The Elms Environmental Education Center has been involved with student service since its inception.
Why a native plant nursery?
The environmental education program of St. Mary’s County Public Schools has, for years, been conducting small scale service learning projects around wetland and native plant restoration. Throughout, the availability of native plant material has been a limiting factor, forcing compromises and the utilization of hybrid or non-native species. Other organizations involved with habitat restoration and living shoreline activities have communicated the same lament. As the value of working with only native plant material has become better understood, the availability of plants has decreased. The nursery component of this project aims to address this need by providing plant material for SMCPS restoration efforts as well as the efforts of state and local government and other community organizations. The wetland habitat restoration component will address the lack of wetland plant diversity in a county with over 300 years of agricultural history.
To start, the project will focus on the nursery component as it will take at least a year to grow out many species of wetland plants to a usable size. The first year will include a number of workshops for teachers to introduce them to the project and increase their knowledge of wetland plants and restoration efforts. Students will collect and sow seed, build infrastructure and care for plants. Student lessons will be based on the State Curriculum and will revolve around wetland plant adaptations, wetland evaluations, biological inventories and sound horticultural practices. Initially, at least two seventh grade classes will pilot restoration projects. High school students will conduct pre and post wetland inventories to measure the impact of the restoration on plant and animal diversity. In subsequent years increasing numbers (as the availability of plant material dictates) of restoration projects will be undertaken with technical support of MDDNR, Environmental Concern, the horticultural program of the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center and other high school classes. By the third year additional native plant material should be available to support a wide range of restoration activities throughout the county undertaken by a variety of community groups. Restoration activities may include rain gardens, wildlife habitat creation, reforestation, erosion control and wetland restoration/diversification.
Why Wetlands Matter ...
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Consistent, long-term protection for wetlands at the Federal, state, and local level is essential for the protection of the fish habitats and fisheries that are so important to the economy of Maryland.” This program will provide St. Mary’s County Public School students and teachers with the initial and essential infrastructure and training necessary not only to make a meaningful contribution to wetland restoration throughout the county, but to lead and revitalize community efforts to improve and protect essential wetland habitat.
Wetland, stream, forest and underwater habitat creation and restoration have become a significant focus of the Chesapeake Bay Program, The Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDDNR) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in their combined efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to its former glory. Since the time of colonization, Maryland has lost an estimated 73% of its wetland base. St. Mary’s County has been especially hard hit as it has contributed over 300 years of agriculture, fishing and development pressure on local wetlands. Compared to the most diverse habitats found on the Eastern Shore, the tidal and freshwater wetlands of St. Mary’s County have been profoundly denuded.
An estimated 78% of Maryland’s commercial fishing industry is esturine-dependent with many local and migrating species directly dependent on tidal wetlands for nursery habitat, shelter and food. With the ongoing annual decline of crab and menhaden harvests it has become increasingly apparent and economically vital, to both protect and restore our wetland resources. St. Mary’s County contains over 15,000 acres of tidal wetlands (6.8% of total acreage), yet between 1998 and 2003 only 108 acres of wetland have been restored. As Southern Maryland is the fastest growing region in the state, ongoing development pressure will only add to local wetland loss and alteration.
Over the coming decade the environmental education program of St. Mary’s County Public Schools aims to play a leading role in the bay-wide effort to restore our wetland base. This will be accomplished by providing a consistent source of local native wetland plants and involving as many students as possible in hands on wetland restoration activities.