Fones Cliffs: It Could Be Lost Forever, Part 3

We have just three days left to stand up and fight for one of the most beautiful and pristine places in the Chesapeake watershed. Fones Cliffs is an idyllic and dramatic spot in Richmond County on Virginia's Northern Neck. The extensive forest and high white cliffs rising above the Rappahannock River provide an ideal hunting perch for the hundreds of eagles that migrate through the area, as well as numerous nesting pairs.  

But a large part of this remarkable place and the wildlife that depend on it is at risk.* A short-sighted, Miami-based developer is petitioning to rezone the land so he can turn this unique and fragile site into parking lots, commercial development, and townhouses. 

Perhaps there's no one who knows this extraordinary part of the world better than Bill Portlock—educator, naturalist, photographer. With the lens of his camera below, Portlock shows us just how much is at stake if we were to lose this jewel of the Rappahannock. 

Adult bald eagle. Our national bird inhabits Fones Cliffs in unusually large numbers. There are breeding pairs, sub-adult (eagles that do not reproduce until four or five years old), and non-breeding pairs, including bald eagles from the Canadian Maritimes (in winter) and Florida (during the summer). Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Fones Cliffs at Luke’s Island with adjacent wetlands. This brackish (a mix of fresh and salt water) marsh leads to the headwaters of Garland Creek where there is a bald eagle communal roost. These roost sites are comprised of non-breeding birds that gather closely together in what is called a larger "concentration zone" of eagles—just one reason Fones Cliffs are so important. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Drake's marsh, a brackish marsh six miles upstream from Fones Cliffs. The cliffs may be seen on the distant left horizon. The dominant wetland plant here is Spartina cynosuroides or Tall Cordgrass. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Caspian Terns have a conversation while resting on a submerged log. Caspian Terns are the largest terns in the world and are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are usually only present on the Rappahannock during their spring and fall migration. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Aerial view of Luke's Island with expansive miles-long view of Fones Cliffs at the top of the photo. Beverly Marsh across the Rappahannock is home to freshwater wetland plants like wild rice, pickerel weed, arrow arum, smartweeds, and many more important wetland plants. It is considered by wildlife biologists to be among the best black duck marshes in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Canada Geese fly over the Rappahanock River in front of Fones Cliffs on a December day. More than 15,000 wild, migratory Canada Geese like these are regularly observed in annual waterfowl surveys and Christmas Bird Count data from the Rappahannock. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


A great blue heron stalks prey along a marsh on the Rappahannock. Great blues feed on fish, crustaceans, and even small mammals. The birds nest colonially and are considered partially migratory along the East Coast. It is not unusual to see great blue herons on rivers in the Bay region every month of the year. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


A view of Fones Cliffs from Carter's Wharf in Richmond County. The public boat launch ramp once served as a stop on the 18th-century steamboat route. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Sub adult bald eagle flying along Fones Cliffs. Juvenile, immature bald eagles have brown plumage during their first year. In the second and third years they remain with brown feathers but have irregular white feathers as well, giving a mottled appearance. They attain their unique white head and tail with brown body feathers during their fourth or fifth year. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

Stand with us in protecting this jewel of the Rappahannock. Click here to sign the petition to Save the Eagles, Save Fones Cliffs before the rezoning hearing this Thursday, October 8!

*The part of Fones Cliffs that is owned by the Diatomite Corporation of America.

Fones Cliffs: It Could Be Lost Forever, Part 2

BillPortlockAn aerial view of part of Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River in Virginia's Northern Neck. The Diatomite Corporation of America is threatening to develop part of this unspoiled place that is home to one of the most important bald eagle habitats on the East Coast. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff. 

You've been hearing a lot about Fones Cliffs lately and the potential development that threatens it.* To better understand this untouched place along Virginia's Northern Neck and just how much is at stake, we talked with CBF's Senior Naturalist John Page Williams, who is no stranger to this stretch of the Rappahannock. Williams recounted an experience (originally published on that he had not so long ago on the river, in this special part of the world:

The combination of fresh and salt water, strong currents, marshes and deep water close to shore gives this part of the river a rich biological community of plants, fish, birds, and mammals. Combine that with fertile floodplain soils, and it is no surprise that this region has served humans well for several thousand years . . .

