"Wild things are taken for granted until progress begins to do away with them. Now, we face the question whether a still higher standard of living is worth the cost of things natural, wild and free."
A Sand County Almanac
 

AKE A WALK beneath oaks and hickories wearing their autumn colors. Pause at a pool bordered with ferns and seemingly empty except for the sudden "plop" of a leopard frog. Notice an eastern towhee shuffling noisily through a rainbow of leaves. Breathe in the woodland's musty perfume. Peer under a rotting log for a spotted salamander. Scan the baring canopy for migrating hawks. Then stop and think: how long will these woods and its animals and plants be here? For a few more visits? Your lifetime? Your grandchildren's?

Habitat loss, habitat degradation and pollution are causing one of Delaware's saddest ecological predicaments: the loss of its biodiversity, the animals and plants indigenous to the state. "Native species contribute to the state's heritage and enhance our sense of belonging to a special place," says State Planning Coordinator David S. Hugg III. "Losing them diminishes our unique quality of life." Butterflies like frosted elfins and king's hairstreaks, the charismatic Delmarva fox squirrel and the ribboned corn snake are endangered. Did anyone ever imagine that the pussy willow or nine different milkweed species would be rare by 2000?

In A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, world-renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold eloquently expressed the crossroads Delawareans face: "Wild things are taken for granted until progress begins to do away with them. Now, we face the question whether a still higher standard of living is worth the cost of things natural, wild and free."

Development changes landscape

Squeezed between the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, Delaware's 1,955 square miles are vulnerable to dispersed development, according to Projected Population and the New Arithmetic of Development in Delaware, 1990-2000, a report published by the University of Delaware's Center for Historic Architecture and Design. Delaware's beauty, location, climate, relatively inexpensive lands, robust economy and tax-free shopping spurred an unprecedented building boom over the past 25 years, drastically changing the landscape.

In 1995, now retired University of Delaware land economist Gerald Vaughn warned that Delaware's character would be set by 2000. "We have at most a five-year window for guiding development," he said then.

Today, he thinks that window is shut. "We accomplished what we could, but it's inadequate," he says. "We are barely able to cope with the development we have. If Delaware has another window, it's one of opportunity to connect with biodiversity conservation. Unless we address it soon, that opportunity will also be gone. Conserving biodiversity sinks or swims with managing growth."

"If the state, counties and municipal governments can plan development areas, they can also protect special natural areas," Hugg insists. "By affecting land use planning and transportation policies that are sensitive to biodiversity, we can avoid overt habitat fragmentation and degradation."

Open space and conservation are two of the 10 elements that must be addressed in the county comprehensive plans that are due to Delaware's Cabinet Committee on State Planning Issues (CCSPI) by March 31, 2002. Counties may adopt overlay zoning ordinances, performance standards and design criteria to safeguard natural features and properties of ecological significance. Counties and municipalities can require open space in subdivisions – to date usually used for active recreation – to connect with other lands with similar uses, creating greenways that connect to larger protected habitat areas. New Castle County's Unified Development Code, adopted after its 1997 comprehensive plan, includes open space and habitat protection provisions. It regulates activities in certain natural areas like steep slopes, riparian buffers, and forest resources in addition to state-identified natural areas.

"We're asking the counties to include more detailed analyses at the level of planning districts, sub-county regions, watersheds, or similar bases," Hugg says. "This will allow state resources to be used wisely and will improve the predictability of county land use decisions."

Land use planning includes Delaware's cities and towns. By law, large municipalities must produce a comprehensive plan; smaller municipalities must complete a municipal development strategy. Municipal plans are reviewed every five years and revised every ten years. Local governments may apply for state grants for comprehensive planning and water and wastewater planning. Since 1995, the CCSPI has awarded over $2 million in such grants.

"Delawareans tend to look at things project by project instead of studying the cumulative impacts of proposed development," notes DNREC natural areas program manager Rob Line. "We need to be better educated about what species live on the land, plan appropriately, and then evaluate our impacts."

