DORCHESTER COUNTY — Conservation efforts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) are very different than those at other protected wildlife areas across the country. Since the 1930s, approximately 5,000 acres of tidal marsh have been lost due to sea level rise, subsidence, erosion and impacts from invasive species. In a landscape that continues to change, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) must strategically conserve land most suitable for the relocation of important habitats in order to maintain water quality and sustain the array of wildlife that pass through and call the refuge home.
As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski fought to secure $1 million in funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) so that The Conservation Fund, in partnership with the USFWS and the Chesapeake Conservancy, was able to complete a multiple-year effort to acquire two high priority freshwater forest properties for Blackwater NWR. This latest achievement builds upon U.S. Senator Ben Cardin’s and U.S. Representative Andy Harris’s, along with Senator Mikulski’s, leadership to establish the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in December 2014. This historic Chesapeake landscape has been further protected by the 2013 creation of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which incorporates the Refuge.
“The Blackwater Refuge is one of the Eastern Shore’s unique treasures,” Senator Mikulski said. “I am proud to have provided this federal funding to protect Blackwater and its ecosystem for future generations. This investment also benefits the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park and critical tourism jobs in Dorchester County. Marylanders tell me they just love Blackwater for all of these reasons. So do I.”
“Blackwater NWR is one of Maryland’s priceless natural treasures; it is central to who we are as Marylanders. Protecting the land encompassed by the Blackwater is in our shared interest,” said Senator Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Economically, the Refuge supports well-paying jobs on the Eastern Shore and mitigates the damage caused by storm surge. Environmentally, Blackwater serves as a home to many species that are critically important to our regional ecosystem and has the distinction of being home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast. Harriet Tubman, one of Maryland’s greatest heroines, was born into slavery, worked as a slave, escaped from slavery and returned to guide freedom seekers out of slavery in the areas in and around what is today the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. She used her knowledge of the land to help slaves escape to freedom. Today’s announcement is good news for all Marylanders because we all have a stake in the future of the Blackwater NWR.”
“Hunting and fishing are ways of life throughout Maryland, and the conservation efforts at the beautiful and unique Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are important to both the local communities and the entire Eastern Shore in ensuring the area remains a sanctuary for wildlife for years to come,” said Congressman Andy Harris (MD-01).
In addition to LWCF, funding from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund also helped acquire the two tracts, totaling 508 acres, which will be managed for future wetland habitat migration and adaption to help sustain the region’s ecological diversity and maintain the important habitat used by song, marsh, forest-dwelling and water birds along the critical migration highway called the Atlantic Flyway.
“Preparing for climate change is a conservation priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, we face this challenge by investing in public lands to prepare for the future,” said Wendi Weber, northeast regional director for the agency. “The addition of these two properties to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge will provide a stronger, more resilient coast for both people and wildlife.”
The 355-acre Holt property makes up a large part of the Kentuck Swamp near Cambridge, one of the largest forest blocks in Dorchester County. The protection of forest resources in the Kentuck Swamp contributes significantly to maintaining water quality in the Little Blackwater and Blackwater river systems. The 153-acre Besley and Rodgers property, locally known as Mary’s Fortune, is located between Smithville and Whitemarsh Roads near Madison, and has been a long standing priority for incorporation into the NWR. Both lands provide key habitat for the Delmarva peninsula fox squirrel and numerous forest interior dwelling songbirds, including ovenbird, wood thrush and brown-headed nuthatch.
For more than a decade, The Conservation Fund and the USFWS have worked together on conservation, restoration and adaption strategies at Blackwater NWR. To date, the partners have added more than 8,000 acres at the refuge, including lands that complement the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. The Fund has also helped restore 40 acres of high-priority land by planting 10,000 trees at the refuge’s Longfield area. Together with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and many other agencies and individual experts, we have outlined key strategies for slowing the rate of habitat loss to sea level rise and improving the health of Dorchester’s tidal marshes for the benefit of people and the wildlife that depend on theses ecosystems for their survival.
“This conservation effort demonstrates our continued, long-term commitment to preserving not only the natural legacy but also the cultural heritage of the Eastern Shore,” said Bill Crouch, Maryland director of The Conservation Fund. “We’d like to thank U.S. Senators Mikulski and Cardin and U.S. Representative Harris for their continued support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is critical to ensuring that Blackwater NWR and other natural lands in Maryland remain viable wildlife havens into the future. We also appreciate Senator Mikulski’s leadership on the Appropriations Committee and Senator Cardin’s leadership on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which prioritize the conservation of our beloved public lands and natural treasures.”
The Chesapeake Conservancy is a catalyst for landscape scale conservation in the Chesapeake region and is an advocate for the National Wildlife Refuges. “We worked alongside elected officials, federal and state agencies, non-profit organizations, and American Indian tribes and Nations, to garner support for the funding appropriated by Congress for these projects,” said President & CEO Joel Dunn, Chesapeake Conservancy. “We appreciate the leadership of Senator Mikulski, Senator Cardin and Congressman Andy Harris and the hard work of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and The Conservation Fund to save this magical place for future generations to enjoy.”
As one of Dorchester County’s outdoor tourist destinations — which together support over 600 jobs and approximately $6 million in state and local tax revenues — Blackwater NWR also offers a variety of recreational activities, including land and paddling trails, educational programs and hunting, fishing and crabbing opportunities.
Members of the Maryland U.S. Congressional delegation representing the Blackwater NWR, including U.S. Senators Mikulski and Cardin and U.S. Representative Harris, have supported federal appropriations for LWCF, which enables the USFWS and other federal and state agencies to secure important properties like these.
LWCF is a bipartisan, federal program that uses a percentage of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties — not taxpayer dollars — to acquire critical lands and protect our country’s best natural resources. In this 50th year of the LWCF, President Obama has called for full, permanent funding in his proposed budget, recognizing that LWCF is one of the nation’s most effective tools for conserving natural landscapes for public outdoor recreation use and enjoyment across the country; preserving and protecting rivers, lakes and other water resources; and expanding the interpretation of historic and cultural sites. LWCF is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2015 — after 50 years of success — unless Congress takes action.