Chesapeake Day 5

Fellows began the day by jumping into kayaks to paddle around the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was created in 1933 as a sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway, but its historical significance begins well before then. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the forests, marshes and shallow tidal pools of this gigantic wetland complex were part of the Underground Railroad, where Harriet Tubman and other dedicated abolitionists guided slaves to freedom in the North. In 2013, Barack Obama designated part of Blackwater as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument.

After retreating to dry(ish) land, Fellows settled in with a Refuge biologist and the state of Maryland’s resilience specialist to hear about efforts under way to mitigate the effects of rising seas on the low-lying Delmarva Peninsula. The marshes surrounding the Chesapeake Bay are home to numerous plants and animals, but rising seas are rapidly turning biologically diverse lower marshes into open-water habitats. Already, 8,000 acres of marsh have been “lost at sea” and 300 more acres slip beneath the waves each year. These new open-water habitats no longer function as nurseries for fish and shellfish or support bald eagles, saltmarsh sparrows, mixed hardwood and pine forests, and the endangered Delmarva Peninsula Fox squirrel. Blackwater NWR, which contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and is the largest contiguous tidal marsh in the northeastern U.S. Biologists charged with managing the habitat are working to understand the changes and mitigate them, hoping that, short of stopping the rising tide, they can give species enough time and space to move inland.

Finally, Fellows returned to Baltimore to talk about one of the city’s most persistent pollution legacies: lead. One of the most potent neurotoxins known, lead enters our environment primarily from paint manufactured before 1978, when it was commonly used as an additive. It is especially a concern in the case of small children and their developing brains, affecting 535,000 children under the age of 6 each year in the U.S. Freddie Gray was one of those children and lived with the behavioral issues and learning disabilities attendant with lead exposure. Initial efforts to correct this problem equaled a 98% reduction in known lead poisoning cases but, many argue, a single case is too many for what is essentially a preventable problem. Fellows heard from a star-studded panel of health experts, housing officials and a mom of a lead-poisoned baby about ongoing efforts to refurbish inner city homes, mitigate lead problems and find a way forward.