With the Delaware Population Consortium predicting 95,000 more Delawareans by 2020, biodiversity stands a better chance of being protected if residential growth occurs in more compact, complete service neighborhoods. Sprawling residential development with one- to five-acre lots uses up land at an overwhelming pace. Well-planned, user-friendly housing developments appeal to Delawareans who don't want to drive miles for a gallon of milk or maintain large yards but who desire shared open space. Alternative development choices are available.

In recent years, some Delaware developers have proposed residential developments the size of small villages or towns, overwhelming proposals for a state unaccustomed to radical change. Says Hugg, "Larger planned development proposals demand careful analysis and thinking ‘out of the box' to ensure that supporting infrastructure is or will be provided."

Having a rural lifestyle remains popular. Thirty-seven percent of Delaware adults prefer a home in the country, according to a 2000 land use survey conducted by Ed Ratledge of the University of Delaware. This trend mirrors his 1988 survey results. "People still want to live where there's peace and quiet," Ratledge explained.

Homebuyers are willing to pay premium prices to live in communities with green space, and the real estate market responds by advertising homes in country settings.

Homebuyers are willing to pay premium prices to live in communities with green space, and the real estate market responds by advertising homes in country settings. Window manufacturers use full-color ads with outstanding green vistas – not someone else's backyard. Golf courses developments are as popular for the view as the sport. Delawareans, like other Americans, are building closer to nature – even to the point of eventually destroying it.

Fortunately, some planners, developers and builders are partnering a strong economy with environmental stewardship. When pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca chose Wilmington over Pennsylvania in 1999, the Delaware Economic Development Office, the Delaware Department of Transportation, New Castle County and many private citizens helped plan the future development of the site and adjacent lands. The Division of Parks and Recreation coordinated the protection of 144 acres of open space, extending from Alapocas Woods Park west to Route 202 and including the majority of the A. I. duPont Institute woods, one of the area's finest examples of mature woodlands. The Nemours Foundation donated a portion of the lands value as a conservation easement, which will protect the forest in perpetuity.

W.L. Gore and Associates also coordinated their economic development plans with open space preservation. When the Newark-based company recently purchased 150 acres between routes 72 and 896 in Glasgow for a future Gore campus, the Division of Parks and Recreation purchased 300 adjacent acres. Two hundred acres of woods and wetlands have been added to the Christina River Natural Area. New Castle County is leasing the rest and will develop a regional park.

Near Milton, golf course developers redesigned 12 of their 18 holes when a great blue heron rookery was discovered in their 19-acre woods. Dozens of herons had built huge nests in loblolly pines and hardwoods towering 80 feet or more. When a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist visited the site, he counted 70 birds, making it one of the largest of Delaware's nine known wading bird nesting colonies. He worked with the developers to help them comply with the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act as well as the Endangered Species Act's five-mile protection zone for the federally protected Delmarva fox squirrels living at nearby Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Near Milton, golf course developers redesigned 12 of their 18 holes when a great blue heron rookery was discovered in their 19-acre woods.

"We're pleased with the end results," says Chris Adkins, one of The Rookery's developers. "Some of the birds actually like our ponds. One day I counted 35 on the course."

Biodiversity concerns

As population increases and development replaces habitat, Delaware's biodiversity suffers. Half of Delaware's native reptiles and amphibians are extremely rare, according to the Division of Fish and Wildlife. Thirty-one percent of native fish species are uncommon, and nearly 20 percent of the 379 bird species historically occurring here are rare or extinct, according to the Delaware Natural Heritage Program. According to Protecting Delaware's Natural Heritage: Tools for Biodiversity Conservation, a recent Environmental Law Institute report, there are 236 animal species, ranging from dragonflies to fish, in distress in the First State. Delaware lost 225 animal and plant species in the last century. (See Protecting Nature's Diversity by Dr. Lynn Broaddus.)

The state's native plants are particularly vulnerable to development. Of Delaware's more than 1,600 native plant species, 692 species and varieties (44 percent) are rare or uncommon and more than 10 percent are believed to be extinct, the DNHP says. Although diversity in native plants translates into diversity in native animals, plants currently have no legal protection in the state. "An endangered species law for state plants would help," says DNHP botanist Bill McAvoy.

