Magazine article American Forests

The Chesapeake

Magazine article American Forests

The Chesapeake

Article excerpt

THE NATION'S LARGEST ESTUARY IS A SAGA OF BOUNTY-RICH WATERS, FORESTED SHORELINES - AND A GROWING POPULATION. THE QUESTION NOW: HOW DO WE KEEP FROM LOVING IT TO DEATH? THE FIRST IN A TWO-PART SERIES. NEXT-TIME: PUGET SOUND.

The English settlement of North America began with a fragile wooden fort along Virginia's James River in a region so primeval one settler called it "a plain wilderness, as God first ordained it."That wilderness presented hardships for which many of Jamestown's settlers were unprepared, but the river and the Chesapeake Bay into which it flowed abounded with wealth of another kind. Capt. John Smith bragged that fish were so thick that ". . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan."

What the settlers did not realize was the link between the forest and the Bay. It was an oversight that would lead to the decline of both. The health of the Chesapeake is a reflection of its 64,000-mile drainage basin, a tract more massive than Smith likely ever imagined. From the Adirondack foothills around Cooperstown, New York, it stretches west into the mountains of West Virginia, and east into Delaware. Draining an area roughly the size of Washington state - and including such cities as Washington, Richmond, Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Binghamton - the majority of the watershed lies in the Allegheny Mountains and the rolling Piedmont and flat coastal plains of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

When Smith explored the Chesapeake in 1608, about 95 percent of that basin was forested. These forests were not "pristine." Native Americans cleared patches of land for agriculture, villages, hunting, and even rattlesnake control. The clearings, usually accomplished by fire, could affect thousands of acres. Yet the oldest and largest trees survived burns of the underbrush. As a result, the trees the colonists found were huge. The forest canopy may have been up to 110 feet tall, a full 40 percent higher than today.

The colonists quickly saw the value of such forests, which they turned into planking, masts for the English navy, and other export products. What the settlers did not grasp so quickly was the unseen value of the forests. Tree roots fought the forces of wind, rain, and gravity, holding soil in place. They soaked up large quantities of water, moderating flows into the Bay and absorbing large amounts of nutrients. Their leaves and branches dropped into streams and decayed, forming the base of the aquatic food chain.

Yet by the mid-1600s, these forests were being cleared for agriculture and firewood. By the mid-1800s, 40 to 50 percent of the watershed had been cleared to meet the growing nation's energy demands. A single home could burn 20 to 40 cords of wood a year for heating and cooking. Iron works sometimes required 20,000 to 30,000 acres of trees to function. Fueled by these demands, forest clearing continued until, by the dawn of the 20th century, only 30 to 40 percent of the Bay area's forests remained.

A Different Watershed

More than trees were gone. As forests were cut, more soil ran off the land. Also washed off were more nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus. Sediment and nutrient-fueled algae blooms cloud the water, blocking sunlight to important underwater grass beds that provide vital food and habitat for waterfowl, juvenile fish, blue crabs, and other species. Today only about one-tenth of the Chesapeake's "underwater meadows" remain.

Algae fuels the food chain, but when there's more around than the fish, oysters, and others can eat, algae die and sink to the bottom, decomposing in a process that depletes the water of oxygen. Some species can flee these "dead zones"; many that cannot will die. As habitat declines, so do oysters, waterfowl, and many species of fish - many are at or near historic lows.

Nutrient impact can be even uglier, contributing to blooms of harmful, sometimes toxic, algae species and other microbes. Watermen on Maryland's Pocomoke River began seeing fish with large sores in the fall of 1996 and spring of 1997. …

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