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Bay Blog: community


Hunters, anglers, and water quality

Fisherman Greg Wilson, left, and hunter Vic Hurst, right, converse and stay hydrated while walking the Stroud Water Research Center grounds July 19, 2017.

As Matt Ehrhart of the Stroud Water Research Center explains the movements of macroinvertebrates in a forested freshwater stream, four feet away, Vic and Greg aren’t listening. Vic Hurst is a dairy owner, hunter and all-around sportsman. Greg Wilson is an avid fisherman, and they’re excitedly discussing the trout potential of the Pennsylvania creek by which they stand.

“The grass roots of a meadow grab more sediment and narrow the channel” by depositing eroded land, explains Wilson. Forests, on the other hand, help the channel widen, drop the water temperature and improve the clarity and quality of the stream. “He likes it because of the bugs,” Wilson gestures to Ehrhart, and flashes a good-natured smile as Matt tips his chin back in a friendly hello. “I like the diversity with all the deep pools.”

A forested area borders a meadow on the Stroud campus.  Research experiments are conducted as natives and invasives vie for growth on the extensive grounds.

Sportsmen and conservationists both have an interest in healthy, thriving habitats, but they rarely get the chance to meet together. They were able to do just that at a sportsmen’s listening session on July 19, held by the Chesapeake Bay Program and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania.

The morning began with this walk through the Stroud Center grounds, conversation morphing seamlessly from group discussion to breakout chats between two or three people. In the afternoon, all participants regrouped indoors, reviewing what came up over the walk and discussing how they could work better together in the future.

“I’ve hunted and fished my whole life,” Hurst said. “The ideal summer evening was my .22 rifle over my shoulder, a fishing rod and my dog. I grew up hunting on the farm.”

“[Conservation involvement] happens organically,” Hurst goes on to explain. “We get out there and see the runoff, the high temperatures creating algae blooms and the fish leave. We fish for suspended bass because there is no oxygen on the bottom and the surface is too dirty from runoff. You get to the point where you feel you have to do something about it.”

An experiment along the streambank at Stroud.  Water temperature and changes in the amount of sunlight received affect the types of algae that will grow and the diatoms present in the stream.

He and Wilson have known each other for years but had never, as Hurst put it, “hooked together along these lines.” Hurst is a proponent of having forested areas along bodies of water—called riparian buffers—and sees the benefit to both fishing and hunting.

Wilson was brought to the table by the state of a stream near which he lived, which was severely polluted. “You’d eat a caught trout and it would taste like oil,” he spat. Rather than alleviate the symptoms through methods such as stocking a poorly performing stream, Wilson was intent on rectifying the situation. Apparently, the sport is lost with the transplanted stock fish.

“I don’t have a lot of interest in stocked trout. I travel to find wild fish. Why do I have to drive three hours to go fishing? I want to do it here,” Wilson insisted. “I wish they’d put more money into conservation efforts than into fish stocking, personally.”

Grasses and forbs thrive in the sunlit meadow as trees create a shaded forest in the background.  Sportsmen at the session unanimously agreed that considering the entire habitat, rather than concentrating on discrete parts, is crucial to conservation.

When placed along the borders of farms, riparian buffers can trap runoff from fields and replenish the groundwater for the land as well. Most Pennsylvanians are familiar with the surge of a stream after storms and the impact of that occurrence on farmlands. Hurst has observed the effects firsthand, reminiscing on childhood memories alongside his farmer father.

“After a cloud burst, the stream would be chocolate milk,” Hurst lamented. “I remember my dad being so upset and saying, ‘That’s our topsoil.’”

Today, Hurst and his neighbors have all put in buffers and undertaken other farming practices to improve their soil, such as contour farming—farming perpendicular to the slope of the land to keep stormwater from stripping the field —cover crops and no-till practices, which cut down on maintenance costs and encourage beneficial organisms to thrive. After a rainfall, they see a much more mild change in the rise and fall of their shared stream as the soil around it soaks up the groundwater.

“During a storm, that stream remains clear,” Hurst emphasizes, and then goes on to talk about the added benefits to his cattle health and financial bottom line. “We have seen such a dramatic [improvement] that we don’t even need to treat our water anymore.”