Converting woodlands to agricultural use, constructing roads and buildings, and introducing invasive species contribute to the decline or extinction of the state's native species. Water pollution is especially pervasive; about 62 percent of Delaware's rivers and streams cannot effectively support fish and wildlife. "Without the careful attention and stewardship of Delaware's citizens, governments, businesses, and conservation organizations," the ELI report warns, "Delaware's unique eco-regions may be gradually transformed into a pale, generic landscape indistinct from other parts of America – impoverished in species, lacking in economic and ecological value, and unappreciated by its residents."

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Nicholas A. Di Pasquale is spearheading a statewide biodiversity initiative, including a Biodiversity Implementation Strategy Work Group that is studying recommendations made in the ELI report and by others. A major symposium will be held early next year.

"Delawareans have a shared vision of a quality of life that includes the protection and restoration of our native plants and animals, their genetic diversity, and their unique ecosystems," Di Pasquale says. "We must take action now to protect and restore the state's natural heritage."

In large part, that is dependent on forest preservation and reforestation. Forests, especially native mixed hardwood tracts with deep core centers, contain extensive ecosystems. For example, while cerulean warblers prefer canopies, hooded warblers prefer the understory and veery thrushes forage on the forest floor, where the coarse woody debris hides salamanders, newts, snakes and insects. Once a species is lost, it's difficult to reclaim or restore it. The black bear and red wolf that once roamed Delaware's thick native woodlands are now extinct here, along with seven other native forest-dependent species. Over time, Delaware's forests were converted to agricultural land or cleared for development.

Between 1974 and 1997, Delaware lost about 73,814 acres of deciduous, coniferous and mixed forest, according to research by John Mackenzie and Kevin McCullough of the University of Delaware and the Office of State Planning Coordination. Delaware can reduce its forest fragmentation through strategic open space protection, by reconnecting forest areas, and through reforestation. In 1999, Delaware's Forestry Service reforested 1,324 acres, mainly on private lands. Today, Delaware has the largest percentage of cultivated land of any state along the Atlantic Coast, yet it has the smallest percentage of forestland. Many of its remaining forests are small and fragmented, and lacking in old growth status.

The state's largest forest complex, at 27,000 acres, is located in Sussex County. Ten thousand acres are in the Redden State Forest; the other contiguous forest cover is on private lands. Aerial photos, however, depict what the typical visitor cannot see: a forest fragmented by varying land uses. The least fragmented forest in Delaware and on Delmarva is the Great Cypress Swamp forest that originally encompassed 55,000 acres. Today, the forest stands at 14,000 acres, with 10,000 acres privately owned by Delaware Wild Lands, Inc., a non-profit conservation group. The Delaware Wild Lands property includes the Pocomoke River's headwaters and is valued for its thick forest interior.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rick McCorkle puts this in perspective. "If you calculated the size of the largest circle that will fit entirely within the largest portion of each forest, you could get a 2,600-acre circle in the Great Cypress Swamp, but only a 1,050-acre circle in Redden." McCorkle explains. The largest forest patches found in New Jersey and Maryland are about twice the size of the Great Cypress Swamp.

Delaware has moderately-sized forests in the Blackbird/Blackiston area totaling 9,000 forested acres in southwest New Castle County and northern Kent County and 11,000 acres in Maryland, part of which are in the Millington Wildlife Area. Over 4,500 forested acres on separate tracts make up the Blackbird State Forest; another 2,199 acres are preserved within the Blackiston Wildlife Area. Biologists and planners want to preserve more of these lands. While none of these forests alone will support all the state's rare species, several forests linked through reforestation could potentially support a full complement of rare bird species such as the American redstart and northern parula.

Native species survive best in the widest, most dense and undisturbed woodlands. Animals need wide habitat corridors to find food, water, shelter, and breeding sites, and to escape droughts or fires. Wide forests are essential to rare species like neo-tropical warblers that breed in Delaware and winter in Central and South America. According to a 1993 study of Delaware and Maryland forest species, there is a five percent chance of seeing the colorful prothonotary warbler, a state rare species, in a riparian forest 150 feet wide, but a 100 percent chance in a forest that is a half-mile wide. When development, including highway construction, severs large tracts of forest, field or wetland, habitat is fragmented and habitat "islands" remain.

