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The Marsh of Progress

At Fort McHenry, Enterprising Environmentalists Restore Wetlands One Plant, One Bird, One Acre at a Time

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
A captured bird's wings, beak, tail, and weight statistics are carefully measured for the Patuxent Fish and Wildlife Survey.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jim Peters of the Baltimore Bird Club points out waterfowl habitats in the marsh from a small pier at the water's edge.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Barbara Ross and Jim Peters tag a Traill's Flycatcher found at the reclaimed Fort McHenry marsh.

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/29/2001

It's slow time at the Fort McHenry Wetland Restoration and Field Station, and Jim Peters, the birdman of the fort, is almost apologetic. He has been counting bird species since early morning and is up to 29 for today, Aug. 22. It's a hot midday, the breeding season is over, the ducks are off in the reeds somewhere molting. The avian life is hunkered down and resting.

So in the past two hours, strolling up and down the nature trail overlooking the marsh, all we've seen are the following: a great crested flycatcher, a smattering of mockingbirds, a family of Carolina wrens flitting around in a shady spot. One belted kingfisher, blue and white, hovering above the water. A handful of barn swallows veering this way and that, hunting insects. A pair of young mallard ducks, riding the surface of the water; a herring gull, ditto. Two great black-backed gulls, juveniles. Two house sparrows, a mourning dove, a spotted sandpiper, more gulls, more mockingbirds. A double-crested cormorant. Two ospreys. And now, flitting across the trail, a goldfinch. "That's number 30 for today," Peters says.

Peters, 71, is a retired Baltimore County science teacher and a lifelong bird-watcher. For two years, since Aug. 16, 1999, he has been coming to this 10-acre patch of land, tucked along the seawall in the southwestern armpit of Fort McHenry, to tally the birds and tend the site as a volunteer. He marks off the birds on a pocket checklist and passes the information along to the National Aquarium, which administers the field station in partnership with the National Park Service. The land is closed to the general public, but some evenings Peters leads bird-watching expeditions here.

In the shade of a black locust tree, we settle down to contemplate nature. Peters sits on a bench and offers a seat on a white plastic lawn chair. "This was floating in the cove," he says. Below us, a placid open channel cuts through the marsh grass. Giant ships ply the Patapsco River beyond. The Key Bridge is a flat blue tracing in the distance, the tiny lumps of tractor-trailers crossing the span. A sparrow pops out of a clump of weeds up the trail. Close behind us, through a chain-link fence, come the continual sounds of the South Locust Point Marine Terminal repair yard: screeching metal, pounding, the chugging of heavy motors. A dragonfly buzzes by, indifferent.

In the beginning, there was the Fort McHenry Tunnel. Actually, there were any number of beginnings before that: There was the beginning when Capt. John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay in 1607, through crystalline waters reefed with oysters, with aquatic grasses rippling on the bottom. Huge crabs were everywhere, and mighty schools of fish. "The most delightful water I ever saw," Father Andrew White famously wrote, as he arrived on the Ark with the first English colonists 27 years later.

And then came the beginnings of plowing and paving, filling and building, silting and dredging, as civilization spread itself across the Chesapeake region. The marshes were drained and built upon--to control disease, to fight mosquitoes, and because that's what civilization does. The dried-out land no longer filtered the water. The oysters, scraped up and eaten en masse, no longer filtered the water either. The water, clouded, grew desolate; the undersea meadows died off. The fish that sheltered in the meadows dwindled, and so on, up the food chain.

Marylanders were not expelled from Eden. We moved into Eden, and it collapsed around us. Gradually, plagued by murky water and the high price of oysters, we developed a sense of guilt and loss about this. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation gives the loss a numeric value: The glittering bay of John Smith, teeming with life, scores a retroactive 100. The bay of 2000, holding steady from 1999, earned a 28.

And so, in the late '60s, with the nation as a whole starting to worry about environmental loss, a new principle worked its way into law: If something gets destroyed, it needs to be replaced. If you turn marshland into dry land, you have to turn some dry land into marshland. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 laid out the first set of rules, which were refined by the Clean Water Act in 1972. Almost a decade of amendments and regulations later, the job of deciding how to make up for damage to wetlands and waters was assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in tandem with the individual states. This new system went into effect at the turn of the '80s.

