local economies, wildlife habitat and maybe even water quality.” (“Solar Power’s New Look: More Landscape-Friendly Siting,” April 2018.)

In fact, we have enough scientific knowledge to foresee quite a few of those consequences — and they would be positive ones. For example: Cornfields are dominated by a single crop species, while the vegetation under solar fields is much more varied (native grasses, goldenrod, etc.) and thus more biodiverse. Because of these differences, the vegetation under and between solar panels provides much better habitat for wildlife — particularly for early-successional bird species, whose populations have been declining at alarming rates.

Similarly, solar fields provide much better resources than cornfields for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.

Cornfields are annual row crops and, of course, farmers try to keep the growth of weeds between those rows to a minimum. This means that they have considerable amounts of bare ground and thus substantial losses of soil to erosion, together with the runoff of the nutrients that spur eutrophication, a major cause of the Bay’s dead zones.

On the other hand, the meadow vegetation under solar fields is perennial, not annual, and thus provides year-round cover. So it reduces erosion and nutrient runoff significantly. This is true even compared to well-managed row crop rotations using no-till management and winter cover crops.

Unlike cornfields, solar fields don’t require the use of insecticides, fungicides, tillage or irrigation. Nor do they require fertilizer, whether synthetically or from manure, both of which lead to water pollution.

Solar fields provide substantially more revenue to rural landowners, with much lower costs as well as less risk. The income they generate is dependable over the long term because typical solar leases are for periods of 20 years or more.

This makes it possible for farmers to keep their land instead of having to sell it in the face of suburban sprawl. Moreover, the benefits of converting cornfields to solar reach far beyond the farm. By reducing global warming, they slow down the rising sea levels and extreme storms that threaten communities along the Bay and far beyond.

They also cut down on the air pollution from coal-fired electric power plants, gasoline-burning cars and natural-gas-heated offices. In this way they reduce one of the most important threats plaguing public health, manifested in such illnesses as asthma, toxic chemicals such as mercury, and smog.

Like a cornfield, a solar farm uses land and the sun’s energy to produce something that people vitally need. But it does it with a much more positive impact on the environment — locally, across the Bay’s watershed and around the world.

And, just as important, it makes possible the transition to an economy powered by 100 percent renewable energy — the critical environmental need of the 21st century.

Ecologist Doug Boucher is with the Climate and Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal or the Spy. 

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population Remains Stable

Blue crab abundance has decreased from 2017 but remains near its long-term average level, according to results from a closely watched survey released on April 9.

The annual winter dredge survey showed that the total number of crabs and the number of spawning-age females are down from last year, while the number of juveniles has ticked upward.

Results would have been better, scientists said, had it not been for the lethal toll extracted by a cold winter. They estimated that cold conditions killed 16 percent of the adult crabs in Maryland and 8 percent in Virginia — where most of the crustaceans overwinter.

Managers in both states said that continued cool temperatures through the spring would likely result in a slow start to the harvest season, but catches would likely pick up later in the year.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said the population “remains healthy, resilient and sustainable.”

Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Matthew Strickler credited management improvements over the last decade with “allowing sustainable harvests even in years with challenging environmental conditions.”

The 2018 dredge survey estimated that the Bay has:

• 371 million crabs of all sizes, down from 455 million last year, but still ranking sixteenth highest in the 29-year history of the survey.

• 254 million juvenile crabs, up from 168 million last year, ranking twentieth in the survey’s history.

• 147 million adult female crabs, a decrease from 254 million last year, but the ninth highest in the survey’s history.

The number of females remained below the 215 million target set by fishery managers, but was still more than double the 70 million minimum deemed necessary by scientists to maintain a healthy stock.

Overall, the survey results were “well within the normal variation” for the stock, according to Robert O’Reilly, chief of fisheries management with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Blue crab populations can vary widely from year to year because the species is heavily influenced by climate conditions — juveniles spend the first several weeks of their lives drifting in the ocean after they are spawned during the summer and fall, and weather conditions at that time of year greatly affect the number that return to the Bay.

To boost the number of crabs after a decade of low survey numbers, management agencies since 2008 have imposed regulations offering greater protection to female crabs, in the hope that more would survive and reproduce. Although numbers have fluctuated, the overall abundance has trended generally upward since then.

Chris Moore, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said those fishery management efforts are paying off. “Despite this winter’s cold temperatures, the Bay’s blue crab population remains healthy,” he said.

The winter dredge survey has been conducted annually since 1990 by scientists in Maryland and Virginia, who tally crabs dredged from the bottom at 1,500 sites across the Bay from December through March — when they are buried in mud and stationary.

Historically, the survey has provided an accurate snapshot of crab abundance and is the primary tool for assessing the health of the crab stock.

by Karl Blankenship

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.

Lake Bonnie’s Once-owner Wins Legal Point, Not Damages in Court

It took eight years, but Gail Litz finally got her day in court — three weeks, actually.

Gail Litz

Gail Litz said she’s not sorry for bringing the case. “I think people need to know what went on and how our state handles these things,” she said.

Along the way, she won a potentially important legal ruling for enforcing water quality in Maryland. But she fell short in her quest for damages from the state and an Eastern Shore town for their failure to fix pollution that she contended caused the loss of her family’s campground business and property.

“I got my day in court,” acknowledged Litz , who now lives in Orlando, FL. “But I don’t feel we were allowed to admit a lot of things [into evidence] that I thought explained better the process.”