Forest buffers and native plants are encouraged not just as environmental best practices: they provide a secondary venture that particularly thrilled the hunters in attendance. Restored streams naturally teeming with wild fish and forests chock full of 160-inch whitetail deer are powerful draws for sportsmen—and a new, potentially lucrative source of income for landowners. A farmer in central Pennsylvania improved the quality of his land to such a degree that he charges admittance to hunters and fishermen at the rate of several hundred dollars a day.

Streams course through the grounds of Stroud.  Understanding the interactions between water quality, land quality, plants, and animals is a large part of the conservation and restoration work being undertaken in the environmental field today.

Speaking as both a sportsman and a conservationist, Ehrhart stressed the importance of the habitat as a whole, rather than discrete terms like “nutrient reduction” or “water quality.”

“When you talk to guys, they do tell you their cows are healthier not lounging in the water, but they’re really excited about the other pieces,” Ehrhart explained. “They love birds; they’re seeing birds they haven’t seen in a while. [The landowners] are watching deer tracks appear in their buffer and get excited realizing they’re going to be able to hunt on their property for the first time in generations. Those intangible benefits are what landowners end up caring about the most.”

As the meeting came to an end, the many areas of overlap and crossover between sportsmen and conservation had barely begun to be explored. The meeting highlighted the importance of different kinds of groups coming together in collaboration—but what of economic growth? With an eye to targeting sportsmen, there was a high level of excitement among the locals on the prospect of turning small Pennsylvanian hamlets into economically thriving destination towns through environmental restoration.

Plans are underway for a larger sportsmen’s forum to be held in the fall. Keep an eye on the Alliance’s ForumPlus page or contact jmitchell@allianceforthebay.org if interested.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.


A walk in the edible woods

Lincoln Smith, founder of Forested, a food forest in Bowie, Md., inspects a tree while giving a tour of his land on July 6. Over the five years that Smith has been renting the ten acres from a local church, he has transformed it into a multistory food forest that produces diverse crops and provides food for the community.

Imagine a forest garden, where the best of both farming and forestry combine to form an ecosystem that gives back to the land. Figs, pomegranates, pineapple guavas,  mulberries, leafy greens, mushrooms and raspberry brambles grow and are harvested in harmony with shady canopies and a wide array of other edible plants, and the environment benefits from the forested landscape. What you may not imagine is that you can find this forest agriculture paradise in a quiet, suburban cul-de-sac in Bowie, Maryland.

Just past the cheerful mailboxes and carefully trimmed lawns of its host neighborhood sits the forest garden, a ten-acre demonstration site founded in 2011 by Lincoln Smith through a grant from the District of Columbia Urban Forestry Administration and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Smith designs forest gardens and teaches courses on production ecosystems through his organization, Forested, LLC.

Goldenseal, a plant valued for its medicinal properties, grows in Smith’s forest farm.

Stepping inside the rustic gate, you are greeted to an array of edible plants, both of the standard and unexpected variety. Oak trees make up a portion of the canopy, providing all of the traditional benefits of trees such as improving air quality, retaining water and providing shade, however they also supply a surprising staple: starch. In terms of production and space, acorns produce as much as or more food per acre than wheat. It is this kind of information that Smith hopes will get people thinking differently about food. Helping him to do that in a delicious way is Michael Costa, head chef for the Washington, D.C., restaurant Zaytinya.

Food Forest Feasts are held twice a year at Forested and feature dishes created from the forest abundance. All over the forest garden, special emphasis is given to species that grow wild. A species of grapevine growing all over the garden is embraced as a food source and used by Chef Costa to create dolmas from the leaves. Fresh wine cap, shitake and oyster mushrooms feature in the meals. Spice bush is used to make a vinegar, sumac for a lemon spice.

Smith picks Wine Cap mushrooms of several maturity stages growing in a mulched patch of ground inside the forest. Due to their quick growth rate, Smith tries to check on the wine caps, or Stropharia Rugosoannulata, twice a day during harvest season.