One element in the appeal of the Bay's upper tidal rivers is that there is something interesting going on at virtually every season of the year. Springtime brings spawning rockfish, white perch, American and hickory shad, catfish, and two species of river herring. In summer, the river's shallows teem with juvenile fish that make its great blue herons and ospreys fat and happy, while the marshes burst with seed-bearing plants like wild rice, rice cut-grass, smartweed, and tearthumb. Fall brings blackbirds and then waterfowl, while the hardwood trees along the river turn to blazing colors. Winter brings concentrations of Canada geese and bald eagles . . .

We rode First Light through the curves at Leedstown and Laytons Landing, which is a steamboat wharf site on the Essex County (south) side. Laytons Landing had been connected by ferry to Leedstown and stayed busy until the highway bridge at Tappahannock was built in the 1930s. Here the Rappahannock opens up into a long, straight reach that extends for four miles down to Fones Cliffs.

I told Jim [Rogers] about an afternoon 15 years earlier, when First Light and I had entered this reach on a clear, calm late-October day. With the sun low behind us, light streamed down the river, illuminating a corridor of blazing yellow, orange, scarlet, and purple colors in the sycamores, maples, sweet gums, and black gums before lighting up the tawny sandstone of the cliffs at the far end. I remember stopping the engine and drifting, drinking in the scene. Partway down the reach, I drifted past an empty osprey platform. As I watched, a mature eagle drifted down out of the sky and perched there. The view was the most stunning I have seen in all my years on the Chesapeake.

And yet for all this beauty and important biodiversity, a short-sighted, Miami-based developer is petitioning to rezone the land so he can turn this unique and fragile site into parking lots, commercial development, and townhomes. On October 8, the Richmond County Board of Supervisors will consider the rezoning request, which means we have just one week to speak out loudly in opposition. Stand with us in protecting this jewel of the Rappahannock. Sign the petition to Save the Eagles, Save Fones Cliffs. Because if lost, it will be lost forever.

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

*The part of Fones Cliffs that is owned by the Diatomite Corporation of America.

Learn more about Fones Cliffs and why it's important in our blog series here.

Photo of the Week: It Could Be Lost Forever

Cliff and river by Bill Portlock

All photos by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff. 

Roughly halfway between Port Royal and Tappahannock, along Virginia's Northern Neck in remote Richmond County, an incredible thing happens. Stunning white and yellow bluffs rise up out of the Rappahannock toward piercing blue sky. High above these cliffs bald eagles glide through the air, their extraordinary wings stretched long and strong. In the river below, striped bass, white perch, and other fish spawn each spring. And there in a 17-foot Whaler I stare up, mouth agape.    

EagleBut a large part of this remarkable place, this jewel of the Rappahannock called Fones Cliffs, is at risk. A short-sighted, Miami-based developer is petitioning to rezone the land so he can turn this unique and fragile site into parking lots, commercial development, and townhouses. In fact, the proposed development includes 718 homes, 18 guest cottages, an 18-hole golf course and driving range, 116-room lodge with spa, 150-seat restaurant, a commercial center, a skeet and trap range, an equestrian center with stables for 90 horses, a 10,000-square-foot community barn, and seven piers along the river.

I don't have to tell you that rezoning this site would destroy this unspoiled stretch of the Rappahannock and all the wildlife that call it home. 

Join with us to tell the Richmond County Board of Supervisors we can't let this happen. Sign the petition to Save the Eagles, Save Fones Cliffs.

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media


Rethinking Coastal Development in Virginia Beach

The following first appeared in The Daily Caller late last week.

The Brock Environmental Center at Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Photo by Deanna Brusa/CBF Staff

Intense storms, winds, and waves increasingly threaten waterfront homes up and down the East Coast. But many communities refuse to recognize the risk. Instead, they are kicking the can down the road and leaving the problem to our children and grandchildren.

Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seems to be looking the other way. NBC News reported earlier this year that FEMA has remapped more than 500 waterfront properties from the Gulf of Alaska to Bar Harbor, Maine, "removing" them (at least on redrawn maps) from the highest-risk flood zone. That saves the owners as much as 97 percent on premiums they pay into the financially strained National Flood Insurance Program.

This remapping amounts to expanding the subsidy to the rich for building expensive waterfront properties or luxury condominiums in environmentally fragile areas. This is one issue where environmentalists and conservatives who favor small government should agree – government subsidized flood insurance wastes taxpayer's dollars and harms local ecosystems.

Such policies seem perverse. Sometimes it takes local citizens and community groups to take matters into their own hands and find smarter, more commonsense solutions to coastal overdevelopment. Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach, Va., could be a model for doing just that.

Pleasure House Point is a 118-acre peninsula of beach, marsh, and trees on the Lynnhaven River near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. One of the last undeveloped waterfront parcels in Virginia Beach, developers purchased it years ago and planned to build "Indigo Dunes," a massive development of more than 1,000 new high-rise condos and townhouses, despite the fierce opposition of nearby neighborhoods and the City of Virginia Beach. By 2008, Indigo Dunes and its thousands of new waterfront residents, cars, and streets seemed only a matter of time.

Then the housing market collapsed, the Great Recession loomed, and building plans came to a halt. Bankers eventually foreclosed on the property and took ownership of Pleasure House Point. "Indigo Dunes" was dead, but there was a silver lining.

Seizing the opportunity, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation partnered with the City of Virginia Beach, the Trust for Public Land, and the local community in a plan to buy Pleasure House Point. This public-private coalition rallied, raised $13 million and purchased the site from the bank in 2012, preserving it for passive recreation and education.

The City of Virginia Beach quickly designated Pleasure House Point as a natural area, creating a public green space of inlets, beaches, forests, and trails that today teems with wildlife. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation bought a small corner of the property, a sandy upland of old dredge spoils, and created the Brock Environmental Center. When this innovative environmental education and community center opens in November, it will be one of the most environmentally smart buildings on the planet. Our hope is that the Brock Center will be a model of energy independence, climate change resiliency, and super-low environmental impact. In fact, it's designed to complement the surrounding environment, not harm or fight it.

—Christy Everett, CBF's Hampton Roads Director

Shady Side Elementary School Students Take a Stand for the Bay


Shady Side students planting oysters in the West River. Photo courtesy of Shady Side Elementary

The students at Shady Side Elementary School in southern Anne Arundel County, Maryland are no strangers to the Bay and life on the water. The town of Shady Side is located on a peninsula, surrounded on the north and west by the West River and on the east by the Chesapeake. Many students are children of watermen who still crab, oyster, and fish to make a living. The school sits less than a quarter mile from the water—and CBF's Maryland Oyster Restoration Center.

So, last year, when 5th grade teachers Kimberly McAllister, Molly Tremel, and Jenna Weckel asked their students to "Take a Stand" for a cause, the Bay seemed like the natural choice.

"These students were raised on the water. They're surrounded by it every day and, for many, its health has a direct impact on their lives. The students worked with CBF last year to grow oysters and then planted them in the West River. Meghan Hoffman and the rest of CBF's Maryland Oyster Restoration team really got the kids excited about oysters—and showed them that they can make a difference," said Tremel.

The students were so motivated they wrote letters and hand-delivered them to U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin urging them to continue funding Bay restoration. But they didn't stop there.

They took it one step further—creating postcards, developing a business plan, and selling the cards to friends, family, and others—to raise money to support the Bay. Their efforts were highly successful. In two years, they've raised nearly $4,000 to help CBF grow and plant more oysters in the Bay!

John Rodenhausen, Maryland Director of Development, was on-hand for this year's check presentation and was able to address the nearly 60 5th graders involved in this project. "As an educator and a fundraiser for CBF, it is moments like this that give me greater confidence that the Chesapeake will be saved, not just in these students' lifetimes, but in mine, too!"