Litz filed suit in 2010, claiming that Lake Bonnie, the prime attraction of her family’s campground in Caroline County, had been rendered unfit for swimming by sewage seeping into the water from failing septic systems in the nearby town of Goldsboro. She said she’d been forced to close the campground because of declining business and was on the verge of losing the property to foreclosure.

Septic systems in Goldsboro had been leaking for decades when the state Department of the Environment issued a consent order in 1996 requiring the town to fix the problem or face fines. Fourteen years later, when Litz filed suit, there was no remedy in sight, and no fines had been collected. Litz wanted an injunction to force a cleanup, and she wanted damages from Goldsboro and the state for costing her the campground business — and property — through inaction.

Litz’s lawyers went to the Maryland Court of Appeals twice to ask for her case to be heard. In 2016, the state’s highest court paved the way by ruling that a citizen could sue the state for damages when it fails to fulfill its legal duty to act — which her lawyers say should prompt officials to take environmental enforcement more seriously.

Litz then won a pretrial ruling that confirmed the state had a duty to enforce the 1996 consent order. And at the end of the three-week trial in March, a Caroline County Circuit Court jury found the state had breached that duty.

But Litz came away empty-handed; the jury also concluded that she and her lawyers had failed to prove the unaddressed septic pollution caused her to lose the campground.

Philip Hoon, one of Litz’s lawyers, called the outcome “bittersweet.”

“We won on the legal point, a very significant legal point, but it’s pyrrhic in that this lady lost her property,” Hoon said.

Litz’s lawyers argued that she lost the property through an “inverse condemnation” by the state and town for their failure to remedy the pollution.

Government agencies normally take private land for public purposes by filing a lawsuit to condemn it and offering the owners compensation. An inverse condemnation occurs when government takes land without filing a lawsuit for it — say, by adopting legislation or regulations that render the property worthless.

What made Litz’s case unusual, explained G. Macy Nelson, another of her lawyers, is that they argued government inaction, rather than a decision or action, could lead to a taking.

Long after Gail Litz is gone, Nelson said, “people are going to be suing the state of Maryland and using this case as a roadmap.”

At the time Litz filed suit, an MDE spokesperson said the agency had nearly 200 active consent orders, decrees or agreements, 55 of which called for cleaning up water pollution. Another MDE spokesperson had said that, because of limited staff and funding, the department prioritized its efforts to cases threatening public health. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said there are 83 water-related consent agreements now; he declined to comment on the Lake Bonnie case.

Lawyers for MDE contended that it had no legal duty to act and that state regulators have the discretion to enforce consent orders or not. After courts rebuffed those arguments, the MDE lawyers challenged the evidence that Litz lost her property because of the septic pollution, arguing that the lake might be polluted instead by animal waste from nearby farms.

They and the town’s lawyers succeeded in getting the judge to exclude statements by a county health official and from a health department report stating that the town’s leaking septics were a source of the fecal bacteria in the lake. The defendants also persuaded the judge to prevent a Johns Hopkins University environmental engineering professor from testifying to the linkage.

The state lawyers further suggested Litz lost the property because of poor business decisions. She took out a loan against the campground, for instance, to make improvements to her home, but Litz contends the improvements were made to accommodate health challenges that made it hard for her to climb stairs.

Litz said it irked her that the state’s lawyers questioned why she hadn’t tested the water herself to verify it was polluted by septic waste.

“They tried to throw the blame on me,” she said. “I felt as though it was their responsibility, as the state environmental agency, to figure out what was going on.”

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles had said last year that he’d like to settle the case, and Nelson said Litz’s lawyers tried in vain to reach an agreement.

Nelson expressed bitterness that the state had then gone to such lengths to oppose her claim for damage after letting the problem fester for so many years.

“You challenge their inaction, and the moment you challenge their inaction, they bring unlimited resources to beat back the challenge,” Nelson said. “[If] they would have spent 1 percent of the defense energy on addressing the environmental problem, there never would have been a problem.”

But Attorney General Brian Frosh said settling Litz’s case would have done nothing more than “put money in Mrs. Litz’s pocket,” something he called “a very ugly principle.”

Frosh disagreed with Nelson that the court ruling would make state regulators more accountable. Instead, he argued that the court’s ruling could actually be a disincentive for the MDE to use consent orders to enforce cleanups.

“If [MDE] is liable for the failure to enforce, maybe a less courageous secretary will be less likely to try to reach a consent order,” he said.

Nichole Nesbitt, one of Goldsboro’s lawyers, issued a statement saying town officials never disputed that residents were having trouble maintaining their septic systems because of poor soil conditions.

But the town’s lawyers argued that residents, not the town, were responsible for solutions. Efforts to fund a new wastewater treatment plant failed — until after the lawsuit was filed.

“The town and the state made extraordinary efforts to secure funding that would bring a public water and sewer system to the town,” Nesbitt said.

Three years ago, construction began on a new wastewater treatment plant in the neighboring town of Greensboro that will also process Goldsboro sewage. Homes began hooking up to the sewer line earlier this year.

Litz said she’s not sorry for bringing the case, and praised her lawyers, who represented her for free.

“I think people need to know what went on and how our state handles these things,” she said. “If a consent order is issued from the state, I think it has to be enforced. It shouldn’t be at MDE’s discretion.”

Despite the verdict, Litz may still get another day in court. On April 19, her lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, contending that Circuit Court Judge Sidney S. Campen, Jr., erred in rulings that limited their ability to gather and present evidence to support her claim. A ruling on that motion is pending.