Designed as a space for the community to be enriched, Forested’s forest garden is always open to the public. The land is owned by a local church, and the steps Smith had to take in order to rent it perfectly fit with his concept of urban forest agriculture. “I had to go to every home in the neighborhood,” he laughs, spreading his arms over the tops of kale and indicating the homes nearby.

Community members go to the garden to learn about edible forestry, paint the landscape, help with the harvest or just take their dogs on a leisurely stroll. “The longer we’re here,” says Smith with quiet pride, “the more the local community seems to understand and appreciate the project.”

A close up of perennial asparagus as it grows in a sunny vegetable patch of the forest garden. The delicate, fern-like foliage grows throughout the summer before dying back to make way for fresh, harvestable asparagus shoots the following spring.

If the forest garden is well-integrated with the human community, its relationship among the winged, crawling and rooted community is even more impressive. Take, for instance, the resident flock of ducks, whose grazing area rotates so they can forage throughout the garden. When harlequin bugs become a problem for the brassicas—crunchy vegetables like cabbages and radishes—the ducks are set loose to thin out the pests. Comfrey and dandelions are also a favorite snack of the ducks, who in turn spread nutrients as the comfrey and dandelions pass through their digestive systems.

Thanks to the biodiversity encouraged by a healthy ecosystem, pests like the invasive Japanese beetle meet some formidable foes at Forested. Scolia dubia, a native and beautiful blue-winged wasp, preys on the beetle. And wheel bugs are given a free pass to feast on the mulberry crop, in exchange for providing a valuable service in actively liquefying Japanese beetles. There are complex interactions to an ecosystem, which when working in harmony produce a beautiful, living landscape.

With the forest garden now in its sixth year, it is beginning to generate its own prizes outside, or ahead of, the man-made design. Jack-in-the-pulpit, sassafras and jewelweed now all grow unbidden. Will the herbalist begin creating jewelweed salves for bug bites and other irritations? Will they use that sassafras to create root beer? When the biosphere is diverse, it builds its own potential.

Smith tends a mulberry tree amidst his forest farm. The farm is maintained by him as well as neighbors, other volunteers and members of the forest’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, whose customers receive produce from the farm.

Food forests provide a wide variety of sustenance in a small space, and hit that double mark of community space and environmental improvement. Forested recently worked on a project to design a new food forest for the city of Hyattsville in Prince George’s County, and discussion is underway for additional gardens. Given all the intertwined benefits, it is no surprise that many are excited to implement forest gardens into urban settings.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.


Learning from history to shape the future

An aerial view showcases the broken windows and the beauty of Petersburg, Va., a town of over 32,000 people located on the Appomattox River about 20 miles south of Richmond. (Photo by Tom Saunders/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

“Close your eyes,” commands Michelle Peters, Director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Petersburg, Virginia. Her voice – buoyed by optimism – floats over the roomful of officials, government agents, nonprofits, businesses and Petersburg citizens gathered at the meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup. “It is the year 2030. It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg. Petersburg is an economically, environmentally, socially vibrant community… The spiritual, physical, emotional health of our community has been raised… It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg.”

When a speaker employs an envisioning exercise, most audiences listen politely and allow their gaze to wander –but this was in no way a typical meeting. The Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup chose to hold their quarterly meeting in the city of Petersburg in a conscious effort to put into action those methods that spark real change: to listen, to engage with a community and to be present where change needs to happen. In the auditorium of Virginia State University on the thirteenth of June, faces across the room were tilted up, seeing this revitalized and thriving town. It is in a town like Petersburg that a time capsule jump carries weight—for, here, time behaves strangely.

Petersburg, Virginia has a long history as a market town and leading tobacco center. Twenty-four factories made chewing tobacco, and the manufacturer Brown & Williamson was king. The civil rights movement in the sixties was energized in the city of Petersburg, which is the home of the important Underground Railroad hub Pocahontas Island and two of the oldest black Baptist congregations in the nation. Demographics were relatively equal and the city was dynamic. As the city grew and needed to expand, it hit a roadblock of legal zoning. With annexation illegal, the size of Petersburg was set. The middle classes, both white and black, left Petersburg for the more desirable Chesterfield and other nearby areas. Brown & Williamson, the largest employer for the area and the driving force of Petersburg’s economy, pulled up stakes and left the town for Georgia in 1983. And then: time stopped.

