Expanding Lands, Restoring Species
- Dan Small
Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society wins a $500K grant to expand the innovative Natural Lands Project. With matching funds from donors, the NLP now has $1.3 million to bring 285 more acres of farmland into quail habitat and Bay buffers.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society (CES) $500,000 to expand its innovative Natural Lands Project into the mid-shore. The foundation grant meets $801,000 in matching funding from CES and its partners, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and Pickering Creek Audubon Center, for a total of $1.3 million for the project.
The Natural Lands Project (NLP), piloted at the College’s Chester River Field Research Station at Chino Farms, enlists the support of local landowners to restore grassland habitat for bobwhite quail and other species while also creating buffers that help filter runoff into the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries.
“The Natural Lands Project encompasses the best of what we do and teach—it restores habitat, cleans the Bay, and perhaps most important, it provides an example to our students of how the cultural links between environment and society can be used in restoration,” says John Seidel, director of the CES. “That social and community element in restoration is critical to the future of the Chesapeake, as well as to watersheds around the world.”
The grant, announced Sept. 19, was among 44 projects awarded through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, a partnership between the NFWF and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants and Small Watershed Grants programs, as well as other partners. Washington College is the only institution of higher education among the recipients.
“Through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and our partners, especially the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, continue to invest in locally led efforts to protect and restore the more than 100,000 miles of local rivers and streams that feed the Bay,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO, NFWF. “These investments demonstrate that the actions necessary to restore local rivers and streams go hand in hand with opportunities to enhance local communities.”
One of the biggest issues for the Bay on the Eastern Shore is agricultural runoff. Collaterally, as more acreage is put into agriculture, grassland and upland habitats are vanishing, and with them, iconic species like the bobwhite quail. Using the restored grasslands at the College’s Chester River Field Research Station, Dan Small, a field ecologist with CES and now coordinator of the NLP, has been conducting surveys to document the quail population in the restored grasslands and around the farm. By last year, Small and Washington College student researchers documented an average of 25 calling males and an estimated 29 coveys—the highest concentration of the species in the state of Maryland since its precipitous decline began decades ago.
As a gamebird, the bobwhite historically is on a cultural par with the Canada goose on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its loss was keenly felt among hunters, sportsmen, and farmers. In an effort to motivate landowners to create more habitat for the quail—and, by extension, create buffers that would help reduce agricultural runoff into the Bay’s tributaries—the CES worked with the Chester River Association in 2015 to spin the quail restoration into the Natural Lands Project with a $700,000 award from the Department of Natural Resources.
“The concept was simple,” says Mike Hardesty, associate director of programs and staff at CES. “Transform less-than-productive agricultural land into natural habitat for iconic species. Give landowners a cultural reason—even more compelling than a financial one—to set aside some of their land for habitat management, which in turn would benefit local water quality and Bay restoration efforts.” The NLP also restores wetlands in order to achieve similar water quality and wildlife benefits.
In the first two years, the NLP created 274 acres of native upland grasses and wildflowers in marginal cropland on 11 participating farms. Ten wetlands projects—25 acres of wetlands in fields with unproductive soils poorly suited for growing crops—were also completed. College students and CES researchers began what will be a continuing survey of bird populations to monitor abundance and diversity at each site.
The new funding will be used to expand the project to into the middle and upper Eastern Shore to 285 more acres of buffers and 16 more acres of wetlands. Before receiving the award, five landowners signed on for an additional 115 acres. CES expects this project and its focus to grow and the model to be used in watersheds across the country.