The project has become a staple of the 5th grade experience—and a bit of a competition, too. Weckel explained, "We've already spoken to the incoming class about the project. They're excited and energized by the opportunity to raise more money for CBF than last year's class!"

We all have a role to play in saving the Chesapeake. CBF is grateful to the entire Shady Side Elementary School community, including 5th grade teachers Kimberly McAllister, Molly Tremel, and Jenna Weckel, as well as their students, for their support, ingenuity, and hard work.

Together, we will Save the Bay and its rivers and streams!

Brie Wilson, Donor Communications Manager 

Read more about the Shady Side Elementary School Students' efforts here!

On Mattawoman Creek, Old Habits Die Hard

Schlyer-cbr-9506Recreational fishermen try their luck on Mattawoman Creek. By Krista Schlyer/iLCP. 

It might come as a surprise that one of the mid-Atlantic's healthiest rivers lies less than 20 miles from the Nation's Capital. Mattawoman Creek, situated squarely in the middle of the fourth largest metro area in the U.S., still supports a world-class bass fishery and ranks 8th out of 137 on Maryland's list of most productive freshwater rivers. Some stretches of the creek are even entered on Maryland's dwindling list of highest quality (Tier 2) waters, which support a diverse assemblage of aquatic species, rare plants, and forest interior dwelling birds. 

It turns out that is what's possible when a mostly forested watershed is left intact.

The trouble is, it might not be forested much longer. Over the years, some Charles County leaders have drawn up plans to supplant about 9,000 acres of mostly wooded land with sprawling lawns and cul-de-sacs. In the end, such plans would drive a massive increase in impervious surface that state and federal agencies like Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have said could devastate the creek.

Growth has to go somewhere, proponents of this super-sized development district argue. And it's true that failing to plan properly for growth can lead to all kinds of problems. But that is precisely why citizens across the county were shocked to see three years of hard work and consensus-building tossed aside: A rational plan to focus growth around existing communities, recommended by planning staff, was rejected by the county's Planning Commission in favor of an old-school sprawling proposal drawn up outside the public process by a lobbying group favoring development interests. 

This latter proposal earmarked far more land for development than the county says it needs, echoing outdated and oversized growth area boundaries from the housing bubbles of past decades. It also resurrected the Cross County Connector, a proposed road that landed Mattawoman Creek on American Rivers Most Endangered List in 2009 (in a major victory for clean water, permits for that roadway were denied by the Corps in 2012).

Through the tireless efforts of thousands of county residents, many of that lobbying group's proposals were rolled back by a unanimous County Commissioner vote April 29--a welcome change from a three-member majority that had consistently voted against stronger protections for Mattawoman Creek. 

We hope that vote sticks. Just a few weeks later, those same three commissioners were talking about spending $1 million in county funds to study options for reviving the Cross County Connector.

The bottom line is this: The commissioners need to take Mattawoman Creek out of their long-range plans for future growth. Because whether the sprawling growth strategy currently in place is driven by developer interests, or inertia, or even good intentions, the result will doom Mattawoman Creek to the same tragic condition as many other rivers in urbanized America. Charles County--and every one of our rivers--deserves better.

—Erik Fisher, CBF's Maryland Land Use Planner

Click here to take action to protect the lands, waters, and quality of life in Charles County!

Maryland Cabinet Secretaries Criticize Charles County’s Growth Plan

Mattawoman2The following originally appeared on the Chesapeake Notebook Bay Journal Blog last week. 

 Eight Maryland cabinet secretaries have sent a sharply worded letter to Charles County Commissioners, criticizing their comprehensive plan and urging the county to change course and conserve its natural lands.

It's the first time the secretaries have written such a letter in Maryland, where state agencies largely serve in an advisory role when it comes to planning decisions.

