Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: A Sinking Treasure

Got a sinking feeling?

If thinking about the COVID-19 Pandemic, the impending presidential election, climate change and the myriad environmental challenges we face gives you a sinking feeling, that sensation might be more accurate than you know—especially if you live on the Eastern shore of the U.S.  The Mid-Atlantic Region, part of the North American Continental Plate, especially along the east coast, is sinking, while at the same time sea level is rising here.  This subsidence of the land or isostatic rebound, as it is called, is thought to be the result of glacial melting, which allows other portions of the plate to rise as the massive weight of melting ice sheets decreases.  In contrast, glacial melting in Alaska and Iceland for instance, also part of the North American Continental Plate, are causing the land there to rise and the sea level to lower.  This double whammy of natural and manmade environmental changes might make you think, “Run for the hills!”.  However, unlike a seesaw, the rise and fall is not uniform across the plate but undulating much like a piece of warm elastic.  This was news to me.  I knew about sea level rise, but not the land sinking.  

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (BNWR) in Cambridge, Maryland is a case study for researchers and scientists studying these simultaneous climate forces, which makes the region particularly valuable and vulnerable. Here the changes aren’t theoretical, they are happening at an accelerated rate and can be seen clearly in the ghost forests, the easily flooded roadways, the disappearance of some wildlife species, and the encroaching water at local doorsteps. 

Follow the Public Lands’ Money

Further complicating these landscape and environmental challenges, the 50 plus year bipartisan marriage between the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the energy industry could go down the drain if the President’s proposed 2021 Budget is approved.  Despite public comments of support via Twitter by the President for full and permanent funding of LWCF within the proposed legislation (S.3422) The Great American Outdoors Act, the true math shows the proposed budget for National Parks is cut by roughly $500 million for 2021.  The new bipartisan legislation, with the support of 59 Senators from both sides of the aisle, seeks to remedy the routine raiding and re-directing of LWCF funds to other non-public land uses.  As an example, in 2019, of the $900 million deposited to the LWCF, only $495 million actually made it to LWCF projects which flies in the face of a $20 billion backlog of maintenance and infrastructure needs within public lands, and over $22 billion LWCF dollars diverted over 55 years of its history.  The President has also led an effort to open once protected lands out west to mining and private enterprise.

Standing on solid ground and the facts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a beneficiary of LWCF money, is comprised of roughly 28,000 acres of wetlands, forest and open water. In his 11 years at this wetland refuge, Matt Whitbeck, resident wildlife biologist has seen changes in a decade that one might expect to occur over the course of a century. He co-authored a report in 2013 with The Conservation Fund and the National Audubon Society detailing the accelerated rate of sea level rise. The report also forecasts the loss of the marsh by 2100 and the realization that maintaining the current footprint of the refuge isn’t possible. He supports the new non-traditional approach that seeks to preserve and acquire land where the marsh is likely to migrate in hopes of a better long term survival strategy.

A New Strategy In Preservation: Let it Move

Since becoming a refuge in 1933 areas that were once forested are now drowning and transitioning to wetlands, and in other areas what was once marsh has become open water.  It has been reported that some 5000 acres of coastal wetlands have been lost or converted to open water since the 1930s.  As the land sinks and sea level rises the wetland is migrating from its 1933 borders and officials are trying to stay ahead of the up slope movement of the wetlands and how that will impact the refuge, the wildlife and the local community. 

1938 Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy BNWR
1974 Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy BNWR
1989 Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy of BNWR

The Blackwater River was dredged in 2017 bringing up 26,000 cubic yards of mud to a submerged area of marsh, and plugged with 220,000 sprigs of native water-loving vegetation.  This effort is a more traditional approach that tries to keep the marsh closer to its current footprint.  In a new approach,  The Land and Water Conservation Fund has assisted in the acquisition of large upland land parcels as they become available where researchers and surveyors expect the refuge to continue its march in hopes that identifying and protecting these areas will be a better approach to preservation. 

The LWCF has always enjoyed bipartisan support, investing earmarked energy drilling revenues, rather than tax dollars, back into conservation of public lands and support for national parks since the ‘60s.  However, in all these years it has yet to receive permanent funding from Congress despite being a widely supported, budgetary mainstay on both sides of the political aisle. Given recent environmental rollbacks related to coal production and clean water regulations, the lack of permanent funding as well as the diversion of funds away from LWCF and national parks is cause for alarm.  At Blackwater, as an example, water quality monitoring is now being handled by a team of individuals and non-profit conservation groups as staffing at the refuge has been shrinking under the stress of rising costs and flat line funding.

. . . decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”  Michael Honeycutt, chairman, EPA Science Advisory Board

Furthermore, recent rollbacks in E.P.A clean water restrictions, driven by the Trump Administration, threaten to rewind years of progress—not just here at Blackwater, but nationally. This, coupled with the budgetary threats to LWCF, puts these environmental treasures at tremendous risk. Given the President’s pattern to conceal his genuine intent, his Twitter-promises to LWCF seem to belie a different truth for public lands–one that does not seek to protect but to profit, no matter the cost to the land.

Moonrise over Blackwater National Refuge

The wetland water of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay, is still challenged by pollutants.  The rollbacks remove protections for seasonal/ephemeral waterways, ground water, or sources not adjacent to large bodies of water allowing industrial and agricultural chemical dumping, pesticide use and the destruction or filling in of natural wetlands in construction projects even though it’s well established that pollutants find their way into the greater water supply system via wildlife or unseen connectivity.  The E.P.A’s very own advisory council reports that these rollbacks lack justification and defy scientific impacts to the greater watershed systems.  It’s hard to imagine that there’s any denial of the connectivity of natural watershed systems—some of which may be hard to trace.  Similarly, the rejection and undermining of science is what Matt Whitbeck points to as one of his greatest concerns.  He makes the point that science by its very definition is unbiased, but he’s seen that belief challenged. His job is to protect this habitat for the wildlife that thrives within it, and the global forces behind the changes described are presenting a risk to wildlife and humans alike.  He shows visitors the undeniable sea level changes, and lets them come to their own conclusions.

BNWR Visitors Center

Besides serving as a filtering system for the bay and a buffer during storms, the marsh is also one of the largest breeding grounds for American Eagles and other migratory birds along the east coast.  No longer considered an endangered species, the breeding eagle population is strong at Blackwater.  It’s a favorite spot for bird watchers,  photographers, kayakers, fishermen, hunters and cyclists.  Younger visitors may not recall a time when eagles and osprey were endangered because of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT which interrupted normal breeding and poisoned the birds via contaminated water from direct or runoff water sources and contaminated fish they consumed.  Additionally, the refuge is still recovering from damage caused by the vegetation ravaging rodent called Nutria, whose apparent eradication has not been officially confirmed, but expected.

An Unexpected Discovery

I only discovered Blackwater Refuge two years ago, during a weekend trip, and now I find myself visiting and exploring frequently in the early morning to capture photos of the landscape and the wildlife.  It’s less than two hours from Washington, D.C.  I usually arrive before dawn.  Once I turn off the main road to the shore points, time slows.  It’s quiet here, even in the summer.   In the winter it feels abandoned.  I usually see something new each visit: a quality to the light, a chance encounter with an eagle or some other creature.  On this day it’s snowing lightly. The air and wildlife move about freely in a quiet rush of feeding and surveying.  I’m an intruder and watched by the wildlife and the locals.  The flat land lets the wind glide along with little interruption which adds to the feeling of remoteness and wildness.  In the winter, the unfettered, damp wind can be brutally cold.  Cambridge, Maryland’s business district is fifteen minutes away, buffered by a multitude of farms of varying sizes and conditions.  The occasional car will pass.  I’m noticed immediately by a dog when I stop at dawn to take a photo of an older farm house decorated for Christmas.  I move along not wanting to cause disruption, but I may be too late for that. 

A Legend Lived Here

As if the wetland isn’t reason enough to protect this area, it’s also the home to one of the greatest American heroes of the Underground Railroad—Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery herself and returned approximately 13 times to lead other enslaved people to freedom.  (The Harriet Tubman Museum is a must stop here.  Driving the area, one can only imagine the physical, 19th Century hardships one would endure trying to navigate, surreptitiously, on foot. 

This is a place and a story I will continue to document, to preserve, and to protect. If you visit, please leave no trace.

©Amy Linn Doherty and Pawpro Media

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Linn Doherty with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Scott Neuman, Colin Slyer, Trump Administration Cuts Back Federal Protection For Streams And Wetlands, , NPR, January 23, 2020 10:37 AM ET, Updated at 3:20 p.m.,

Coral Davenport, Trump Removes Pollution Controls on Streams and Wetlands, January 22, 2019,, The New York Times

Daniel Strain, The Future of Maryland’s Blackwater Marsh, January 14, 2015, ,, fact sheets, LWCF General Fact Sheet, Great American Outdoors Fact Sheet