The Call of the Wild

The local chapter of The Nature Conservancy has helped protect and preserve thousands of acres of wild lands in Delaware. And its mission continues.

Andy Manus (left) and John Graham of The Nature Conservancy visit Milford Neck Preserve. The Nature Conservancy acquired the 2,800-acre parcel in the early 1990s and is working to make it even more attractive to wildlife. Photograph by Jared CastaldiJohn Graham takes out his pocket knife and peels back the bark from a tree branch.

“Smell that,” he says. “Smell familiar? That’s bayberry. Southern bayberry is native to Delaware. This is the real deal. This is what they made candles out of back in the day.”

He grins. “Great food for birds. Lot of bang for your buck, packed with protein. Lot of birds out here feeding off this all winter long. Birds love these berries.”

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Graham, land steward for the Delaware Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and his boss, Andy Manus, are guiding a visitor through a marsh in eastern Kent County. This former farmland is now part of the Milford Neck Preserve, 2,800 acres of undeveloped beaches and dunes, tidal marshlands, swamp and upland forest. The Nature Conservancy acquired the land in the early 1990s.

Wading through the marsh in hip boots, Graham and Manus are in their element as they describe their efforts to transform the land into a habitat for birds and wildlife. Manus points out a bird wheeling in the sky off to the east, and they quickly grab their binoculars and identify it as a northern harrier. Their speech is peppered with names like greater and lesser yellow-leg egret, Cooper’s hawk, swamp chestnut oak, sweetbay magnolia and, of course, the hated phragmites.

Graham stops at a stand of fenced-in saplings and bushes, a “habitat island” that he and Rick McCorkle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designed and planted last April as part of the USFWS Coastal Program Cooperative Agreement through the Delaware Bay Estuary Project. The island, one of 10 he and McCorkle created, is a mix of rapidly growing trees like red maple, tulip poplar and willow oak, plus a few native shrubs. It prompts Graham to deliver a quick nature tutorial that highlights aviary digestive systems.

“Birds aren’t really adept at finding individual oak trees,” he says, “but they’re extraordinarily adept at finding these tightly-grouped collections of trees. They perch on them, they chase insects around. As these birds travel from the surrounding woods out to these habitat islands, they bring with them all the fruit, berries and nut seeds that they eat in the woods, and out they come from the opposite end of the bird. And so what happens is we’re getting more native plants into the local area by attracting the birds. Kind of like, you build it, they will come.”

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Adds Manus, “If you give nature half a chance, she is pretty resilient.”

That’s what the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy has been doing since 1991—giving nature half a chance, sometimes more. With a staff of just six and a charmingly small operating budget of $660,000, this nonprofit has acquired seven nature preserves totaling 5,344 acres and holds easements on seven properties totaling 995 acres. In addition, working with state and federal government agencies and other partners, the Delaware chapter has managed to protect 30,000 acres of forests, beaches, farmlands and wetlands.

In fact, through the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Program, also established in 1991, almost one-third of Delaware’s available farmland has been preserved. That’s more per capita than in any other state. This is especially remarkable considering that participation in the program is voluntary and that development pressure is tremendous in Delaware, which is the sixth most densely populated state.

“Our plans are to expand our conservation acreage over the next 15 to 20 years to include an additional 90,000 acres that will include wetland areas,” says Roger Jones, who has been state director of the conservancy since 1994. He explains the chapter has a three-pronged mission: protecting the land through purchase and gifts, restoring natural habitats and, largely through lobbying, supporting good conservation policies at the state and federal levels.

There is plenty worth protecting among the state’s 1.25 million acres. Natural wonders abound here, with hundreds of miles of coastline on both the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, as well as myriad marshes, beaches, dunes, rivers and forests. One of the world’s great natural phenomena occurs each spring on the Delaware Bay, as millions of horseshoe crabs emerge from the bay to spawn on the beaches. The event coincides with the arrival of thousands of shorebirds migrating north from South and Central America. This may be the only feeding stop for a number of shorebirds such as the Red Knot on their 10,000-mile journey to breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.

