Restoring a Forest, One Tree at a Time

Every year, the National Aquarium Conservation team and volunteers travel to Nassawango Creek Preserve in Worcester County to plant Atlantic white cedar trees.

  • Conservation

Off the shores of the Pocomoke River in the heart of Maryland's Eastern Shore lies Nassawango Creek Preserve, a sprawling swamp and upland forest habitat that spans nearly 10,000 acres. Rare native plant species, including several types of orchids, can be found among the trunks of towering trees. The forest is home to dozens of species of native birds, and in the spring and fall, the preserve is a haven for countless migrating songbirds.

Since 2009, the National Aquarium has partnered with The Nature Conservancy for an annual tree planting event at Nassawango. Though several species of trees can be found on the preserve—including the bald cypress and black gum trees that dominate the forest—the bulk of our planting work focuses on one species: the Atlantic white cedar. Every fall, Atlantic white cedar saplings are provided to students in Worcester County, who care for the saplings until they're ready to be planted at the preserve in the spring.

At this year's event in March, 95 Atlantic white cedar saplings were planted—along with 50 bald cypresses—with the help of 31 volunteers, bringing the grand total of Atlantic white cedar trees planted since 2009 to 41,473.

The Atlantic White Cedar

The Atlantic white cedar is an evergreen tree, with scaly leaves that grow in fern-like structures. These trees have adapted to thrive in the wet, acidic soil of the lowland swamps of the coastal Atlantic region. Once prevalent along the Atlantic coastline from Maine to Florida, the species was nearly decimated from deforestation because of its dense, heat- and water-resistant lumber, which is highly desirable for commercial uses. Once depleted, the wetlands that Atlantic white cedars formerly occupied were drained to make it suitable for growing loblolly pines, perhaps the most commercially important tree in the southeastern United States.

As with so many species, the removal of the dense strands of Atlantic white cedar—and the draining of the swamps where it grew—had devastating consequences for the greater ecosystem. Their removal displaced various species of wildlife that depended on the trees and wetlands for food and habitat, including deer, beavers and birds—but the white cedar's disappearance didn't only negatively impact wildlife.

The cedar swamps help to store stormwater and the wet, marshy soil that's ideal for Atlantic white cedars to grow acts as a natural sponge, helping to prevent flooding in adjacent areas and reduce rapid stormwater runoff and sedimentation into the Chesapeake Bay. This sponge effect also filters potentially toxic runoff before it reaches the Bay and helps to keep the forest soil hydrated during summer droughts. The dense, evergreen stands of white cedar provide winter refuge and food for various species as well as a cool refuge from the summer's heat. With the destruction of the Atlantic white cedar habitat at Nassawango came the disappearance of these vitally important ecological functions.

Fast forward to present day, and Nassawango is once again a thriving wetland habitat for Atlantic white cedars that can perform their functions of storing and filtering floodwaters before they reach the Bay, as well as providing habitat for native plant and animal species.

Plant a Tree, Save the Bay

Believe it or not, planting a tree—whether it's an Atlantic white cedar or another native species—is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve the Bay's water quality. The majority of the Bay's current health problems can be traced to the removal of the once plentiful forests in its 64,000-square-mile watershed, and their restoration is a critical component to the Bay's restoration.

Volunteers Planting Saplings in Front of Atlantic White Cedar Forest Landscape

All forest ecosystems in a watershed store, filter and slowly release cool, clean water into the Bay, and extensive root systems hold soil in place, preventing erosion and sediment runoff. There's a direct relationship between the amount of tree cover and the quality of a watershed's water; according to The Conservation Fund, reducing a watershed's forests by 10% leads to as much as a 40% increase in harmful nitrogen in the water.

Compare this lean, green water filtration machine to a "hardscape" such as a city, where, during a rain event, impervious surfaces cap the soil and prevent much of the rainfall from flowing into the ground, like it would in a forest. Instead, the majority of rainfall becomes direct surface runoff, picking up harmful pollutants on its way as it rapidly enters storm drains and waterways.

Trees aren't just for forests, however. Planting a tree in the city—even in a rooftop planter—is still a positive step and helps reduce stormwater runoff that carries harmful excess nutrients and pollutants into our local waterways, and eventually, the Bay. Planting just one tree can reduce detrimental stormwater runoff by 13,000 gallons a year and has significant implications for the health of the Bay that 18 million residents of its watershed depend on. Planting trees is also a cost-effective way to mitigate climate change—trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil, and better yet, they never send you a bill for this important service!

Ready to get your hands dirty and help the Bay by planting a tree? Head over to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website to learn more about how to get started!

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