Fragmented forests provide more predation opportunities by cats, skunks, raccoons and opossums. Groundnesters like the veery thrush and black-and-white warbler are especially vulnerable to predation. Forest edges also attract brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in native songbird nests. The cowbird young out-compete the others for food or push the songbirds out of the nest. Additionally, edge habitats appeal to invasive plant species like multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle, both of which smother native forest species like the showy orchid and maidenhair fern.

While preserving large undisturbed forests is important, it is biologically necessary to preserve several forests near one another. Genetic flow must occur between habitats to maintain a viable breeding population, McCorkle explains.

Woodlands are not the only imperiled habitats. Delmarva bays – open depressions in non-tidal soils that are flooded during the winter and spring – desperately need more protection, says Lorraine Fleming, Delaware Nature Society's associate director for advocacy. "For years we've seen farmland taken for development, and as that occurs, forests are cut and wetlands filled and converted, in many cases to agricultural lands," Fleming notes.

A recent mapping located 1,587 Delmarva bays, according to McCorkle. Between 1955 and 1981, Delaware lost 38,000 acres of inland wetlands, most within forests, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inventory

Open Space Program land purchases occur in 20 State Resource Areas and unique stand-alone sites comprising more than 250,000 acres or 19 percent of Delaware's land base. Nearly half of this land is considered protected by a federal or state agency, or by private non-profit conservation organizations such as Delaware Wild Lands and The Nature Conservancy. However, when DNREC planners recently evaluated the SRA designations against biological analyses within Delaware's Coastal Zone, they discovered two-thirds of the Coastal Zone's rare species are still unprotected. This is for two reasons, explains Rob Line. The portion of the SRAs that have been acquired to date are primarily tidal marshes, which, although vital to the health of the estuary, do not support many rare species. Second, although the Tidal Wetlands Act adequately protects those critical resources, lands west of Route 9 – including upland areas, freshwater streams and wetlands that contain many rare species – remain unprotected, and have been largely fragmented or destroyed.

DNREC is seeking funds to assess the quality of preserved open space and the biodiversity within it. "A green infrastructure assessment will provide us with natural areas ranked according to size, diversity, management protection, rare species, and connectivity," notes Line.

Remembering green infrastructure

Tackling the biodiversity conservation issue may be easiest if Delaware remembers to protect its "green" infrastructure: natural areas, parks and greenways. Usually "gray" infrastructure – roads, water and sewer lines, and utilities – commands center stage. Governor Tom Carper's Cabinet Committee on State Planning Issues included both in its 1999 report, Shaping Delaware's Future: Managing Growth in 21st Century Delaware: Strategies for State Policies and Spending. The report encourages state spending to promote quality and efficiency, not sprawl, and state policies to foster order and resource protection. It emphasizes the importance of wise development and infrastructure; a sense of identity, community and local pride in towns and cities; and preserving prime farmland and natural areas for habitat, greenways and parks.

Fortunately for Delawareans, the state began acquiring environmentally unique lands in 1984.

"After Delaware lost 48,000 acres of farmland between 1983 and 1994, this Administration coordinated state agencies and local governments in the hopes of wisely guiding future development to where it makes the most economic, social and environmental sense," says committee chairman Jeffrey W. Bullock. "Today, we enjoy the permanent protection of 53,783 acres of farmland and 30,000 acres of open space. We see networking on various levels, regional planning initiatives, and lawmakers and policymakers committed to helping Delaware achieve a healthy balance between development and land preservation. We've done our part to chart Delaware's course for future generations."

Fortunately for Delawareans, the state began acquiring environmentally unique lands in 1984. In 1990, the Delaware General Assembly established the Open Space Program and the governor appointed the first members of the Open Space Council, who have since spent $130 million protecting almost 30,000 acres.

About 50 percent of the council's purchases are natural areas, Rob Line says. The remainder is open space purchased as protective buffers or to maintain the landscape's character, such as the land surrounding the John Dickinson Mansion in Dover. The Delaware General Assembly's fiscal support, averaging $13 million annually, enables the council to protect Delaware's most critical resources.

