Monday, April 24, 2017

DE Trap Pond State Park: Growing the Remains of The Great Cypress Swamp

What to do to celebrate a two important dates this weekend? My daughter Emily came into this world on April 21, 1984, while one of my conservation heroes, Aldo Leopold, passed away on this date in 1948. I celebrated both with a few days camping and exploring Trap Pond State Park near Laurel, Delaware. To celebrate Em's birthday, I joined her for birthday dinner, a live show, and late night pub coffee in Milton near the ocean. To celebrate a life well-lived, I took along A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold to read in my warm, dry tent. The dreary cool weather turned a lot of people away from camping this weekend, but armed with my rain gear, a warm sleeping bag, and a tight rain fly for my backpacking tent, I was snug as a bug.

Rain in the Great Cypress Swamp.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not what to be told otherwise. - AL/ASCA

Bald Cypress, Taxiodium distichum

The quote above from ASCA stuck with me as I explored the park. Leopold described living in "a world of wounds" that he knew all too well. During his lifetime he witnessed the socio-economic disaster that became an environmental catastrophe - the American Dust Bowl. He served on a consulting team that would help end the advance of massive erosional gullies in Wisconsin's prime farmland and the Deep South. As a young forester, he saw firsthand the disheartening results of overgrazing and predator elimination in the south-western mountains.  The ecological disaster that was the loss of The Great Cypress Swamp of the Delmarva Peninsula happened long before Leopold was born in 1887 but it continued to degrade until the 1930s.  Had he witnessed it, I'm sure he would have added it to his natural world of wounds.

The far reaches of Trap Pond.

When colonists began exploiting the Delmarva cypress swamps in the early 1700s, the forested wetlands must have seemed limitless. Some historic accounts claim that the watershed of the Pocomoke River and its major tributaries were so vast that the sight of the primeval woodlands evoked an almost religious response. Foresters today estimate that the original swamp may have exceeded 60,000 acres. Today it is reduced to small remnants and pockets of protected wetland. Trap Pond (200 acres in cypress/ 3000 acres in total forest protection) and nearby Trussum Pond (60 acres in cypress) is managed by Delaware State Parks, DE Division of Parks and Recreation. I walked the park loop Bob Trail (5 miles) in a light rain and contemplated the history of this landscape.  I was surrounded by a riot of warblers in color and song. I tried to imagine was 60,000 acres of warbler song must have sounded like!

Reflections like ghosts of a forest long past 

In the early 1800s logging removed most of the old growth valuable timber. Some giants topped 170 feet in height and were dozens of feet around at the base. There is only one giant found in the park today, estimated to be over 550 years old. In the days of ship building the wood was valued for its insect and rot resistance. As the swamp was ditched and drained to access more cypress and white cedar for shingle and clapboard, ancient peat-based soils were exposed. Farmers were rewarded with new land cleared for agriculture. 

Mills were needed to grind grain and many small hydro-dams were built across tributaries and streams to power these. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the shrinking wilds of the cypress stand sheltered escaped slaves moving north to freedom. After the Civil War, logs lost during the early days of cutting timber were being salvaged from a century of burial in deep peat and old mill ponds. Then government agencies got into the swamp draining business and built whole new networks of ditches, draining the land of mosquito-infested wetland and encouraged more farming. During the Mid-Atlantic drought of the 1930s  tinder-dry peatlands minus their trees were lost to a catastrophic fire.  If you're not familiar with how peat fires burn and travel, well it's a scary kind of fire! Peat fires move underground, popping up in seemingly random places, smoldering then reigniting weeks or months later. 

How people cross the creek...
How beavers cross the creek...

Though bald cypress can grow well on dry sites - many are planted in gardens and arboretums far north of here - this place is the farthest north naturally occurring cypress swamps occur on the East Coast. Germination of cypress seeds can be tricky. The periodic low water levels in a natural swamp provide just the right conditions for seed germination - not too wet, not too dry.  The Trap Pond remnant cypress swamp was able to survive into a second growth forest because of raising and lowering of pond waters at the dams and ditches.  Conservationist foresters observed in the late 1930s after the fires that wetlands could be manipulated to foster new forest growth. 

Dam builders may have saved the swamp. 

These early foresters began to experiment with creating the conditions under which the cypress and white cedar would germinate. Their strategies include using the ditches dug over the past century and more that were intended to drain the swamps - in reverse. Today, foresters with state and non-profit agencies are perfecting the management of those conditions that conservation foresters of Leopold's time had begun. 

Raccoon Pond, formerly Davis Pond.

