When the Union Camp Corp. announced in 1973 that it would donate 50,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp to the federal government, the problems of American's last great East Coastal wilderness appeared to be over.
Timbered and burned intermitently for 200 years, and more recently threatened by drainage and development, the swamp was now to be set aside and managed for wildlife instead of for man.
Five years later, however, the Great Dismal lies tangled in bureaucratic snarls as thick as the peat-rooted cypress stumps circling Lake Drummond - and if some problems have vanished with the federal presence, others have emerged.
When fire breaks out in the forested peat bogs near here, for example, the rangers can't just call the nearest fire department. They must notify the U.S. Fish and Wildlife headquarters in Boise, Idaho, which in turn must notify the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources in Raleigh, which in turn will decide how many firefighters and how much equipment to dispatch from where to battle the swamp fire in Virginia.
If the refuge manager decides some trees must be cut, a field must be burnes or some deer must be shot for the welfare of the swamp ecosystem as a whole, he can't just order it done. He must prepare an environmental impact statement on every aspect of the proposed action - a statement that may cost thousands of tax dollars and take six months to prepare - and get it approved in Washington by someone who may never have seen the swamp.
If a government biologist needs an aerial photo of the swamp taken 33 years ago to gauge tree growth since 1944, he can't just have one sent down from Washington: all aerial photos of the region taken between 1938 and 1945 are still classified under World War II regulations.
"The bigger the bureaucracy the more complicated things become," said Mary Keith Garrett, acting manager of the Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. "I've learned a phenomenal lesson in patience."
Wetter than a soaked sponge, more tangled than a "Tarzan" set and nearly three times the size of the District of Columbia, the Great Dismal is actually not a swamp at all but a 9,000-year-old peat bog oozing atop the sand of a million-year-old beach that straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Once a sprawling, 2,200-square-mile jungle of moss-hung cypress where bald eagles roosted and panthers prowled, the Great Dismal today has been shrunk by timering and drainage to less than 200 square miles, most of it in second-growth forest of cedar, maple, poplar and gum.
Though the panthers are long gone, the swamp still teems with wildlife, from bats and barn swallows to bobcat and bear. More than 75 species of birds nest in its trees and marshy thickets and many more winter there or rest on their seasonal migrations.
As rich in history as it is in wildlife, the Great Dismal was ditched and logged by the founding fathers, not all of whom found in its bugs and bogs something to admire.
William Bryd II, who mucked his way through the Great Dismal in 1728 to survey the Virginia-North Carolina border, called it a "horrible desart (sic) . . . this vast body of dirt and nastiness."
Over the years, however, the Great Dismal developed many friends who envisioned for it it a future free from the depredations of man.
One of them is Alvah Duke, a snaggle-toothed nature guide maybe five feet tall, who has written, lectured, testified, and harassed people with swamp facts, pleas, and humor for most of his 60-odd years.
It is largely due to Duke, many people believe, that the swamp is now a national wildlife refuge - 123,000 acres in a strip roughly 10 miles wide stretching from U.S. Route 58 east of here south to U.S. 158 in North Carolina. Some 14,000 acres of that lies in North Carolina and will be administered by the state as a state park.
Duke todays run boat tours from a former sawmill landing south of Portsmouth to Lake Drummond, the shallow body of wine-colored water brooding at the heart of the swamp.
He has little use for the timber companies that used to own the swamp ("they cut all the trees and shot all the game off") or the state of Virginia ("they never spent on thin dime on the swamp") or his special villains, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who he says "would drain the Dismal dry if they had half a chance."
He says that Mary Keith Garrett "knows more about the swamp than almost anybody. The federal government just won't give her the money she needs."
The swamps's fire protection problem is only one symptom of the complexities involved in managing the Great Dismal Swamp.
When Union Camp owned most of the swamp, the Virginia Division of Forestry provided fire protection in return for the taxes the company paid to the state.
Since February 1975, according to Marvin M. Sutherland, director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Economic Development, the state has been trying to work out an agreement to continue the service for a fee.