“The saddest day in the city of Petersburg was when Brown & Williamson left Petersburg,” Reverend Betty Jackson proclaimed at the meeting. “We had poured so much into one industry and were codependent.”

Close to forty years have passed since the loss of the tobacco industry, but the feeling in Petersburg is that it might have been mere months since the departure. Marcus Comer, environmental research specialist and assistant professor of agriculture at Virginia State University, explained the phenomenon and its after-effects: “When different industries left, they took their earnings but left their pollution and toxins. Historically, Petersburg has been on the negative side for so long that it’s hard to overcome.”

Dr. Lucious Edwards speaks at the Diversity Workgroup meeting held June 13th at Virginia State University. Retired from decades as VSU archivist, Edwards is still active in the welfare of his community. (Photo by Reggie Parrish/EPA)

Stepping out of the past and embracing that envisioned future is exactly the hope of the day for all parties involved. Listening and understanding the starting place – historically and psychologically – is crucial to bringing about true change for the city, and realistic ideas for action grew from the protracted conversation rooted in that sense of place.

“’Oh, dear. Do you drink the water?’ When you tell someone you live in Petersburg, that is the first question you will be asked,” states Comer. According to him, “the perpetuation of negative perceptions has kept Petersburg down,” creating a learned helplessness.

“[At nearby military base] Fort Lee, [visitors] are told not to take a left turn towards Petersburg,” stated Annie Mickens, former mayor and longtime Petersburg resident. It is in discussing and realizing these limitations that residents found new strength and strategies. Through the course of the day, Petersburg citizens took ownership of their town and their own ability to improve conditions.

University of Virginia President Makola Abdullah put those ideals into action when he bought a home within the city of Petersburg and encouraged his staff to do the same, seeing investment in the city from within as the key to moving forward.

“Let’s change the way Petersburg views itself,” said Ronald Howell, special assistant to the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, to general applause. “Let’s look not from the outside in, but from the inside out… These are the resources we have. We don’t have the optics to garner people from the outside… Let’s look at who is driving the economy in Petersburg right now, and let’s see if we can bring that back home. That’s where we start. There should be a network of farmers, internal training, certification and development. If no one wants to come from the outside, let’s build from the inside.”

Real-time change was apparent as attendees and speakers alike slipped in and out of the meeting throughout the day to vote in a general election. Community members were taking action on the words of former mayor Mickens: “We don’t speak for people who have no voice. They have a voice. We have to get those people to the table, to say, ‘I elected you. Accept my voice.’”

The South Side Depot in Petersburg, Va. Built in 1854 as the passenger depot for The Southside Railroad, this Petersburg landmark is the oldest railroad station in the state of Virginia. (Photo by Ron Cogswell/CC BY 2.0 license)

Dr. Lucious Edwards, archivist and historian, spoke on the historical tourism opportunities of Petersburg and its mark on the shaping of America. “[We need to] engage, to blend, to see the value of and interpret the African American experience,” said Edwards. “We should move away from the expectations of confederate history, slavery, plantations and towards others. Petersburg is a jewel for architecture and industry.” Planning departments and cultural affairs departments are merging in Petersburg, in line with a new plan to revitalize through the lens of historical identity.

Before adjourning to tour the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center—one of the examples of internal Petersburg innovation—attendees settled on the takeaway action items for the Diversity Workgroup.  EJ Screen is an environmental justice knowledge tool that provides maps with overlapping layers of data, combining both environmental and demographic indicators that allow users to make informed decisions. Incorporating community input on the city’s role in health concerns, EPA is considering adding a new data layer to EJ Screen showing failing infrastructure lead lines in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Diversity Workgroup will work to assist in Train the Trainer workshops and include lead remediation as a potential avenue for a green jobs workforce, while working more closely with local non-profit organizations and key community leaders on local issues.

By structuring meetings around the heart of communities and with an understanding of their history, as with this Diversity Workgroup meeting, it may truly be a great day in Petersburg and towns like it.

Learn more about the efforts of the Diversity Workgroup and the positive changes taking place throughout the partnership.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.

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