By Tim Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

The Best Kind of News: The Bay’s Underwater Grasses Surge Beyond 100,000 Acres for First Time in Ages

The Chesapeake’s underwater grasses — critical havens for everything from blue crabs to waterfowl — surged to a new record high last year, surpassing 100,000 acres for the first time in recent history.

“I never thought we would ever see that,” said Bob Orth, a researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has overseen the annual Baywide underwater grass survey since it began in 1984. “But things are changing.”

It was the third straight year that acreage of these underwater meadows has set a new Baywide record. The 2017 survey results, released in late April, came on the heels of a scientific study published in March that credited nutrient reductions in the Bay for a sustained long-term comeback of the grasses over the last three decades — even as those habitats are in decline globally.

“Seeing record growth in underwater grasses for the past three years just reinforces that our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its local tributaries is working,” said Jim Edward, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a state-federal partnership.

The need to restore underwater grasses is one reason that the Bay cleanup effort aims to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution; water clouded by sediment or nutrient-fueled algae blooms can be lethal to the nearly two dozen species of underwater grasses found in the Bay. Like all green plants, submerged grasses need sunlight to survive, and they receive more sunlight through clear water. Because of the link to water clarity, the status of submerged aquatic vegetation — or SAV — is considered a key indicator of the Bay’s health.

Grass beds are also a critical component of the Bay ecosystem in their own right. In addition to providing food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and crabs, they also pump oxygen into the water, trap sediment and buffer shorelines from the erosive impact of waves.

Overall, results from the 2017 survey showed that the Bay had 104,843 acres of underwater grasses, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. That exceeds an interim 2017 goal of 90,000 acres, and it was 57 percent of the ultimate 185,000-acre Baywide goal for 2025.

When the survey began in 1984, fewer than 40,000 acres of SAV were observed in the Bay. Since then, the total amount has generally increased, though the amount in a given year may fluctuate widely depending on the weather: Big storms drive huge amounts of nutrients and sediment into the Bay that tend to cause significant losses, while very hot summers cause die-offs of eelgrass, a dominant species in high-salinity areas of the Lower Bay.

Most recently, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in late summer 2011 knocked grasses back to 48,195 acres in the 2012 survey, the lowest in recent years.

But after that, the beds continued their long-term recovery, with Baywide coverage increasing for five consecutive years — the longest period of uninterrupted expansion in the history of the survey — and setting records in the last three. “There have up and downs in places, but the overall picture since 2012 has been up, up, up,” Orth said. “It’s not going down.”

The recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written by a team of 14 scientists, credited the overall recovery to improved water quality, largely brought about by a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus since the mid-1980s.

“We don’t need miracles,” said Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program SAV Workgroup and, along with Orth, one of the co-authors of the paper. “We just need a sustained effort.”

Environmental advocates said the underwater grass record was evidence that cleanup efforts are working — and need to be maintained. “Pollution is going down, the dead zone is getting smaller, and oysters are making a recovery. This progress is extraordinary,” said Beth McGee, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But the recovery is fragile and proposed rollbacks to federal environmental protection regulations threaten future progress.”

Good news last year was heralded at the top of the Bay, where underwater grass beds in the Susquehanna Flats, historically a critical waterfowl habitat, continued their comeback after being halved in the wake of Irene and Lee. They reached 9,084 acres last year, about three-quarters of their level before those storms.

It is no longer the area of the Bay with the most grass, though. That honor goes to a huge 21,507 acre expanse of underwater grasses that extend from near Tangier Island to the Honga River, along the Eastern Shore.

Closer to the mouth of the Bay, beds have stabilized after a heat-wave caused a dieback of temperature-sensitive eelgrass beds — important habitats for juvenile blue crabs — in 2012. “It looks like eelgrass is basically stabilizing, with some increases,” Orth said. Eelgrass is of particular concern as it is one of the two primary species found in high-salinity areas; the other is widgeon grass.

Grasses are also turning up in places where they haven’t been seen in decades — if ever. In the York River, Orth said he hasn’t seen underwater grasses above Gloucester Point, near the mouth of the river, since 1972. But last year they found substantial bed of widgeon grass there, he said. “It’s the first time ever in the survey that we saw any grass above Gloucester Point.”

A large widgeon grass bed also popped up in the Patuxent River outside the Chesapeake Biological Lab in Solomons, MD, where it had not been previously mapped.

Although the overall trend is upward, the magnitude of the changes from 2016 to 2017 varied by salinity zone, each of which hosts a slightly different mix of grass species:

• In the tidal fresh zone, at the head of the Bay and in the uppermost tidal reaches of most tributaries, underwater grass beds increased by 2,462 acres to 19,880 acres, a 14.1 percent increase.

• The slightly salty oligohaline zone that occupies a relatively small portion of the Upper Bay and tidal tributaries, lost 190 acres, dropping to 8,398 acres, a 2.2 percent decrease.

• The moderately salty mesohaline zone — the largest area of underwater grass habitat, stretching from near Baltimore south to the Rappahannock River and Tangier Island and including large sections of most tidal rivers — had the greatest increase by acreage, gaining 4,140 acres to 61,331 acres, an increase of 7.2 percent.

• The very salty polyhaline zone — from the mouth of the Rappahannock and Tangier Island south, including the lower York and James rivers — increased 763 acres, to 15,234 acres, an increase of 5.3 percent.