The state received little response, Sutherland said, and on March 11 discontinued fire protection for the swamp.
On March 24 the State Board of Conservation and Economic Development passed a resolution voicing its concern over the way the swamp has been overseen by the federal government.
Howard Woon, assistant regional director of refuges and wildlife for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said last week the service was "just trying to find the best bargain for the taxpayer." The state of Virginia, he said, wanted $10,000 a year just to keep an eye on the swamp, plus the cost of any actual firefighting.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, he said, worked out a better deal with the state of North Carolina. The whole program is coordinated through Boise, Idaho, because that's where the service's firefighting specialiss are, he said.
Woon himself watches over the Great Dismal from Boston.
Nobody is really very happy about the fire protection arrangement. Mary Keith Garrett, the acting refuge manager - while anxious to criticize her superiors - admits she's "absolutely terrified" at the prospect of a fire in the swamp.
The concern is real, and not just because of the Great Dismal's trees. The peat underlying the swamp is actually decaying wood and leaves en route to becoming coal, and it burns fairly easily.
Fire has been part of the swamp since its birth. Test bores through the peatr have never failed to turn up charcoal, the tell-tale traces of ancient fires. Before man came the fires rarely burned very far: the swamp was too wet to permit it.
y burned very far: the swamp was too wet to permit it. (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)nd Co., dug the first ditch in the swamp in 1760. Today more than 140 miles of ditches lace the refuge land alone, bleeding away the moisture on which the life of the swamp depends.
It would seem that the best way to provide a healthy, fire-resistant swamp would be to simply block all the ditches, but nature is rarely that simple, particularly in a wetland ecology.
"The swamp actually gets seven to 10 times more water than it needs right now," Garrett explains. "The problem isn't that we don't have enough water. It's that what there is runs off too fast and isn't around in the dry months when we need it."
Deforestation of the higher lands to the west of the swamp has increased water runoff which used to percolate slowly through the spongy peat over many weeks.
Now it runs, into the swamp and through the ditches and out the Dismal Swamp Canal to the east in a matter of days. That makes the swamp drier generally than it used to be and lower in residual water in the late summer and early fall.
Garrett and the refuge staff know they need water control dams on the dithces but they don't know exactly where they should put them, or, more importantly, how wet the swamp should be.
"The hydrology of the swamp is so complex, we need a water study badly," Garrett said, "but money for research is not easy to get. It's easy to build public pressure that will support something concrete - like a $30,000 water control structure. But it's hard to get money for research that will tell you how to use that $30,000 wisely."
Overriding the question of hydrology control is the question of how much managing an area like the Great Dismal requires. How much should man intrude into a natural area?
"The fire question is a good example," Garrett said. "We know fire has been a part of the swamp and should probably continue to be. We need open areas in the swamp where deer can find browse. We can either get them (the open areas) through controlled burning or modified cutting. That's an intrusion in the swamp, but man has already intruded and upset the natural balance . . . This is an adolescent forest with too many trees the same age. We are going to have to do something to encourage complexity."
Similarly, she said, the refuge may have to stage periodic hunts to thin a deer population that is overcrowding the swamp.
"We could wait until disease does it, but then people would say, 'You're supposed to be managing the wildlife. What kind of management is that?'," Garrett said.
In a purely natural area, overcrowding would lead to a short food supply, lost fawns, and a natural balance, she said. The deer in the Great Dismal, she said, just migrate a few miles to the peanut fields of Suffolk and paw up a high-protein diet that keeps the does healthy and productive and the fawns alive. What results, she said, is a 35 per cent increase in the swamp's deer herd every year, but a stunting in deer size due to overbreeding.
"As a biologist, I know that these things are going to have to be done.That's what are area management is all about.
"But I also know that the public is not going to be happy when we start hunting and logging in what they think of as a kind of Walt Disney preserve. And that's our fault. I'm afraid. As managers we've failed miserably to educate people to complexity . . . to what it requires to bring an area back and maintain it once man has intruded."
"I'm not sure we in the federal government have moved that process very far along, but we're trying," she said. "It just takes time . . . time and a lot more knowledge."