As development marches on, conserved lands benefit plants, animals … and people

By Lynn R. Parks | Photograph by Kevin Fleming
From the July 2014 issue

ParadisePreserved-byKevinFlemingFor people interested in preserving the Earth’s forests, recent news has been pretty bleak. In the November 2013 issue of Science magazine, researchers cited satellite imagery and global data in reporting that the world lost 2.3 million square kilo­meters of forest from 2000 to 2012.

A United Nations report puts the decimation in more graspable terms: Nearly 13 million acres of forest is lost every year — the equivalent of a soccer field-sized woodlot every second.

Closer to home, the Delaware Department of Agriculture estimated in 2006 that 3,000 acres of forest were being ripped out every year to accommodate residential or commercial development. That number is down now, says spokesman Daniel Shortridge, because of the recent recession and slow recovery. But many of the anticipated developments that the estimate was based on are still pending, waiting for the right economic conditions to get underway.

Coastal Sussex isn’t exempt from the trend. The new Global Forest Watch website, which displays the data used in the international forest loss report, shows numerous pink spots on the eastern side of the county, indicating places where forests disappeared between 2000 and 2012. Many of those locations are in the inland bays watershed; some are alongside the bays themselves or on associated tributaries.

“When someone wants to develop land, it seems that the forest is always the path of least resistance,” says State Forester Mike Valenti. “Wetlands are protected by law, landowners are reluctant to sell farmland, so big projects usually go through woodland.”

But take heart, forest lovers. All is not lost.

The Science article says that in addition to the declines, there were also gains in forestland worldwide — 800,000 square kilometers’ worth. Locally, the Global Forest Watch graphic shows some purple splotches amid all the pink in the eastern part of the county, indicating where woodland has been replanted or come back on its own.

And perhaps most reassuring of all, coastal Sussex boasts nearly 35,000 acres of conserved land — property that will never be cleared and developed. Ron Vickers, manager of the state’s Land Preservation Office, part of the Division of Parks and Recreation, says that while much of that is marshland, not surprising for a coastal region, nearly half of it is forest.

(Sussex County covers a little more than 600,000 acres. The area that Delaware Beach Life defines as “coastal Sussex” — from Prime Hook to Fenwick Island, Selbyville to Milton — is about a third of that.)

Much of the area’s conserved land, about 16,500 acres, is owned by the state — think state parks, nature preserves and fish and wildlife areas — or is managed under a conservation easement owned by the state.

A little more than 10,000 acres are owned by the federal government at the Prime Hook National Wildlife Area east of Milton. Even Sussex County, that bastion of private property rights, owns two parcels, the 155-acre James Farm, located on Indian River Bay and managed by the Center for the Inland Bays, and 25 acres at Salt Pond in Bethany Beach.

Nonprofit groups also own a share of the protected properties. Delaware Wild Lands owns thousands of acres of the Great Cypress Swamp east of Selbyville. The Nature Conservancy owns three preserves totaling 1,500 acres, the Delaware Nature Society has a 110-acre site along the Delaware Bay, and the Sussex Land Trust has two sites: one near Dagsboro (and being considered as the location of the Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens) and another east of Milton near the Broadkill River.

The Nature Conservancy also holds six conservation easements totaling 1,234 acres and the Sussex County Land Trust has two easements totaling 383 acres. (A conservation easement means that the property is legally protected from development in perpetuity. The easement, which stays in place even if the land is sold, can be held by the landowner or by a separate entity. In the latter case, the landowner still has access to and use of the land, as long as he abides by the terms of the easement.)

Conservation of wildlands is vital, of course, for the animals and plants that live there. But increasingly, as more land is developed, conservation is becoming important for people as well, says Richard Jones, director of the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“Preserving habitat is critical for fish and migratory birds,” he explains. “But forests capture and store water and play a big role in preserving drinking water purity. Forests and wetlands play a large role in flood mitigation and coastal resiliency. What we are doing benefits nature. But more and more, it’s important to humans.”

Vickers, who has been with the Land Preservation Office for nearly 30 years, declines to pick one piece of conserved eastern Sussex land, or even several pieces, as his favorite.

“Each one of them has its value,” he insists. “For people who want to protect the coast, the property along the coast is most important. For people who want to protect birding spots, those properties are the best. And for people who are worried about rare habitats, properties that are home to those have the most value.”

Vickers may be unwilling to cite a preference. But Delaware Beach Life has selected several conserved properties to highlight their value to the ecosystem and the larger community. From the dark and wild Great Cypress Swamp to the bayside Marvel Salt Marsh, each is a reminder of what makes coastal Sussex special, and of why conservation of natural areas is so important.

* * *

To Read This Full Story:

Buy this issue online

Buy on a newsstand