While grass beds are expanding or holding their own in much of the Bay, much of the recovery hinges on the mesohaline zone in the midsection of the Bay. Widgeon grass is by far the dominant species there, and its acreage has nearly tripled in just the last five years, from less than 20,000 acres in 2010 to more than 57,000 acres last year. But widgeon grass is notorious for its boom and bust cycles, as it can disappear quickly if conditions turn bad. In 2003, that area lost half of its underwater grass coverage after severe storms muddied the waters.

But, Orth said, widgeon grass likes warm water and might be benefitting from gradually warming Bay temperatures. In the event of another setback, he said, those beds may be better poised for a comeback than in the past because they have become so large and dense, and are producing prodigious amounts of seeds.

Also, Landry said, inspections of some beds last year showed that, in some places, other species are starting to appear along with widgeon grass, giving beds diversity that could help them better withstand severe events.

“I think these plants can withstand bad weather and storm events and things like that if the system itself is healthy,” she said. “So if we keep up with our nutrient reduction plans and our sediment reduction plans, and we set the stage for a thriving environment, these beds will be more likely to withstand stressful events. They can’t withstand long-term chronic stress.”

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.

A Chesapeake Portrait, Painted by Almost a Thousand Words by Tom Horton

Photo by Dave Harp

Combing the beach, I stoop to pick up an essay for my upcoming college nature writing class. It’s a reddish, roundish pebble, tumbling in the clear lapping waves during a campout to the vanished community of Holland Island.

For a couple of centuries, before erosion forced Holland’s people to the mainland, my pebble was a brick, proud and sturdy and eminently useful in its uniform rectangularity for stacking when constructing a home’s foundation with precise edges and level tops.

Made by humans, who have the corner on corners as no other species, the brick has been reshaped by nature, which embraces the rounded, the curved and the meandering, from spiral galaxies and loopy marsh creeks to the shells of whelks.

The brick/pebble thus becomes distilled and refined to a rich essential — to an image — the straight versus the curved, the human versus the natural.

This gives my fledgling essayists a useful lens. Later in the semester we’ll look at farm drainage ditches versus swamps, the former doing one thing very well — whisking rainwater from cropland; the latter doing no one thing spectacularly — just nurturing life in diversity unknown to the ditch and the cornrow.

They may expand their view further, to the pavement and the curb, the gutter and the storm drain, versus the woody debris and leaf duff of the forest floor; they may ponder which of those landscapes, during a downpour, a trout in a stream would most like living next to.

A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but a good word image is worth a hard drive’s worth of photos. Word imagery is especially important when you are writing to explain a six-state, 64,000-square-mile, Atlantic-to-Susquehanna ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay. Here are a few of the images I’ve found useful over the decades:

The Skinny Bay

From Havre de Grace, MD, to Virginia Beach, the Bay’s about a million feet long — and up to 100,000 feet wide. Yet the average depth is around 21 feet. So many implications flow from that.

Large as it looks, the estuary has scant water to dilute runoff from Cooperstown, NY, to Altoona, PA, to Lynchburg, VA, so how we use the land matters big time for water quality.
This essential shallowness also means that light penetrates to the bottom copiously, growing lush habitats of seagrasses, which support waterfowl and waterfowl hunting cultures and soft-crabbing.

It means that wind pushes water around so easily that it is often more important, ecologically, than the tides. It also also dictates the classic “deadrise” designs of skipjacks and other watermen’s crafts, evolved to make their living in skinny water.

Wet

The Chesapeake ecosystem for most of time is widely understood to have been green, with forests covering most of its watershed. But thanks to the scientific detective work of people like Grace Brush of Johns Hopkins University, we now comprehend how much of the landscape was also wet, dammed and ponded by millions of beavers.

Brush’s work, now in book form — Decoding the Deep Sediments, available from Maryland Sea Grant — shows how prevalent the pollens of aquatic plants are in sediment cores that allow us to look back through what was washing into the Bay in centuries past.

Green and wet. Why does it matter so much? Because that landscape fostered the healthiest Chesapeake, the landscapes we should most try to emulate and restore.

Ask yourself, WWBD — what would beavers do?

Edges

Edges are inherently interesting: the gradations of color and texture that artists employ to draw the eye to the glorious intersections of the seasons, adorned by the great migrations of fish and fowl they trigger.

Life loves an edge. Hunters who prowl the seams where forest meets field know this, as do fishermen who troll the dropoffs from shallows to channels, as do blue herons and egrets, nesting eagles and beachcombers (I prefer “proggers,” the waterman’s term for them).

The Bay, with around 11,000 miles of tidal edges, is at the heart of the heart of this phenomenon. That includes the overwhelming preference of humans to also locate along the edge, drawn by everything from places to discharge waste, cool their power plants and hoist drinks to the sunset.

The search for peaceful co-existence between humans and the rest of edge-loving nature is a fundamental tension that runs through much of my writing.

Ecosystem Services

If you would be popularly read, avoid such terms, but not what they include. Consider the oyster. The revelation in recent decades of their immense values in filtering and cleansing Bay waters has fundamentally changed the way we regard them — not only as a tasty food and commerce by the bushel, but also as sanctuaries for the health of the Bay.

Some scientists say it’s likely that the reefs, built by oysters to form undisturbed, undredged, untonged communities, are at least as valuable for habitat as for their filtration.