The secretaries, who are part of the Maryland Smart Growth Subcabinet, say the county's draft plan is "contrary to longstanding smart planning" and "largely ignores the county's wealth of natural resources," which include forests, farmland and various tributaries of the Potomac River, including Zekiah Swamp and Mattawoman Creek. The creek is one of the state's most productive nurseries for fish and plants.

You can read their letter here.

The county's draft plan changes 150,000 acres from conservation to residential use. Some farmers may be happy with that scenario because it will allow them to subdivide land and sell it to developers. But planners, environmentalists and conservationists decry the change, saying that such dense development will ruin the remaining resources and further fragment the county.

"It became more and more clear that the Planning Commission was going forward with a flawed plan, one that is the biggest rollback we've ever seen," said Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall. 

Dru-Schmidt Perkins, the longtime executive director of the group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, called the plan "outrageous." She agreed that, in her nearly two decades with the agency, she'd never seen that kind of rollback before.

According to Schmidt-Perkins and 1,000 Friends' Kimberly Brandt, the rollback began when a group of property owners in the western part of the county hired Murray Levy, a former state delegate and commissioner, as their lobbyist. The property owners--some of them speculators--want to increase their land's value. Levy knows his way around the county, and was "very influential" in crafting the plan, according to Hall and others familiar with the plan.

Their group is called the Balanced Growth Initiative. According to their website, they're trying to balance property rights with environmental stewardship.

Educating the people of Charles County about these possible changes in their future has been difficult, Hall and Schmidt-Perkins say. Many county workers commute to D.C. The newspaper that is devoted to the county, the Maryland Independent, only publishes twice a week. It has dutifully covered the hearings and meetings, but it's been hard to see if people in the county care deeply about the possible changes. But 1,000 Friends surveys have shown people there do care deeply about the county's natural resources, and do use them--visiting Mattawoman, Nanjemoy and other county gems on the weekends. Indeed, Hall said, it's the reason many people choose to live in Charles County.

It's rare for state agencies to weigh in with criticism on a county's growth plan. But it's not the first time it’s happened in Charles County. Two years ago, the county was in the throes of trying to build a road--the Cross-County Connector--that would have impacted Mattawoman Creek and Chapman Forest. The Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers all opposed the project; eventually, the Corps denied the permit, which killed the road. But the county can bring it back if it provides the money necessary to conduct environmental studies, and it has now vowed to do so.

Other counties in the fast-growing corridors near Washington have taken different approaches. As Tom Horton recently reported in the Bay Journal, Calvert County--right next door--has put a cap on development and instituted a transfer-development-rights program that has been successful at keeping sprawl to a minimum. Montgomery County has six times as many people as Charles, yet it manages to keep a third of its land in resource conservation.

Many residents also have been unhappy with Charles County's plan, which Hall says was not written by professional planners with the county. According to the Maryland Independent, at a planning commission meeting, where the plan was approved, Indian Head resident Ed Joell summed up his feelings thusly:

"This process was transparent in that we could all watch it happen, but it was like watching an accident that you couldn't stop," he said. "In my experience, I've never seen a government commission less open and less concerned with the affairs of people . . . In my opinion, no nonelected body should be given the ability to make crucial decisions that will impact all the people in the county from now until far into the future. The comprehensive plan should have been left in the hands of professionals . . . with approval from the county board of commissioners.”

Smart Growth Alliance for Charles County, 1,000 Friends of Maryland and Mattawoman Watershed Society have also been active opponents of the plan.

As for what the state can do about a plan they abhor, Hall said there are some options. Charles County wants state money for transit-oriented development in Waldorf. It may find those funds going elsewhere. Same goes for road funding or other assistance. But, Hall stressed, the state is still hoping to work with Charles officials to amend the plan and save the county's green spaces and rural character.

There is still a chance for those who oppose the plan to make their voices heard. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m., the commissioners will hold a hearing. Sign-in for verbal comment begins at 5:30 p.m. For more information, call Amy Blessinger at 301/645-0650 or e-mail

—Rona Kobell

Chesapeake Born: Bay Saving Lessons Learned, Looking Back

The below "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service.

