September 16, 2008

Rowing to Save a Shoreline

By Bystrom, Andy

The wooden oars sliced through the Rappahannock's smooth surface as we traveled, dripping sweat, at the slowest of clips past unbroken stretches of wooded shoreline. Shades of green emerged from the haze as we drew near. With no breeze to set the sails to, we faced a long, slow journey. I was among 12 men and women who set out from Jamestown, Virginia, in spring 2007 in a 28-foot open boat on a 120-day, 1,500-mile expedition along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail on the Chesapeake Bay. Called the John Smith 400 Project, its goal was to raise public interest in the health and overall protection of the Bay and its watershed by rowing and sailing a replica of a 17th century workboat, or shallop. Our shallop's route: the same one used by Smith and 13 others in exploring the Chesapeake for England in 1608.

The journey, brought to life by Sultana Projects, an educational nonprofit in Chestertown, Maryland, may have seemed the stuff of duct tape and publicity stunts, but it wasn't. It was a serious attempt to get residents to understand the critical role their watershed plays in both the Bay's water quality and their own well being. It took three years to build the boat, find the crew, and iron out 400-year-old logistics, involving along the way such notables as the National Park Service, National Geographic, and The Conservation Fund.

During the four-month voyage, we spoke to tens of thousands of people about the importance of environmental stewardship. "Our biggest thing was involvement and bringing people out into places that they thought were urban and environmentally destroyed-which they're not," says Ian Bystrom, the expedition's captain, veteran Sultana educator, and my brother. "It's about looking at your backyard and seeing it in a whole new way."

A DIFFERENT TIME

When John Smith and his men maneuvered their shallop through these waters, the Chesapeake's forests were working at maximum capacity to drain and filter nearly every drop of precipitation that fell within the bay's 64,000-square-mile expanse. The explorers systematically searched these forests and rivers for the fabled North-West Passage to China, precious metals, and a better understanding of the Native Americans who inhabited the Chesapeake for many generations prior to the Europeans' arrival. And while they returned to Jamestown empty-handed, Smith's writings give us an unprecedented account of water quality, flora and fauna, and native cultures when nearly all the watershed was covered with trees.

Today, that watershed stretches from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, runs west into West Virginia, splays out over most of Maryland, covers all of Washington, DC, and parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware. It rises out of loblolly pine forests along the coastal planes of the Delmarva peninsula and bursts into maple-beech-birch, maple-ash, and oak- hickory forests as it strains upward across the Piedmont and into the Blue Ridge Mountains. And all that water makes its way by river into one of North America's most productive estuaries-a shallow, 200- mile-long drainage basin called the Chesapeake Bay.

We spent an entire month on the Potomac River, just as Captain Smith did, traveling from the Bay's heart to Washington, DC, and back. Along this 100-mile stretch of water, we camped at several natural areas that were home to bald eagles. We watched nesting osprey tear into white perch clutched between their talons and feed shreds of meat to their chicks. And we drifted by sewage treatment plants and sailed under bridges, observing how the two extremes struggle to coexist as neighbors. The contrast between green shorelines and exploding development served as a constant reminder of how much the watershed is changing.

Riparian forest buffers along the banks of the Chesapeake and its tributaries, the very same ones that protected and supported the English settlers at Jamestown, function as habitats, pollution filters, and focal points of natural beauty. These forested shorelines provide the building blocks to improve water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, air quality, and recreational and economic opportunities. Apart from their natural beauty, they create a water filtration zone between agricultural and urban areas.

Once these buffers thrived alongside almost every percolating stream, cascading waterfall, and stalwart tribs such as the James and Patuxant rivers. They covered more than 95 percent of the watershed's 100,000 miles of river and stream shorelines, an area equivalent to four times around the world. But the great, green filter that functioned at capacity in Smith's day is being destroyed.

The Conservation Fund's State of the Chesapeake Forests Executive Summary warns, "Forests and their stewardship are not only integral to improving the health of the Bay-they are also critical to every Bay resident." Riparian zones today cover just 60 percent of those same shorelines, and The Conservation Fund estimates that 31 percent of those are at risk of development. And yet it's vitally important that people understand how trees correlate to their own health-75 percent of the watershed's residents rely on drinking water whose quality is directly affected by these forested shorelines' diminished filtering capacity.

The watershed hasn't moved since Smith's time, but individual states have grown up within it, and today different ideas and politics clash over its management. "It's particularly difficult to get everyone at the table, all six states, to agree on a conservation plan-like getting along at the Thanksgiving dinner table," says David Burk, president of Burk Environmental Associates.

Audacious interstate conservation plans are difficult to implement in the watershed. Realistic conservation views focus on protecting smaller portions of remaining forests at risk to private development projects. These areas include heavily visited places.

"The beauty of the trail has a lot to do with view sheds that are relatively unchanged. Maintaining those is a plus for everyone and aesthetically valid," says Burk. Saving these viewsheds has taken place on the Potomac at Mount Vernon, only a few miles outside of Washington, DC. Touriste from around the world enjoy vistas of solid forested shorelines in both directions from George Washington's back porch.

Getting people outside and onto the waterways is one way to promote the benefits of shoreline buffers and soft shorelines. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a positive outdoor experience can be life changing.

HISTORIC TRAIL

The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is a winding 3,000-mile route that retraces John Smith's 1608 explorations around the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries. It represents a new path for conservation and a rekindled excitement for the history of the Chesapeake, combining recreational opportunities with watershed stewardship and education.

"The vision ought to include more people out on the trail-the more they're out, the more they will value what they're experiencing," says water trail superintendent John Maounis.