And One Last Favorite: Horseshoe Crabs

These marvelous animals are living fossils for whom the rise and fall of dinosaurs was just a short span in the species’ history. When they scrabble onto remote beaches in May and June, with nothing else in the scene but the full moon gleaming on their bronze-colored shells from above, sand and the lapping of saltwater below — that’s as close as you will ever get to traveling back in time half a billion years.

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.

Op-Ed: How Much Woods Would a Woodpecker Need if It’s to Succeed? By Tom Horton

The piney woods stretching for miles around us smell springy, as warm winds melt the last of a big January snow. At the crest of a rise, Bobby Clontz stops his pickup: “Look back . . . that’s a hard view to beat.”

A tawny, sunlit sea of native grasses and low shrubs laps the dark columns of tall, widely spaced loblolly pines. Light streams through the green needles, which gleam as they toss in the breeze. It’s a classic pine savannah, often described as “parklike.” Psychologist John Falk has found humans associate strongly with such landscapes, which resemble the African savannahs where humanoids climbed down from the trees hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Bobby Clontz, left, and Bryan Watts walk through the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, just south of the James River. (Dave Harp)

Such pine parks once covered much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, from Virginia to Texas; nowadays, perhaps 1 percent remains. And this remnant, including the 3,200 acres that Clontz manages here at The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve just south of the James River, is now strongly linked with a tiny, endangered bird.

The red-cockaded woodpecker was listed as nationally endangered three years before the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. The cardinal-size bird depends on pines old enough to have become diseased with a fungus that rots their heartwood, a process of decay that can take up to a century or longer.

The heart-rot that would mean ruin to the logger is the salvation of the RCW, as it is commonly called by birders and conservationists. A red-cockaded woodpecker may spend a year or two of its five-year average lifespan excavating its nest, boring through several inches of tough, outer wood and creating a chamber in the softened heart of an old pine.

The red-cockaded woodpecker

Piney Grove Preserve is a “lifeline,” the last shot for the bird in the whole Chesapeake region, said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, who’s along today. Since the 1970s, as corporate logging took down the remaining great old pines, the center, part of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, has been documenting the bird’s march toward extinction in Virginia and researching its habitat needs.

“Mitchell [Byrd, founder of the Center] would come back to check on a nesting area and find woodpeckers flying around, landing on stumps where their habitat used to be,” Watts recounted. By 2002, Virginia was down to two nesting pairs. The last RCWs in Maryland disappeared from Dorchester County, their northernmost range, between the 1950s and 1970s, as the last old-growth pines there were clear-cut.

Virginia state Sen. Garland Gray, whose timber company owned Piney Grove, was no friend of endangered birds, deliberately cutting and otherwise altering their nesting areas to avoid restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.

Ironically, Gray’s company cut pines on a long-term rotation — every 70–90 years — unusual in an industry that typically harvested trees at much earlier ages. So, when The Nature Conservancy acquired Piney Grove in the late 1990s, it was already potential RCW habitat.
Birds had to be trapped and transferred from North Carolina to jump-start breeding in the preserve. We hear proof today that it has worked: the woodpecker’s nasal, raspy calls and probing the bark platelets of pines for insects.

Sheets of whitish sap girdling some trees make it easy to spot nesting cavities. The woodpecker spends a good deal of its day chipping sapwood around its nest to encourage a flow of sticky resin that discourages snakes and other predators from entering.

Piney Grove, Watts and Clontz said, is nearly at “saturation,” with 13 nesting red-cockaded woodpecker pairs and 70 birds total. The additional birds are integral to the RCW’s unusual, cooperative nesting. They act as “helpers” by helping to feed the nesting pairs’ young. A nesting “cluster” can require up to 400 acres of territory, Clontz said.

Setting the woods on fire is one of Clontz’s most important duties. He’s burned as much as three square miles at a time. Fire is key to pine savannahs, keeping the understory open and free of hardwoods, which discourages predators and creates the habitat that the woodpecker needs.

Expansion plans, using adjoining state forests and pending private land deals by The Nature Conservancy, could soon enlarge the bird’s habitat here to as much as 30,000 acres.

This is critical, Watts said, because all of the other RCW restoration sites in this northernmost part of the bird’s range (North Carolina and Virginia) may vanish because of accelerating sea level rise in the next century. An attempt to get the woodpeckers nesting in the nearby Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has not yet worked.

What’s good for the woodpecker also lends needed help to other species, like the brown-headed nuthatch, chuck-will’s-widow, bobwhite quail, coastal fox squirrel and Bachman’s sparrow. All but the sparrow are thriving at Piney Grove, and Watts wants to introduce that bird here as well. Nontidal wetlands throughout Piney Grove form a rich habitat for state-threatened fish and salamanders. Clontz is re-introducing longleaf pines, too. Longer lived than loblollies, they form the primary red-cockaded woodpecker habitat throughout most of its range and once covered an estimated one million acres in Virginia.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is up to 6,000 nesting clusters throughout its range, extending through coastal plain pines all the way to Texas. The core of its comeback involved U.S. military bases like Fort Bragg and Eglin Air Force Base. Their training missions required preserving large blocks of old forest, which military exercises frequently set afire—a perfect prescription for the bird, Clontz said.

The little bird has driven big changes. Research on its habitat needs by Watts’ center has changed forest management across millions of acres, far beyond Virginia.

And the military, in part from concerns it that would become the last refuge for the woodpecker, created a multi-billion-dollar program to protect natural lands outside of bases for a variety of purposes, a program that now extends throughout the Chesapeake watershed.