By building water control devices within these historic ditch structures, conservationists can flood anew land that has gone without its big swamp trees for two hundred years. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Delaware Wild Lands are able to buy former swampland as it becomes available and either manage outright or transfer ownership  to state agencies where scientific restoration can happen. With an understanding of germination conditions and land dedicated to restoring the swamp, there is a good chance that some of this once-vast natural ecosystem can be restored.  "Wetland is recovering faster than we expected," said DWL Executive Director Kate Hackett. Dozens of scientists, hundreds of conservation workers and volunteers, and thousands of community supporters engage in this work.

Dry sites contain a mixed long-leaf/deciduous forest.

Leopold noted that as wetlands returned to the areas where community conservation was successful,. The same is true to this area where wetland plant and animal species that were once common before the ditching and draining are reappearing. Though Trap Pond is surrounded by farmland, I heard and saw so many wood ducks I stopped counting! Beaver maintain a series of dams that create the wood duck's preferred shallow ponds for nesting. I saw red-headed woodpeckers in the swamp forest and heard pileated woodpeckers hammering in the upland forest. Remote shallow ponds along the Bob Trail were filled with the quacking of wood frogs. This land, though seemingly wild now, had been under cultivation just a century ago. Trap Pond State Park, the first state park in Delaware, came about at just the right time to start what has become a long push to bring back the Great Cypress Swamp and can demonstrate the importance of community partnerships with science, government, and landowner stakeholders how it has played a role in a regional effort for restoration.

Loblolly Pine is armored against ground fire - a tell-tale pioneer of dry land succession.

Leopold is best known for his work in community-based conservation during the 1930s and 1940s and he helped bring together farmers, outdoorsmen, land owners, and conservationists to restore soil, ecological communities, wildlife populations, and to bring balance to human activity on the land. But as much of a hero he is to many of us for this work, he was of his generation. There were many, who like him in his time, understood the importance of stakeholder cooperation towards protecting and restoring ecosystems.  So I was happy to learn of Delmarva's own conservation hero.

Dogwood in bloom against a loud background of wood frogs quacking in the rain.

 Edmund T. "Ted" Harvey created and managed Delaware Wild Lands, the first land trust for the First State, with the mission to create a community of land care, even if at the time the community was limited to landowners and outdoorsmen. "The best way to protect the land is to own it," Harvey declared as he scrounged up the money to buy Trussum Pond in 1961 - which I visited after my hike around Trap Pond. Now the organization owns and manages over 20,00 acres for conservation and rewilding. Kate Hackett, the current executive direction, has improved upon Harvey's model by opening some of the properties for public education while emphasizing the conservation science work of managing Delaware's wild lands. She's worked to include more stakeholder interests and as one article about her states "isn't afraid to get muddy and wet" in the process. 

Historic draining ditch - now used in reverse to flood the land. 

Over the two rainy nights I lay reading A Sand County Almanac I heard spring peepers, bull frogs, leopard frogs, green frogs, wood frogs, and happily - carpenter frogs! I haven't heard these hammer-pounding frogs since I was last in the NJ Pine Barrens a few years ago where bogs and swamps abound. At first I though someone was pounding in tent stakes, but I couldn't imagine someone pounding in stakes for over an hour until it occurred to me what was making the noise. I climbed out of my tent in my rain pants and jacket at one in the morning to find my way to a small shallow pond at the edge of the campground. There were carpenter frogs in all their hammer-wielding glory!

Pink Lady's Slipper Orchid

Spotted Sandpiper

Prothonotary Warbler

Eastern Kingbird

Louisiana Waterthrush. 

As I hiked and paddled all day on a rainy Saturday, I made note, too, of all the birds I was hearing. Because of the weather I did not bring my bigger and better DSL with big lens, so I used a small point and shoot with a zoom that did okay but not great in the low light. I was thrilled to find a Louisiana Waterthrush nest and staked out (at a respectful distance) to watch the parents catch insect larvae at the edge of a forest small pond and return to feed their young.  I was surrounded by Northern Parula Warblers deep in the swamp but could never get one to sit still long enough for my little camera to catch it. Later a Prothonotary Warbler that had been calling in the distance showed up just a few yards from my canoe and sang his song in one place long enough for a decent picture. 

Good trail marking!

I have to say that everything in the park, including over at Trussum Pond, was well-marked and easy to navigate. The staff at the campground were so helpful. When I explained that I "do" environmental history, I soon had a long list of books to read and people to talk to about the Great Cypress Swamp story. The campground host visited my tent site whenever he thought of another book to read about swamps. I found my way around easily and the trail marking system was simple and well maintained. I walked all eight miles of the trail system by noon Saturday and was amazed at the work put into trail maintenance, clearing,  blazing, and upkeep of bridges and boardwalks. I stopped by the new-ish nature center to let the staff know how impressed I was. (More books to add to my list.)