The trail seeks middle ground, a place where reforestation, ecotourism, and sustainable development can work together to provide economic benefits to individuals from all walks of life. If done properly, visitors will come away with a better sense of the deep history that permeates the Bay.

This summer the water trail is carving out a more defined appearance through infrastructure studies, better defined trail access points, and educational centers. There is still a lot to iron out, but the endless possibilities have entire waterfront towns buzzing with trail talk. One example is the small town of Vienna, which sits on the Nanticoke River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Little noticed by throngs of beachgoers as they whiz by on Route 50 on their way to the ocean. Vienna hopes to capture the hearts of trail goers by offering up its history and beautiful soft shorelines to tourists.

So we rowed, and rowed, and rowed down the trail. When the wind graced us with her presence, we sailed. In the northern part of the Bay, at the mouth of the Susquehannah River, more than 100 kayakers joined us for the stretch from Port Deposit, Maryland, to Perryville, Maryland. It was a testament to the bay's appeal.

It was but one example of the numerous fans we encountered over the summer, many meeting up with us at multiple stops along the route. In Onancock, Virginia, during the expedition's first week, a group of trail goers all bet we wouldn't finish the journey. Three months and 1,000 miles later, while crossing the Bay on our way to Baltimore, Maryland, our doubters from Onancock appeared to cheer us on. On the Potomac, a family in kayaks paddled out with banana bread and raspberries. In the middle of the Bay, a thousand-foot container ship altered course in the shipping lane to get a better look at us as its crew, 100 feet above us, leaned over the rails and waved.

Officials hope that with people's love for the bay-and their increasing sense of stewardship-will come an allegiance to a growing forest management campaign. "Forests have to be actively managed to stay healthy," says Craig Highfield, a small-scale forest manager at Forestry for the Bay in Annapolis, Maryland. "If you let the forest go, there are so many invasives that will change the characteristics of your forest forever." Working with private owners of smallto medium-sized land holdings-typically 5 to 20 acres-Highfield helps those who've committed to the stewardship of their watershed take the next step: protecting their woodlands in perpetuity through conservation easements. The challenge is not finding a program to facilitate an easement-there are both state and national programs, as well as local land trusts for smaller rivers and streams. The real difficulty comes in convincing people of the critical need to conserve their property in the first place.

That was one challenge of the shallop's crew as we pressed on through summer storms, heat, and the tedium that sometimes prevails when 12 people share a living space smaller than most people's living rooms. But we found that the idea of recreating an historical voyage together with the water trail to be a cutting-edge way to educate people about the importance of this land and these forests.

PROTECTIONS IN PLACE

And we were gratified to see what steps have been taken so far to protect the Chesapeake's critical shorelines. While traveling through the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge in Warsaw, Virginia, despite experiencing the most intense heat and storms the Chesapeake Bay summer could throw at us, we were mesmerized by what environmental nonprofits have accomplished. The Conservation Fund, along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and many others, has protected a 460-acre addition to the refuge that offers trail goers an incredible sense of solitude and peace.

On September 8 at Jamestown we stepped back onto the same slick riverbank we pushed away from four months earlier. We watched with mixed emotions as the shallop was hauled out of the water, thus putting an end to the strain, the beautiful sunrises, and the companionship the 12 of us experienced. In a marina parking lot, as the summer's buildup of mud and algae dripped off the boat's wooden planks, the voyage's finality set in. It was apparent that the real work to improve the state of the Chesapeake had only begun.

Thanks to the public's continued support, the shallop continues to travel the Bay. It's driven rather than rowed to different ports of call now, but the message of conservation and stewardship are the same, hi addition to the shallop's ongoing tour, Sultana Projects is sharing the exploratory experience with thousands around the watershed through its John Smith Trail Expeditions program, through which explorers of any age can participate in paddling, water quality sampling, and shoreline exploration. The expedition was not a panacea for the uphill battle to "Save the Bay." However, thanks to persistence, hard work, and focused conservations efforts, forest conservation is gaining ground in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Last summer's expedition was an unforgettable experience. And through increasing efforts from individuals, local and national organizations, and entire towns, the voyage's message continues to grow. Each one of us believed that if given a really good reason, people would begin to listen and in doing so a sense of caring and stewardship would evolve.

Our voyage, I think, was a good effort to interest people with varied interests m improving the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As Capt. Ian put it, "Deep down, people don't want to lose this, even if they don't know it." From what we've seen, people are beginning to know it.

120 days, 1,500 miles, and 12 men and women in an open boat.

Could they raise awareness of the fragile health of and urgent attention needed for the Chesapeake Bay?

-by Andy Bystrom

A 'native' greets the crew as the shallop reaches shore at Maryland's Jefferson Patterson Park. At right, looking toward George Washington's Mt. Vernon on the Potomac, one of the viewsheds that have remained essentially unchanged.

Inset below: Rowing into Fredericksburg, Virginia. Saving forested view sheds has taken place on the Potomac at George Washington's Mt. Vernon home in Virginia.

The crew talks with visitors to its exhibit in Tappahannock, Virginia. During the four-month journey, the crew spoke with tens of thousands about the need for environmental protection for the Bay.

At top: The shallop built by the John Smith 400 Project. Above: Crew members teach children to dip a seine net at Tappahannock, Virginia.

Andy Bystrom works for PRETOMA, a sustainable fishing nonprofit in Costa Rica and is getting his master's degree in natural resource management. Not a day goes by that he doesn't relive, in some way, last summer's expedition.

Copyright American Forests Summer 2008

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