BALTIMORE – It didn’t seem much in the way of a celebration — tramping around in black, oozing mud, breathing in briny, sulfuric odors and toiling in the sun.
But for the volunteers involved in revitalizing the 8-acre tidal wetland near Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, the project was the perfect way to celebrate Earth Day, which has been held each April 22 since 1970.
By sunset today, more than 500 volunteers will have planted 55,000 marsh grasses over four acres of land to prevent erosion, control flooding and filter waters emptying into the fragile Chesapeake Bay.
Earth Day is about honoring “our surroundings and our planet,” said Angie Ashley, Chesapeake Bay Program manager for the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
“We’ve turned the focus of Earth Day into teaching our community about how they can help in their own back yard,” namely, the bay, Ashley added. “Everyone can be a responsible steward.”
It’s a “great laboratory” and a “living classroom,” said Aquarium Conservation Biologist David Nemerson, not only for interns but for inner-city children with little exposure to the environment.
Several Baltimore public schools sent troops of students to volunteer in the five days leading up to Earth Day and teachers said the activities have made classroom science lessons more real.
“Often, urban kids are expected to know things they have not been previously exposed to,” said Nicole Veltre, science teacher at Digital Harbor High School for nine years. “It’s easy to read about a food chain but it’s not so easy to understand it.”
Some students said the foreign terrain was initially very daunting and uninspiring.
“At first I felt like I was a farmer,” said Dwight McFadden, 15, of Digital High.
But after learning how wetlands absorb and filter trash and other impurities and provide habitats for animals, Dwight said, “I feel like I made a difference.”
For others, it was a welcome opportunity to explore, spend some time near the water and test their knowledge.
“I’m excited,” said Frazell Harrison, 12, who swept in with a frolicking crowd of fifth- and sixth-graders from Waverly Elementary.
After months of mucking around in the politics of the Maryland General Assembly, which ended April 12, Gov. Robert Ehrlich and several members of his Cabinet are now free to join volunteers in the mud today.
“Scientists agree that excess nutrients are killing the bay,” said Ehrlich in a prepared statement. Wetlands help prevent pollution and “nutrient reduction, together with the replenishment of wetland and bay grasses and the restoration of the oyster population, will help restore the bay.”
This year, the governor’s environmental agenda focused on water quality and his presence at the project reflects that focus, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
But it may also reflect this wetland’s unique status as one of the few remaining in the lower Patapsco River watershed.
The small patch of land doesn’t seem like much, surrounded by so many signs of industry — from ships unloading their cargo at the port nearby, to warehouses and a patchwork of train rails.
But it supports about 220 bird species – more than 50 percent of all Maryland’s bird species – crabs, fish and other plant and animal life.
“It’s like an oasis, a green spot in an urban area,” said volunteer Jim Peters, a bird watcher for 64 years.
The watershed was created in the 1980s to balance the negative impact of the Fort McHenry Interstate 95 tunnel construction.
Channels were dug in the marsh to allow daily tidal exchange with the nearby harbor water, but over the years they became clogged, disrupting the proper functioning of the marsh and endangering plant and animal life.
Under this estimated $500,000 project, which was sponsored by the Maryland Port Administration as another “balancing act,” channels were cut into the sea wall to allow water to move through the wetland.
Darlene Franks, spokeswoman for the port, said the project dispels the belief that the port and a healthy ecology cannot coexist: “Industry and the environment can work well together.”