Tending to the woodpeckers’ survival, as with so many endangered species recovery efforts, brings science and conservation to bear on restoring whole ecosystems.

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. 

Nutrient Reductions Credited for Remarkable Resurgence in Bay’s Underwater Grasses

Nutrient reductions over the last 30 years are the primary factor behind the resurgence of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake — something that scientists cite in a new study as tangible evidence that efforts to improve Bay water quality are paying off.

Seagrass beds are in decline globally, but the Chesapeake Bay is one of the few places — and the largest example — where that trend has been successfully reversed, according to an article published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s good news for the Bay, as underwater grasses provide important habitat for fish, crabs and waterfowl. The scientists who led the study also said that the recovery likely foreshadows a broader comeback in the estuary’s health.

“We are thinking of the resurgence of the grasses as being the harbinger of things to come,” said Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a co-author of the study. “We are using them now as an early signal for the restoration of the Bay.”

The study, built upon an analysis of a wide variety of data collected over three decades, found that a 23 percent decline in nitrogen concentrations in the Bay and an 8 percent decline in phosphorus were the primary factors behind a nearly threefold increase in underwater grasses since 1984.

Like all plants, underwater grasses require sunlight to survive, and scientists have long known that algae blooms and sediment in the water can block light from reaching plants, causing them to die.

But the study found that nutrients play a “dominant role” in causing the loss of grass beds because they not only spur algae blooms, but also promote algae growth directly on the plants. That “epiphytic” growth, the study found, was three times more harmful to plants than the indirect effects of phytoplankton blooms in the water column.

“We show that nutrients are actually the primary control over these underwater grasses,” said Jonathan Lefcheck, the lead author of the report, who conducted this work while a post-doctoral student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He now works at the Bigelow Institute of Marine Science in Maine.

The amount of underwater grasses still fluctuates from year to year, in large part because of weather — rainy years drive more water-fouling nutrients into the water than do dry ones. Nonetheless, while the amount of grasses has varied, their overall acreage has increased over time, from a low of 38,229 acres in 1984 to a high of 97,400 acres mapped in 2016.

“Beyond the noise of inter-annual variability, we’ve got the right trajectory, and we can link it to specifically the nutrient reductions,” Dennison said.

While nutrients are the driving force, other factors still play a role. Areas with several underwater grass species do better over time than those with a single species, the study found. The importance of diversity may explain, in part, why grass bed recovery in high-salinity areas, which has always been dominated by a single species — eelgrass — has been less robust than in other parts of the Bay.

It also offers a clue as to how to maintain comebacks in mid-salinity parts of the Bay, where widgeon grass dominates but its abundance often fluctuates greatly from year to year. The researchers said that Bay restoration efforts — which now focus only on water quality — should put more focus on restoring a mix of species in mid-salinity areas.

“When we look at those beds historically, we know diversity was important,” said Bob Orth, also of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who co-authored the study and has overseen the Bay’s annual underwater grass survey since its inception. “When you add one species, it has a significant effect on the stability of the meadow.”

The study has 14 co-authors representing universities and agencies from around the Bay region and the country. This team met five times over the course of two years in Annapolis, digging deep into the data. They compiled extensive datasets about land use, manure and fertilizer applications, wastewater treatment plant discharges and water quality, as well as the abundance, diversity and density of grass beds.

Using sophisticated new analytical techniques unavailable just a few years ago to analyze that data, the scientists were able to draw conclusions that sometimes challenged their assumptions about factors affecting the grasses.

For instance, while wastewater treatment may be locally critical for grass beds, actions on the landscape — such as changes in land use or fertilizer applications on farms — were more important to larger trends in grass bed acreage.

Similarly, while sediment in the water column may be locally important, it was a less important factor than nutrients in Baywide underwater grass abundance.

“With this multi-author, multi-partner synthesis type of science, you can bring in different types of expertise,” said Jennifer Keisman, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author of the study. “It is really important.”

Further analyzing that data, the authors said, could provide new insights for managers and promote an additional comeback of grass beds. “This is not the end, but the end of the beginning for all of this work,” Orth said.

The Chesapeake is still far short of the goal to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses, but it is doing better than any other place on the planet, the article said.

Seagrasses have declined globally by 29 percent, largely because of nutrient and sediment runoff. While they have come back in places such as Tampa Bay and the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands, researchers found that the Chesapeake has seen a “greater total and proportional recovery.”

A continued comeback would be good news for the Bay. Grass beds are a critical component of its ecosystem. They pump oxygen into the water, trap sediments, buffer shorelines from wave action, provide food for waterfowl and shelter for fish and blue crabs.

That trajectory is likely to continue, at least for now. Orth said a preliminary review of data from last year suggests that the Bay’s underwater grasses will likely set yet another record.

By Karl Blankenship

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.

Op-Ed: Some Things We Know by William C. Baker

By William C. Baker, for the Bay Journal News Service

In case anyone is asking: Warmer temperatures do hurt the Chesapeake Bay, in many ways.

In a February interview on a Las Vegas television station, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggested a warming climate might actually be a good thing. “We know that humans have flourished during times of warming trends. So, I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal temperature should be during the year 2100, or the year 2018?” he asked.

Here in the Chesapeake, there is overwhelming documentation of the damage that climate change will wreak on this national treasure. And it’s not just about the future. The inconvenient truth is that we’re already witnessing the damaging effects of climate change.