Map2"Saving the Chesapeake Bay is a test; if we pass we get to keep the planet," wrote Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker in the foreword to a book I wrote about 20 years ago for CBF.

The Bay, on the doorstep of the nation's capital, polluted by all modern humans do, was as good a place as any to learn if humans could exist sustainably with the rest of nature.

What have we learned since that book, "Turning The Tide," was published in 1991? In a revised, 2003 edition I set out six "Lessons Learned" that looked back over the previous decade.

Then, the "lessons" seemed mostly that we still had a lot to learn.

Now it's two decades; time to revisit.

Myth of Voluntary: It was clear in 2003 that the voluntary nature of the Bay restoration was flawed. Our best successes had been the odd instances where we banned something, from using phosphate detergents to catching rockfish.

Only in the last few years was the voluntary model officially abandoned, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposing a mandatory pollution diet on the states.

The EPA's action "represents the biggest progress we've made in the last decade. . . goes far beyond what (EPA) has done anywhere else," said Roy Hoagland, a long-time top official of the Bay Foundation, now a private consultant.

It will be critical to further strengthen the EPA's hand, as local governments and states bridle at the costs of meeting water quality obligations, and as the Republican leadership in Congress vows to weaken the agency.

Accountability: Much positive has happened in the last decade or so—a science-based annual report card on the health of the Bay and tributaries from the University of Maryland; better defined goals for everything from oysters to open space; and the inclusion of air pollution as a significant impact on the Bay.

Agriculture, a leading source of Bay pollution, is becoming more accountable, though this remains a work in progress; a lesson not wholly learned.

Stormwater regulations have taken a leap forward, although the inspection and enforcement that will make them work lag badly.

Management of growth, Hoagland said, "continues to be our most miserable failure . . . we have yet to find the political will to control sprawl development."

All six states in the Bay watershed are now part of the restoration effort.

Leadership: Politics at the national level are even more partisan on the environment than they were during the 1990s—and even then environmentalists spent too much time playing defense when they needed progress.

Republican leadership is abysmal, environmentally. Democrats are better, but no longer pushed by Republicans to hold the line or improve. At state levels, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have shifted back and forth among Democrat and Republican governors; and it was a Republican in Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, who gets credit for funding major sewage treatment upgrades.

A conclusion I made in 2003 rings even truer now: "The environmental community needs to rethink how to build a consensus for the Bay that reaches well beyond its own members." The environmental focus remains too narrow, too vulnerable to unfounded charges that it kills jobs and serves only an elite.

"As we go to press (in 1991) our optimism is tempered by an all-too predictable reaction to a faltering economy," Baker wrote. And in 2012 we still hear that the Bay must wait until the economy heals.

Money: We have spent billions on the Bay and need to spend more billions. But money, Hoagland stated, has not been the bottleneck stopping more progress.

He suggested it might become the bottleneck as we confront ever more expense with sewage and stormwater retrofits, where we are into areas of diminishing returns for our dollar.

We must look harder at removing taxpayer subsidies for growth and other activities that cost society money to offset their polluting effects, and also include the real costs of pollution in the prices we pay for doing business.

Maryland's Genuine Progress Indicator, a pilot program that subtracts environmental costs from economic growth, is a start on this.

Good Science: Science has led to better blue crab management; the use of cover crops to cut farm runoff; showed how development harms stream health, and led to (slowly) regulating manure to control phosphorus runoff.

But the EPA still lacks a coherent national policy on nitrogen, the Bay's main pollutant. Federal subsidies for ethanol from corn increase nitrogen runoff and don't reduce energy use. Nor is farm runoff elsewhere under federal scrutiny like here. Our agriculture needs a level playing field.

Defining Real Progress: We need "the guts to make fundamental changes," Baker wrote in 2003. In 2012, most progress still relies on tweaking technologies like sewage treatment, smokestack emissions and stormwater retention devices—all good, but avoid questions about limits to growth, or to diets that could reduce agricultural pollution dramatically.

Lessons learned? School's not over yet.

—Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Image: Courtesy of NASA.

Half rock, half flesh

Green School student Dashe Green Half rock, half flesh, the oyster living in a murky water world is an alien species to most children growing up Baltimore. Thanks to collaboration between Under Armour, two Baltimore schools and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), at least some lucky students are getting a hands-on, educational submersion into that world.

Under Armour, a sportswear manufacturer, allows students from The Green School of Baltimore, and from The Patterson Park Public Charter School to grow oysters at the company's Locust Point headquarters on the west side of the Inner Harbor. The oysters grow in protective cages dangling from an Under Armour pier at the site.

Every two weeks since the fall, the students visited the nursery with their classes, and collected data on the oysters' size and mortality. Being scientists, the students didn't call their subjects baby oysters. NO. They called them spat. Being children, however, they also got real excited handling aliens.

This week, in the culmination of the project, students from both schools collected the spat, and transported them with the help of the CBF workboat Snow Goose to an established sanctuary reef off Fort Carroll Island just east of the Key Memorial Bridge. After cleaning the spat and recording some final measurements, the students tossed their educational offspring into the choppy waters as cormorants looked on from their island perches.

Green School students plant their oysters in Patapsco Throughout the day's activities, the students chatted excitedly and knowledgably about their work.

"I knew nothing about oysters,' said Atlas Pike, a student in Charlene Butcher's fourth-grade class from The Green School as he reflected on the project. " I learned about their life, and I learned how they help the Bay."

One reporter covering the oyster planting live for WBAL Channel 11 News said in his broadcast the children knew an "amazing" amount about oysters and about the Bay. That's not by chance. The project was woven into the curriculum of the schools. All good environmental education programs engage students, but also provide context for learning, help children make critical connections between disciplines, and increase achievement.

CBF actively works with many Baltimore schools to provide environmental education opportunities, especially within the Inner Harbor. The Snow Goose takes children from the city on harbor research field trips virtually each day from March to October. CBF's Oyster Gardening program also is a way for children and families to grow oysters in cages, help restore the Bay's oyster population, and to learn about Bay ecology. But children often don't have access to waterfront to grow the spat, especially within Baltimore City.

Under Armour officials said they gladly offered their pier as an oyster nursery as part of its community relations efforts.

Under Armour employees Kevin Walker and Amy Stringer "Baltimore is our home and the Chesapeake Bay is in our backyard.  We're happy to support, contribute to, and learn more about restoration efforts," said Will Phillips, who manages Under Armour's Green program.

CBF coordinated the oyster gardening program for The Green School and The Patterson Park Public Charter School to use the Under Armour facility. The Green School uses experiential environmental education to improve student achievement and to increase stewardship for the environment. The Patterson Park school aims to develop well educated, community-minded children by providing high-quality, community-based and real-world education that capitalizes on the diversity of nearby neighborhoods.

Upcoming MPT Special Reveals Critical Area Flaws

Little Dobbins Island As the Maryland General Assembly meets to debate new, stricter regulations on Chesapeake Bay waterfront development, Maryland Public Television (MPT) will air a new program that examines Maryland’s Critical Area Law.

"Weary Shoreline," a documentary about the failure to enforce Maryland's Critical Area law, airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday night. For a preview of the show, check out Tim Wheeler's post on the Baltimore Sun's News & Environment blog.

One prime example of the Critical Area law's "death by one thousand cuts" is back in the news. Just last week, David Clickner, owner of Dobbins Island, resurrected plans to build a 4,500-square-foot home, septic system, and road on the island--plans which violate Maryland's Critical Area law but which Clickner has received variance approvals for from the state.

Fervent discussion over HB 1253—set for General Assembly debate February 28 (the day after Weary Shoreline’s premiere)—is expected. Among several proposed changes to this controversial law, the bill mandates that new development (including houses, outbuildings, decks, patios, driveways, landscaping and swimming pools) be even farther away from the bay shoreline than the current 100 feet. Instead, the inner Critical Areas shoreline buffer would be expanded from 100 feet to 300 feet.