Eighteen years ago, Justin Callahan took a small boat into the Chesapeake Bay to study the last remaining bits of what had been a wildlife paradise.
Bobbing above what once was a miles-long island that had eroded to a couple of tiny pieces of dirt, he had no way of knowing the scale of the plan that the Army Corps of Engineers was hatching. It was some plan, inviting comparisons to the Titanic in terms of engineering hubris and to Jurassic Park in terms of one-upping the natural world.
In a bay where waves and rising water levels are sweeping islands away, the corps is turning those few fragile pieces of land – totaling less than five acres – into a re-created 1,700-acre island with wetlands and a forest to restore decimated bird populations. Already, before all the marshes are in and the forest is planted, the number of bird species has increased from 10 in the 1990s to 170 today, including some threatened species.
The corps and U.S. scientists think they’ve outdone nature itself.
Nature, they say, had failed. The last ice age left land with erodible shores. The corps – in true military fashion – outfitted its land with armor, wrapping the shore in boulders as large as 4,000 pounds to shelter the new land from the open sea.
The addition of wetlands and an “upland forest” would make a perfect world for birds facing a startling loss of habitat. Where nature offered problems, Callahan noted, “we can engineer solutions.”
Chris Guy, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who works on the project, explained, “We know what it is the birds need, so we can do a better job of designing their environment.”
A better job than who, he was asked.
“Mother Nature,” he replied.
While epic in scale, the project 40 miles east of the nation’s capital isn’t unique. Various branches of the U.S. government – compensating for past neglect or trying to head off the anticipated effects of climate change – have embarked on highly ambitious and innovative natural projects, some under the umbrella of President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative, a federal government conservation program.:
– Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area, Kansas: After hundreds of years of one of the world’s most diverse and active grasslands – an American Serengeti – being plowed under, the Fish and Wildlife Service launched a plan two years ago to protect a million acres of American tallgrass prairie.
The plan pays ranchers who keep their tallgrass land essentially unchanged; they can continue to ranch the land but can’t sell pieces for development or plant crops. Fish and Wildlife officials entered into negotiations with the first volunteer landowners earlier this month. The area is expected to take another 30 years to complete at a cost that’s thought to be about $400 million.
– The Elwha River Restoration Project, Washington state: The largest dam-removal project in U.S. history will leave this 100-mile-long river in Olympic National Park flowing naturally for the first time in a century through the removal of two dams by next summer.
One, the Elwha Dam, already is gone, opening 70 miles of river to salmon and steelhead trout. Removal of the Glines Canyon Dam is under way. Both had been built without concern for salmon spawning. The $325 million river project already is proving successful, conservation officials say, as steelhead trout have started to work their way up the river, and the salmon released into the newly accessible reaches of the river are spawning and returning to the Pacific Ocean.
– The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Oyster Pilot Project, South Carolina: The corps is spending $178,000 to build “oyster castles” south of Isle of Palms to encourage growth in the oyster population and prevent shoreline erosion. The so-called castles are made of shell, limestone and cement, and with the oyster population declining in many parts of the country, similar projects are under way from Maine to North Carolina.
Perry Gayaldo, the deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s restoration center, said the large-scale efforts reflected a maturing national attitude toward the environment.
“Natural resources that were once thought to be limitless are now known to have limits, so it’s important to restore some of what was lost,” he said.
“In the Northeast, people used to talk about being able to walk across the rivers on the backs of the fish. People miss that.”
The economic benefits are less obvious but real, officials say. The corps will spend about $14 million on Poplar Island this year, with the total cost over 40 years estimated at roughly $600 million. Of this year’s expenditure, about 80 percent is for dredging the Chesapeake Bay channel in order to keep the bay open to large ships docking in Baltimore, a vital port for the region.
The traditional dredging process meant scooping sediment from the bay, then dumping it out at sea. At Poplar Island, the corps’ plan eventually will use 68 million cubic yards of that dredged material, about two-thirds of what’s expected to be dredged over the next 20 years.
It’ll stop pumping in dredge material in 2029, and the island will be considered finished in 2041. At that time, it will be 1,715 acres with its highest point about 21 feet above the water level.
As they build more marshes and prepare to complete the upland portion, Tom Myrah, the corps project design manager, focuses on the island’s stability. Dredge material is spread and dried in stages, over a four-year period, before a marsh can be built. Workers dig out canals and use culvert pipes to connect the new marsh to the bay, so that the tide rises and falls naturally. After that, they plant grass and the animals show up on their own.
“We don’t know if the original island had a marsh, but we needed one,” Myrah said. “Right now, this is the best wildlife construction project you’ll find anywhere.”
Workers here freely admit that it doesn’t all look entirely natural. The shoreline seems too straight in some places, its curves too perfect in others. Designing and building a squiggly island, though, would have been much more expensive and difficult.
Whereas natural islands discourage predators such as foxes and raccoons just by being surrounded by water, Poplar Island has a staff that deports them.
One recent sunny afternoon, Callahan looked out on a mass of cormorants swarming two dry humps of land they’d denuded for nesting in the middle of his lush, green marsh.
“That’s too bad,” he said, annoyed by the naked dirt. “That’s not the way we made the marsh.”
Still, the hope is that, even if not quite authentic-looking, the island will function naturally. Guy, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said that all island birds had been under stress in recent decades in the Chesapeake Bay. Deteriorating islands are common. Bay shores are lined with homes and businesses, which take over nesting habitat and mean that peninsulas no longer erode away from the shore naturally to form new islands.
So there are no new islands, except for those that humans make.
“We should be careful to make clear that what we design can’t fight nature. We’d lose every time in that fight,” Callahan said. “But we can study what happens naturally and adapt that to our advantage, to make what it is we need, and ensure that what we create works, and lasts.”
A island revives