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Perhaps as a result of these advantages of land and sea, the state is chockablock with nature organizations. They include the Delaware Nature Society, Delaware Wild Lands, Brandywine Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited. In addition, there are environmental groups such as Green Delaware that focus on protecting the environment.

The existence of these organizations may be one reason Delaware was the last state to form a Nature Conservancy, according to Jones. “There were two other nonprofits in existence, the Delaware Nature Society and Delaware Wild Lands,” he says. “We wanted to establish the chapter in the right way and make sure toes didn’t get stepped on.”

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A United Way participant, the DNC is funded largely through gifts from corporations, foundations and local governments. Sussex County Council has been especially generous. In August 2009, at the recommendation of the non-profit Sussex County Land Trust, which advises the county on preservation efforts, the council contributed $58,325 toward the purchase of 25 acres in the Nanticoke River Watershed. The farmland and forest is adjacent to the conservancy’s 440-acre Middleford North Preserve. The county’s contribution will pay for half of the purchase. And in April the DNC purchased a conservation easement on 507 acres adjacent to 9,000-acre Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, protecting even more marsh, woods and ag lands—one of the most important waterfowl habitats in the world.

The DNC also receives support from its 3,100 members, whose dues start at $25 per year. Jones likes to point out that DNC’s administrative costs are minimal: 91 percent of all the contributions received in Delaware for the past 10 years have been used either for the purchase of land or for conservation programs.

The DNC concentrates on three areas: the coastal shoreline, especially the Delaware Bay, an area that includes Milford Neck; the Nanticoke River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware’s “last wild” river, whose waters teem with wildlife; and the Blackbird-Millington Corridor, a forested area that stretches between Smyrna and Middletown, which is home to a diversity of plants, animals and rare ecological systems.

The DNC preserves these lands in two ways. First, as a straightforward acquisition through purchase or gift. Landowners, especially farmers who donate property deemed conservation land, receive major tax incentives. They can deduct the sale price from their adjusted gross income.

The second method is to partner with state and federal natural resource agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control or the U. S. Fish and Wildlife service, to help the chapter acquire or add properties to its holdings.

Essentially, says Jones, the DNC acquires the land, then resells it to a state or federal agency “at our cost.” The conservancy is able to do this because it’s “lean and mean,” says Mike Parkowski, an attorney with offices in Dover and Wilmington, who is chairman of the DNC board of trustees.

“The wheels of government turn slowly,” says Parkowski, who also represents DuPont and other large Delaware entities. “That couldn’t be more true than when the government decides it wants to acquire interest in property, especially the federal government, and the state government to a lesser extent.” By contrast, he says, “The Nature Conservancy can go in, get the property under contract, and actually go to closing.”

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The local chapter can receive what amounts to a bridge loan, with a very favorable interest rate, from the national office of The Nature Conservancy. Then, when the public entity has received all the necessary approvals, the DNC is able to turn the land over to the public entity and be reimbursed, then move on to the next project.

Once the land is acquired, it often must be reclaimed from invasive plant species like phragmites. Along with climate change leading to rising sea levels, this reed-like perennial grass is cited by Jones as a leading threat to much of Delaware’s natural habitats.

John Graham has done battle with phragmites, and he’s come out on top. “We maintain a very aggressive invasive plant control program,” says Graham, as he and Andy Manus continue wading through the Milford Neck marsh. “We have a great collaborative conservation success story down here. Delaware Wild Lands, The Nature Conservancy, private landowners, the state of Delaware have all worked together on beating back phragmites on the marshes. Once you’ve seen a marsh that had 90 percent to 95 percent of phragmites on it, crowding out everything, and you watch the marsh recover, it’s unbelievable.”

Fourteen years ago, at the age of 37, Graham abandoned a career in commercial landscape construction to attend UD as a returning adult student. He graduated cum laude in 1999 with a degree in entomology and a concentration in wildlife conservation, then went to work for the DNC. Places like this are why he changed careers.

He pauses, taking in the new trees and shrubs growing on this reclaimed ground. Then, with just a touch of pride, he says, “You wouldn’t even know it’s the same marsh.”

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