Wood fern emerging

One of the best trail blazes I saw wasn't put there by people. I found the biggest pileated woodpecker "post" I'd ever seen while hiking on the Island Trail near the edge of Trap Pond. Pileated woodpeckers are our largest woodpecker species and they have loud, throaty territorial calls to prove their size. This time of year it isn't unusual to see evidence of their post-making - visible markers of freshly pecked off bark that reveal bright wood underneath. Piles of freshly pulled bark and wood pieces mound up beneath their foraging sites and though they are finding food this way, mostly ants - this springtime all-out assault on trees in their 100 - 200 acre territories is unique during breeding season. This guy was obviously finding a whole lotta ants and making a statement ...

Pileated Woodpecker "post tree"

Cypress swamps are known for their black water. On the lower Eastern Shore, the native people called the water "pocomoke" (black water) and thus this became the name of the Maryland river into which the Great Cypress Swamp of Sussex County, Delaware, drains. The entire cypress swamp system that spans the two-state drainage area has been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. As an IBA, the contiguous forested area of 10,00 acres receives a lot of attention from ornithologists who have conducted painstakingly detailed surveys of nesting species. An uncommon species anywhere else, the Worm-Eating Warbler, nests in such abundance here that the Audubon surveyors categorized as "astoundingly common."  

Black water.

On my second rainy night, after a fun dinner and show out with my daughter for her birthday, I snuggled back into my warm and dry tent and picked up ASCA again. I had marked the "world of wounds" quote the night before and reflected on what it had meant to me as I explored the park. Leopold wrote as a visionary and also as a pragmatic conservationist. Sometimes when readers new to Leopold try to decipher the meaning from his words, it can be difficult to understand when he speaks as one or the other. His "world of wounds" can be an example of this. Is he speaking as a philosopher or ecologist? There have been many discussion groups focused on just this quote.  In my Saturday night reading, I came across another well-known quote that I had highlighted years ago when, in one such discussion group at grad school, we readers who were anticipating the land ethic to be spelled out clearly at the end of the essay, fell into another infamous Leopold Big Idea with no where to go. "What does that even mean?" "So what do we do?"

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  - Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Leopold's Big Idea is still too big for most readers to truly grasp even as conservationists of his day were attempting large landscape-scale restorations. The hoped-for return of Delmarva's Great Cypress Swamp is an example of the Big Idea strategy. Community conservation includes the human and ecological community, however ambiguous. Our conservation forefathers and foremothers may not have known specifically what would work or not, but they did know that something had to be done to restore, protect, and grow the integrity of the swamp's natural systems. Today we know that large-scale restorations -rewilding as they call it in Europe - are incredibly complex. Sometimes so complex that we really don't understand exactly what we're doing except to say that something is working the way we'd hoped. Leopold warns us, however, to be cautious. 

They Might Be Giants Again - someday.

    Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land or of economic land-use. - AL/ ASCA

As I consider the work to understand and restore the Great Cypress Swamp, I can see how agencies and non-profits working together over time have had their fits and starts as they've tried to sort priorities and perspectives on this big undertaking.  As I talked to park staff, campers, a cattle farmer who grazes the southeastern park boundary, and some fishermen, I felt that everyone was onboard with the Big Idea. "We're relearning how to live with this ecosystem," said a fisherman at Trussum Pond. "It's not perfect and its not easy, but I'm happy to be of help." (He volunteers for clean-up days and ferries scientists into the swamps on his small bass boat.) This is the ecological education that Leopold spoke of that includes all the mistakes and difficulties of well-intended conservation.

Trussum Pond allows only non-motorized craft - the first "save" for Delaware Wild Lands and Ted Harvey.

Leopold was asking us to take a philosophical leap away from step-by-step conservation strategies and into the mindset of morals and ethics. Understanding an ecological community through doing what was right rather than what was prescribed was and still is a big shift for scientists and landowners. Learning our way into large-scale restoration is a bit like this. The land will let us know what works and what doesn't, so we have to be willing to let go of too-precious management rules if doing what is right comes up against what is how we've always done it. I think Delaware Wild Lands and state agencies "get it" in the way Leopold intended. Though they have a long way to go to restore an inter-linked bald cypress systems of river-to-tributary wetlands, reversing what was hailed at one time as the answer to taming the dark forests of the swamps by ditching is now reclaiming the wild by  "reversing the flow."


Delaware Wild Lands website:

Chesapeake Bay Journal article recommended by the campground staff:

About Kate Hackett who is doing things a little differently:

A Natural History of Quiet Waters: Swamps and Wetlands of the Mid-Atlantic Coast by Curtis J. Badger and The Great Cypress Swamp by John V. Dennis. 

1 comment:

  1. A lovely portrait of a place. The posts are always meditative in some way--this one of the best.