With so many sites that deserve preservation, too few dollars, too much real estate competition and escalating land costs, acquisitions are increasingly dependent on partnerships. "Fortunately, there have been very few properties that we weren't able to protect that we wanted to protect," says DNREC realty specialist Ron Vickers. The Open Space Council often partners with conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Delaware Wild Lands, the Delaware Nature Society, the Nanticoke Watershed Conservancy and the brandywine Conservancy. Other partners are state agencies, other states and the federal government. Partnering with The Conservation Fund and TNC in 1999 allowed the State of Delaware to secure its largest open space acquisition ever: 4,582 acres of pine forests in the Nanticoke River Watershed.

Preserved open space can enhance property values, give communities a sense of place, and attract businesses eager to locate near open space. Other benefits are jobs and income generated from farmlands, fisheries and forests; the sale of hunting and fishing licenses; and eco-tourism and recreational activities like bird watching, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, biking, and exercising. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware profits include fishing, $277 million annually; bird watching, $64 million; and hunting, $28 million. "The hook to protecting biodiversity through open space conservation and other measures has to be eco-driven recreational enjoyment," Lorraine Fleming says. "If we're not careful, not only will we lose more native species, but our state will also lose income from fishing, hunting, and eco-tourism activities."

Biologists remind us of the future potential of native species' genes that have, or may be discovered to have, pharmaceutical and agricultural uses. For instance, the blood of the horseshoe crab - whose eggs annually feed tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds on Delaware Bay beaches – is used to test the purity of medical substances.

Open space preservation also includes a greenway network that links many sites to form conservation corridors with natural, recreational and cultural points of interest. The Division of Parks and Recreation and the Council on Greenways and Trails are well aware of the public's increasing demand to have recreation areas close to home as well as destination recreation. "Greenways provide many benefits in both urban and rural areas," says Susan Moerschel, who manages DNREC's Park Resource Office. "This elevates the importance of preserving open space for active recreation, passive recreation or as an undisturbed natural area."

The farmland preservation program is another important part of the state's open space initiative. Aided by $55 million in appropriations between 1993 and June 2000, the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation has helped protect more than 4 percent of the state's total land area – the highest percentage of any state. An additional 119,000 acres are in agricultural preservation districts where they won't be developed for at least 10 years.

"By protecting our valuable farmland through this program, we are making investments that will pay immense dividends to future generations," Governor Carper says. "We still lose between 2,000 and 4,000 acres of farmland each year; that's roughly half an acre of farmland every hour." When lands enrolled in the agricultural preservation program are added to open space lands held by federal, state, county governments and private conservation organizations, the total is about 13 percent of Delaware's land base; the national protected land base average is 19 percent.

Private stewardship necessary

Purchasing all environmentally sensitive lands is neither affordable nor practical for governments nor their conservation partners. "Simply acquiring and managing natural land is not going to be enough to ensure the long-term health and viability of our ‘ecological infrastructure' and natural wonders," says Roger Jones, executive director of TNC's Delaware office. "Successful conservation must marry the needs of the people and the environment, leading to informed land use decisions, compatible economic development activities, and a conservation ethic that values a future of people living and working within healthy natural systems."

Since 87 percent of Delaware's land is privately owned, it is essential to revive a land ethic among private landowners. "Animals don't recognize boundaries; their goals are to find suitable habitat," explains Alice Doolittle, DNREC's nongame and endangered species biologist. "Eagles, for instance, forage extensively." Eleven of the state's 16 documented active bald eagle nests are on private land, she says.

According to Rob Line, "If we can get people thinking of themselves as land managers – whether they are landowners or visitors – Delawareans have the potential to contribute to a positive stewardship of our resources."

Donna Sharp is a planner in the Delaware Office of State Planning Coordination. She began her State of Delaware career with DNREC and writes periodically for Outdoor Delaware.

 
 
 
 
 

 

 


"Without the careful attention and stewardship of Delaware's citizens, governments, businesses, and conservation organizations, Delaware's unique eco-regions may be gradually transformed into a pale, generic landscape indistinct from other parts of America – impoverished in species, lacking in economic and ecological value, and unappreciated by its residents."
Protecting Delaware's Natural Heritage: Tools for Biodiversity Conservation

 

 

 

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