Based on long-term records from the piers at the Chesapeake’s two historic marine laboratories — dating back to 1938 at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomon’s Island, MD, and to 1948 at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point — the Bay is getting warmer.

Warmer water has less capacity to hold dissolved oxygen, and dissolved oxygen is critical for life in the Bay, its rivers and its streams. Higher temperatures exacerbate the Chesapeake’s dead zones, expanding both the size and the duration of oxygen-deprived areas in the Bay.

Scientific models agree that storms will become more intense in the future. Storm intensity and increased rainfall will adversely affect the Bay’s ecological health. Increased scouring and runoff from more intense rain events, regardless of the season, carries significantly more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to local rivers, streams and eventually, the Bay.

Increases in water temperature are known to affect the distribution and health of aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake. For instance, species that are already stressed by high summer temperatures — such as the eelgrass, which provides important fish and crab habitats in the Lower Bay — may be greatly reduced or eliminated. Goodbye grasses. Goodbye crabs. Simply put, grasses equal crabs.

Warming waters caused by climate change also directly affect the distribution and range of animal species along the mid-Atlantic coast. Species at the southern end of their range, like soft-shell clams, are already retreating northward up the Atlantic Coast toward colder waters.

Atlantic menhaden, a critical forage fish in the Bay food web, haven’t produced strong year classes in the Bay in 20 years, possibly because climate-related shifts in ocean currents interfere with or interrupt their life cycles. The lack of strong menhaden reproduction in turn affects rockfish, which turn to blue crabs as a primary food source. That has negative nutritional consequences for the rockfish and obvious negative consequences for crabs.

And those same crabs may be facing new predators such as red drum, which have expanded their range northward into the Chesapeake.

There is no serious debate over the impact of climate change on the Bay. Climate change, and an EPA administrator continuing to ignore the science, are making all of our efforts to restore this national treasure much harder.

William C. Baker is president and CEO of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Washington College Students work with Eastern Shore Towns to Identify Energy Savings

Higher education can have real world greening impacts. Case in point: The Shore Power Project, launched several years ago at Washington College, has helped local governments on Maryland’s Eastern Shore find ways to reduce energy costs while also shrinking their carbon footprint.

For students and staff at the private liberal arts college in Chestertown, the project offered a chance to help Shore communities address climate change by adapting to the shifting energy landscape.

“The energy sector is an important force for change for the future,” explained Mike Hardesty, the associate director for the college’s Center for Environment and Society. “We’ve always wanted to get involved to assist the community to become more energy efficient.”

With funding from the Town Creek Foundation, the project’s student interns and staff pored over power bills and recommended cost-saving alternatives to nine Shore towns, two school districts and one county.

Grant Samms, an environmental sociologist who oversees the student interns’ work, said they contacted local government offices around the Shore to connect with town managers, public works directors or other staffers who dealt with energy. They initially pitched that they could identify opportunities for cost savings by analyzing where the locality’s energy dollars were going. But they also pointed out the environmental benefits, Samms noted, of reducing power consumption and switching to renewable energy.

“There’s a general assumption when it comes to rural communities, [that] they’re conservative and don’t care about climate change,” Samms said. “That may in part be true, but when you have a resource constraint, there’s always interest in saving money.”

The project started out working with Chestertown, home of the small liberal arts school. The municipality had already taken some steps to reduce energy costs, including the bidding out of electric supply contracts for all town meters and the installation of a 3-megawatt solar facility at its wastewater treatment plant.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said he’s constantly thinking about how to save money. The Shore Power project’s initial contribution to the town in that regard was more conceptual than detailed practical advice, he said.

“What they do is they may create a climate where you may want to think more about what you’re doing,” Ingersoll said. As a follow-up to the project’s initial study, he has since asked it to examine what the town’s paying for electricity generated by the solar facility, to see if the savings promised by the provider have panned out.

In Easton, the Washington College group assisted the town in going forward with a plan to install new cost-saving LED streetlights.

“What was really helpful was having the Shore Power Project look at this and say, ‘If you did this, this could be your savings,’” said Kelly Simonsen, spokesperson for Easton Utilities. Within three years, with grants from the Maryland Energy Administration to help pay for the replacements, the new lights reduced the town’s electricity consumption by 30 percent, Simonsen said.

That LED streetlight replacement, which is continuing, has contributed to the town’s successful bid to become a Maryland Sustainable Certified community, she said.

“We needed someone to kind of look at our overall energy usage and things we could change and implement, so we could get that credential,” Simonsen explained. “[The certification] puts Easton in a place on the map to show we’re forward thinking and we’re doing things for our community to be more sustainable and (to) consider our environmental impact.”

The college has offered internships to seven students over the project’s five-semester lifespan, according to Hardesty. Three students have stuck with it and done repeat stints. And for at least one, it’s opened up a career path.

Tori Alpaugh said that working on energy usage data for the Shore communities while an undergraduate at Washington College piqued her interest. So, when the New Jersey native graduated in May 2016, she started looking for energy-related jobs.

Her search led to AWS Truepower, a renewable energy services provider based in Albany, NY, where she pitched her Shore Power experience.

“That was the No. 1 thing on my resume,” she said, “and the No. 1 thing we talked about on my interview.” Hired in August, she’s now a project coordinator, working with meteorologists, engineers and GIS specialists on large-scale renewable energy projects.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s the reason I got my job here,” Alpaugh said of the Shore Power project.

