For Fragile Md. Isle, Help From Holiday Past

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

POPLAR ISLAND, Md. -- Only one explanation seemed to fit the scene unfolding at an Eastern Shore dock: The Grinch was back. He'd bought a boat. And he was about to get away with it again.

It was a frigid morning in the watermen's town of Tilghman, and the big ship Terrapin was being loaded with Christmas trees. Full, round trees. Stunted, apartment-size ones. Dried-out brownish trees and oddly-still-green trees and a couple of trees with ornaments still stowed away in them.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" said Derek Dombrowski, an environmental specialist with the Maryland Environmental Service, standing amid the brushy, pine-smelling pile. "Merry Christmas!"

But despite the Seussian overtones, these trees were being taken for science, not spite.

On this January day, they were headed to a wind-blasted spot in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, where scientists are trying to reconstruct a nearly vanished island. Out there, last year's holiday greenery has an unusual second life, providing birds with a place to roost until the island can grow its own trees.

"We're losing the island habitats pretty rapidly" as development and erosion take their toll around the Chesapeake, said Peter McGowan, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By placing the trees on this island, he said, "we're trying to give the habitat a jump-start."

Poplar Island, the trees' new home, sits across the bay from Anne Arundel County, a little more than a mile off the Eastern Shore. Planners say the environmental project is one of the most ambitious in this area in recent memory: an attempt to re-create an island, and the wild communities that once lived on it, on a foundation of dredged-up Chesapeake mud.

"We would expect, when we are finished, to have a beautiful marsh, to have a forest," that would replace acres of lost island habitat for Chesapeake birds, said Mark Mendelsohn, a biologist working on the island for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It would just be kind of a paradise."

The island once was more than 1,000 acres, making it more than three times the size of the Mall in Washington. The first white settlers arrived in the 1630s, and at times there were a church, a schoolhouse and a moonshining operation. There also were farm fields. After a raid cleared out the moonshiners in 1929, the island was used as a hunting club for Democratic Party bigwigs.

But the whole time, it was slowly eroding.

The Chesapeake has not been kind to its islands. The land under them is sinking because of a geological hangover from the last ice age. In recent decades, the water has been rising, pushed up by factors including climate change.

By the late 1990s, the island had dwindled to fewer than 10 acres.

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