Volume 13, Issue 32 ~ August 11 - 17, 2005

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Poplar Rises: A Remedy for Vanishing Islands

In this issue we bring you an update on a remarkable effort to change the course of nature in Chesapeake Bay.

If you’ve done much boating, you’ve no doubt seen land rising off the Eastern Shore directly across from North Beach and Chesapeake Beach.

We’re nine years into the Poplar Island Environmental Restoration Project, in which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hauling in vast amounts of dredge spoils to replace more than 1,100 acres of island habitat, half of it to become wetlands.

Poplar Island is a project reminiscent of the era of dam-building and gigantism in public works, aiming to spend nearly $750 million in a remote setting accessible only by boat. It is the kind of effort we rarely see in this era.

It has a purpose beyond conservation, of course: ridding shipping channels and waterways of the soils and organic matter that inhibit the passage of boats. We need some place to store the muck, and Poplar Island sure beats dumping it in the open Bay, a nutty state plan quashed via public uprising a few years back.

We recall 20 years ago, tying up our boat and traipsing around the remains of wind-swept Poplar Island. There were blue herons everywhere, appealing beaches and the thrill of silence and isolation — along with more mosquitoes, black flies and deer ticks than we’d ever endured.

There also was the sense that these surroundings would be all but gone in another 20 years or so, like Sharp’s Island a few miles south, where a leaning lighthouse reminds boaters of what once was.

We’re for nature’s natural rhythms, but we’re not averse to what’s going on these days at Poplar Island. It’s innovative with great potential, and Tilghman Island and other communities on the Shore partake of this bounty.

That brings us to the new Corps plan: a 575-acre addition at the island’s northern edge to make room for another decade of dredge material.

Most folks are paying little attention. Some are, especially watermen. The Corps’ newly revised environmental impact statement, available on the web, notes that the plan would sacrifice 4,277 acres of bottom habitat: prime grounds for clamming and crabbing.

Maryland Watermen’s Association vice president Russell Dize, of Tilghman Island, uttered an oft-repeated summation of Army engineers: “They listen, and then they do what they want,” he complained.

One final point: What will become of Poplar Island when the Corps is done? After spending three-quarters of a billion dollars, will taxpayers get to use it? What we know now is that it will be owned by the state of Maryland.

Will it be a wildlife preserve? Opened to boating and picnicking? Or opened for development? While the Corps plans, so should we.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.