The foundation’s funding for the project ended last year; now, the college aims to continue the project as a fee-for-service consulting business. Even though communities are almost certain to realize long-term savings from taking steps to conserve energy and build in climate resiliency, Samms acknowledged that the upfront costs pose a “perennial challenge” for small towns with competing short-term priorities.

“So,” he said, “we are putting forward a hybrid system that is partially underwritten by support from our center and continued support from foundations, as they are realized. This will save towns money and lower the impediment to energy conservation measures.”

The center also wants to address another, non-financial barrier. The recent flurry of solar energy arrays cropping up on farmland across the Shore has generated a backlash in affected communities. Samms said he hopes the project can conduct research and community outreach “to identify ways to truly lower the barriers to this type of development while ensuring it goes forward in a democratized manner.” The center hopes to get foundation support for that effort as well.

“We’ve proven it over and over again that there’s cost savings here,” Hardesty said. “Now that we’ve got a proven model in hand, we’re looking to expand on it.”

by Tim Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Bay Ecosystem: A Walk In The Woods With A Different Kind Of Forester by Tom Horton

It was a chill November morning, the rising sun sloshing light on the tree tops. Larry Walton and I were about half a mile into the woods that line the Nanticoke River near Vienna, MD, when he wrapped his arms around a great old Atlantic white cedar.

That tree species once shaded thousands of acres of Delmarva Peninsula swamps with its dense, evergreen canopies, until rampant logging and wetlands destruction made cedars relatively rare. Today, you seldom see specimens like this.

Larry Walton

I was about to kid my friend Larry, a career commercial forester, that he’d become a tree hugger as he approaches retirement at age 65. But he was just measuring the massive, columnar trunk to see how much wood the cedar’s added since he was here some years ago. “(I) used to be able to reach around it; not now,” Larry said.

But I also know he was happy to see that cedar thriving, standing tall, promising to thrill hikers here long after he and I are gone.

With Larry, it’s never been “hug or log” or “for us or against us.” Maybe that’s why his recent farewell party was a unique assemblage of the region’s logging community and a number of environmentalists. Only for Larry, I thought.

He could have cut that big cedar and others like it anytime during the years he managed around 60,000 acres of woodlands and wetlands around the Bay’s tidal rivers for Chesapeake Forest Products, a Virginia-based commercial timber corporation.

The company surely was not shy about clear-cutting or the almost complete leveling of the forests it owned hereabouts. That’s simply the most effective way to harvest the predominantly pine stands that are the mainstay of commercial timbering in this region.

Clear-cuts, to most non-timber people, are visually shocking, ugly. Far less apparent was what Larry and Chesapeake were electing not to cut, which included some beautiful forests and magnificent trees, including woods buffering tidal creeks and rivers like the Nanticoke and Pocomoke.

Where we were hiking could easily have been a giant sand and gravel pit, he said. Instead, it’s a fine tract of pine and hardwood, with patches of forested swamp, sloping down to the Nanticoke. It’s understory of wild rhododendron will bloom gorgeously in May and June. It features a nature trail now, open year-round to the public.

“A mining company approached us about selling this and forests up on the Marshyhope,” he said, referring to a tributary of the Nanticoke, where sturgeon are making a historic comeback. “We just didn’t like that kind of future for the land.”

Back in the early 1990s, stung by environmental criticism of his company, Larry and one of his woodland managers, the late Tom Tyler, began opening up to environmentalists, taking us through their operations. It gave us a lot to think about, and it began to build trust. More than anyone I knew on the logging side of things, Larry understood us greenies and respected where we were coming from, even if it wasn’t his view.

“A lighter shade of green,” is how he describes himself. Even as a New Jersey kid growing up in the shadow of New York and Newark, he loved wandering the phragmites-lined local brook, which wound through landfills and developments on its way to the Passaic River. Summers with family in the Maine woods probably steered him to Clemson University’s forestry school, he said.

Around 2000, as his timbering career flourished, something happened that would delight environmentalists but threaten to end life as Larry knew it. In a massive land deal, assembled in secrecy until it was done, all of the forests he managed for Chesapeake Forest Products were sold out from under him, to be added to Maryland’s public timberlands as the Chesapeake Forest.

“I was about as welcome as a pig at a Bar Mitzvah,” recalled Neil Sampson, a nationally known conservationist and forestry consultant who came to the Eastern Shore to handle the transition with Larry and his staff.

The giant Chesapeake acquisition, which added 58,000 acres, or 1 percent of the state’s area, to public lands, was intended by state officials to set the standard for sustainable, verifiable, long-term forest management.

Larry and his crew “made it happen,” Sampson said. Eventually he and Larry would form a new company, Vision Forestry, and take over management of the whole forest for several years.

Today, 17 years later, “it is a heck of a lot better forest . . . huge improvements,” Sampson said.
Larry plans to soon head back to the Clemson, SC, area for retirement. “[There are] opportunities in disagreement,” he said during our walk. “But it seems like it’s getting harder to disagree respectfully anymore.”

Years ago, Larry gave me a bumper sticker. “Trees Are the Answer,” it said. I told him I was always leery of simplistic solutions. But you know what? He was right.

Bottom line, there is no other land use better for the Chesapeake Bay and its flora and fauna. The worst clear-cut, if left to regrow, is still better for air and water quality than farming or suburban development, and it leaves your options open for an older, more diverse forest next time.

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