Which was, coincidentally, just when the Maryland Transportation Authority was getting to work on the Fort McHenry Tunnel. The $750 million tunnel-digging itself was not much of an environmental issue. But the state wanted to dump the spoils from the tunnel excavation into the open water off Point Breeze, to create dry land for the Seagirt Marine Terminal. More than 40 acres of open water would be destroyed.

Under the new rules, civilization had to give something back to nature. The Corps figured that a 10-acre wetland would about do it, fair-exchange-wise-- for "that open water," says Tom Filip, a Corps project manager at the time. "It was not the most pristine of places."

That settled, civilization got back to work at what it does best: scooping out the tunnel bed, laying the tubes, filling in the Seagirt site. The tunnel opened in 1985; Interstate 95 ran uninterrupted through Maryland at last, and with no bridge to block the view from the National Monument and Historic Shrine.

Once the cars were finally moving, nature got its share: 10 moist, partially filled acres, just past the point where the west end of the tunnel entered the ground. The state put up an earthen dike at the inland end, and put metal bulkheads and long piles of stone riprap around the water's edge to hold the rest in place. Three pipes went in to allow the tide to flow in and out. Native grasses were planted. Pleased with its creation, civilization dusted off its hands and went away.

"It was kind of like walking on a landfill," says Glenn Page, the National Aquarium's director of conservation, recalling visits to the marsh in the late '90s. The site, left alone for a decade, had shown a remarkable gift for attracting trash. Waters from the Patapsco, the Jones Falls, and the Gwynns Falls all swirl around Locust Point, carrying refuse washed from most of the city. Something about the marsh's location seems to encourage the floating junk to fall out on the beach and the riprap. For fort staff and tourists, the untended marsh was an eyesore.

It wasn't much good for wildlife either. There was, Page says, "no real bird habitat per se." The native grasses had been choked out by thick growth of Phragmites australis, a common reed of a Eurasian origin that most American marsh birds disdain. "Our friend, Mr. Phrag," Page says dryly.

P. australis is a tall, dark grass, fast-spreading and implacable, that can grow nine or 10 feet high. Its seed tops are the least sumptuous shade of purple possible. To a wetland ecologist in these parts, it is more depressing than a parking lot. The parking lot, abandoned, will eventually crack and yield to nature. Phragmites is nature, shaken up and turned mean. Like the starling, measles, and the Norway rat, they followed Europeans west into the underbelly of the New World, under the law of unintended consequences.

The first phragmites, Peters says, probably came here as dried packing material around china or other breakables. The colonists threw the stuff away; the seeds took root. Now, getting rid of it is arduous work. You pull it out, you mow it repeatedly to weaken it, you spray it with herbicide. You do it all over again.

But it can be done. In 1997, with the help of the Park Service, the aquarium set about redeeming the redeemed marsh. The phragmites was cut back and steadily replaced with grasses from the native Spartina genus. Front-end loaders hauled away the trash, with the help of hundreds of volunteers. In 2000, they installed an automated station to monitor the weather and another to monitor the water quality in the Patapsco. When the trash kept coming, washing up after every thunderstorm, they instituted regular cleanups.

Through June, according to aquarium figures, 384 tons of garbage had been removed from the marsh, by more than 1,000 volunteers. Between the cleanup and the environmental monitoring, the aquarium has called on the efforts of groups ranging from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Transportation Authority to Morgan State University, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Hard Rock Café staff.

In 1999, when the aquarium wanted to start taking inventory of the bird life, it called the Baltimore Bird Club. The bird club, in turn, called Jim Peters.

Peters construes bird-watching more strenuously than some people do. "I said, 'How do you get to this habitat over here?'" he recounts, gesturing toward the far end of the dike. The aquarium folks suggested he try walking around on the riprap. When he got tired of walking on the loose, slippery rocks, he asked if he could cut a path along the dike. Permission granted, he and his wife took sickles and started clearing the weeds.

As he worked along the dike, he found that the path needed leveling. So he brought in a shovel and carved out flat ground--carrying the dirt ahead, in five-gallon bucket-loads, to build up the trail further along where the dike gave way to riprap. Eventually, he had a quarter-mile trail running the length of the property, from the fort grounds down to the river. He named it the Glenn Page Nature Trail and put up a sign.

The Glenn Page Nature Trail does a lot in its short length. There are scenic lookouts, with benches and identifying signs of their own--cross creek, walden pond--so Peters can tell other bird-counters where to go. All around the trail and in the marsh he has installed bird feeders and nest boxes. The weather station, with whirling anemometer and a blue solar panel, stands to one side of the trail. It used to be down in the marsh proper, Peters says, but "phragmites grew up and smothered it." Every 15 minutes, it beams its readings back to the aquarium; eventually, it and the water monitor will display their measurements online, in real time.

This past spring, Peters says, he hit up the aquarium to put in a round of native plants along the trail. There were 205 new plantings, with color-coded bamboo stakes showing what went where. Then the weather went hot and dry, and the fort's nearest water line broke. Most of the newcomers baked and failed; Peters hopes to do a smaller planting in the fall to start making up the loss.

At one stake, he locates and pokes ruefully at a shriveled bayberry, one or two slightly less shriveled leaves its only sign of life. All around the bayberry are chest-high spikes of mugwort, fragrant and green--another Eurasian invader.

Even with the phragmites beaten back and proper tan spartina filling the marsh, the site is lush with imported flora. Ailanthus, the Asian-originating urban junk tree, grows freely on the northeast slope of the dike. There's a golden rain tree and a golden chain tree. Down at the dike's foot, creamy white hibiscus flowers are in bloom, lush as a florist's merchandise. "Somehow, they escaped from somebody's garden," Peters says. At the far end of the trail, clematis drapes over the path, hundreds of pale buds emerging and breathing perfume; a paulownia sends up broad, floppy leaves by the fence. Imports all.

Many of the intruders have their merits. When the black willow trees drop their leaves, Peters says, sap oozes from the cuts, drawing flies and bees, which, in turn, draw warblers. He fingers the seed head on a pigweed plant. "There's a lot of things [birds] feed on here," he says, "that you wish weren't growing here."

As a boy, growing up in the D.C. area, Peters used to go birding with the late Roger Tory Peterson, author of the definitive A Field Guide to the Birds. He carries an old Peterson guide, clothbound, in a pouch on his hip. The legendary naturalist had a saying, Peters recalls: "You have to remember that we are all aliens in this country."

Natural purity is strictly an abstraction on the Glenn Page Nature Trail. Toward the far end, the path narrows, the chain-link fence bellying out over it. A wall of cargo containers rises right behind it, the edge of a lot full: triton, tiphook, xtra international. On sunny winter days, Peters says, in the lee of the containers, it can be balmy.

Next door to the container lot, a windowless brick building overlooks the marsh. It's the west ventilation building for the McHenry Tunnel. On the far side, out of view, interstate traffic is steadily going under the harbor. On the near side, by a scraggly evergreen, the wall is spattered with white--the old droppings of a great horned owl and a Cooper's hawk that used the perch to look for dinner.

Then there are the ospreys. Hoping to attract the big fish hawks, Peters put up a nesting platform out in the marsh. It went unused. This was not, he discovered, for lack of ospreys around the fort. It was because one pair was already nesting on a cargo-crane platform at the North Locust Point Marine Terminal, while another pair, across the water to the south, was up on a crane at Fairfield. The platform--low and uninspiring, compared to the towering crane superstructures--fell on the edge of the two territories.

In the interest of accuracy, and in defense of our swamp-draining forebears, it should be noted here that the Fort McHenry Wetland Restoration and Field Station does breed mosquitoes. There's no getting around it. The mosquitoes bite. But so far, Peters says, none of the birds have shown a sign of West Nile fever. And the mosquitoes, indisputable as they are, do at least seem to come one or two at a time, rather than in choking clouds. What come in choking clouds are the deer flies in June and July. Peters swears you can wait them out if you stay still. But when he has to mow the weeds in those months, he puts a coat over his head. When the flies hit the coat, it sounds like rain.

But nowadays, in the civilized world, we have Asian tiger mosquitoes, which don't even need marshes to breed. They can breed in a stray cup of rainwater. They hunt by day. They hit the ankles, repeatedly. We get the pests we deserve.

And nature has a right to its grudges. Some two-thirds of the way along, the trail dips down to the water's edge. This is Angie's Cove, which Peters named after Angie Lawrence, the aquarium's Chesapeake Bay program manager. Though Peters means it kindly, it's a questionable honor: Angie's Cove happens to be where the worst of the trash washes up.

The trash lies in deep drifts of plastic, interlaced with weathered branches. When you step on the driftwood, the whole mass shifts, suggesting hidden depths. It's diverse garbage. There are off-brand soft-drink bottles, with red or yellow liquid still in them. There are one-shot booze miniatures. There are wheels and tires. There's a peroxide bottle, a body-lotion bottle, a wiffle-ball bat, a mop handle, a slipper.

"We found a telephone," Lawrence says. "What's a telephone doing out there?"

Today there's also a milk crate, with a syringe lying on top of it. The volunteers who collect garbage wear Kevlar-palmed gloves and rake the piles apart to make sure there are no hidden needles.

Still, there are worse things than having trash in the marsh. "If it's not trapped in wetlands," Page says, "it's going out in the ocean." When that happens, he says, the aquarium staff ends up spotting terrestrial trash on an endoscope, inside some ailing creature that's been brought to the marine-mammal rescue unit.

On Sept. 29, another round of volunteers will descend on the wetland and haul out the trash. "It'll be pristine for a few days," Peters says, "till we get the next thunderstorm."

Those few days aside, what difference does the whole project make? We are now two decades into the age of wetland mitigation, of trying to make up for 300 or 400 years of insults to the environment. What difference does the McHenry marsh--less than one-4 millionth of the Chesapeake Bay watershed--really make to the long-suffering bay, much less to the whole injured web of nature?

Standing at the far end of the Glenn Page trail, on a little deck he built out onto the Patapsco, Peters recalls the destruction he's seen in his life: Ocean City, overrun by development and ruined for birds; big ranches in Colorado, where he likes to visit, chopped into tract housing. "I get discouraged sometimes," he says. "I almost feel like, what's the use? We've already done the damage. And it doesn't seem like we're ever going to change things around. Not in my lifetime."

But then he's talking about building a boardwalk into the remote sections of the marsh, so he can better monitor the birds that nest there, and about planting more trees to screen off the repair yard. Fish jump in the Patapsco. Barnacles are growing on the bulkhead, which is black steel, leafed with rust, with huge vertical corrugations. Right by the pier, in one of those corrugations, a big blue crab is bobbing under the surface, claws braced wide. It's clasping another crab beneath it, in what appears to be a mating clutch. A jellyfish floats by, trailed by a Doritos bag.

At the least, the marsh matters if you're in it. Muskrats live here, possums, rabbits. There's a fox, which leaves piles of feathers and the occasional duck wing for Peters to find; in the winter, he tracked it and discovered it was denning in the warm outflow pipe from the tunnel ventilation building. Deer have been seen on the fort grounds--Peters guesses they either swam the channel or came in along the freight rail lines.

"We've seen two species of underwater grasses which haven't been detected in the Patapsco in 20 years," Page says. The grasses are Potamogeton crispus and Ceratophyllum demersum, or curled pond weed and coontail. Nobody planted them; they just showed up.

Practically, there's only so much the site can do for the bay. "Have we improved the water quality of the Patapsco River?" Lawrence asks. "I don't think the data is there to back that." But the aquarium envisions the site, eventually, as a place to teach about ecology in the city. Schoolchildren may split their field trips between the history lesson at the fort and nature lessons on the marsh, reading the water quality and seeing the habitat. It will remind people, aquarium officials hope, of where their trash goes.

It's also a lesson in wetlands restoration, good and bad: With plantings alone costing as much as $300,000, benign neglect isn't enough. Maintenance has to be included. Water flow is tricky--the three original inlet pipes, Page says, still don't flush the marsh properly. "I think the value here is that this is a model," Peters says. "[We] will publish manuals that tell how we went about this."

Already, the aquarium is using the example of Fort McHenry to restore sites at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore and at Barren Island in the bay, where 100,000 plants were put in this summer. Page says the aquarium will add four to eight more sites and could have 50 acres' worth of wetlands under its care within three years.

Whatever its place in ecological history, the site seems to work from a bird's point of view. In two years, Peters has logged 170 species of birds around the marsh and fort. Peters expects the tally to reach at least 240 in the next three years.

Last year alone, he had more than 13,000 individual bird sightings. On the the built-up Eastern Seaboard, any break in the development is enough to draw down passing birds. "It does not have to be 5,000 acres of wildlife refuge," Peters says. If small places are all we have, nature will abound in small places.

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