Delaware Wild Lands leading the effort

The Great Cypress Swamp is going back to its roots.

Once the victim of excessive timbering, draining and catastrophic fires, the southern Sussex swamp is thriving again thanks to Delaware Wild Lands, a registered 501c3 nonprofit land conservation organization.

As the group’s largest landholding and the Delmarva Peninsula’s largest forest land, the Great Cypress Swamp comprises over 10,000acres of contiguous forest and ever-increasing freshwater wetlands, mostly in southern Sussex County but with portions in Maryland’s Wicomico and Worcester counties.

The swamp’s impressive size is actually dwarfed by its original magnitude of 60,000 acres, but DWL is working to further extend the borders through land donations and acquisitions. Most recently, the Smoot family donated 160 acres of Sussex County land directly adjacent to the swamp.

DWL was founded in 1961 by Ted Harvey, a Delawarean who was alarmed by the rate of development and sought to protect the state’s most important natural areas. The organization’s third and current director, Kate Hackett, is a Yale grad who did more than one stint of environmental work in Africa and just last year received the Woman of Distinction Award from the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay Council. She oversees eight employees.

“What we really want to do is identify strategically important natural areas throughout the state for habitat and providing clean air and water, and to protect them from development and restore the lands to their natural function,” Hackett said.

Back to the beginning

The Great Cypress Swamp is significant for a variety of reasons. It is, according to Hackett, the northernmost point one can find the majestic bald cypress tree, whose “knobby knees,” or gnarled roots, stick up out of the soil for support and better oxygen access. The trees are often draped with moss and are much more common in the Deep South.

“Most of these trees are gone from the Delaware landscape,” Hackett said. “Part of our restoration effort is to plant more of them.”

Environmentally, the Great Cypress Swamp is extremely important to both the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. From it, water flows into the bays, so whatever goes into in the swamp eventually ends up in the bays, and by restoring the swamp, DWL is improving the quality of water in the bays.

These efforts have led to increased biodiversity, from flora to fauna.

Historically, the Great Cypress Swamp was known as the headwaters of the Pocomoke River, which was once traversed by John Smith, but part of its water has been diverted to Delaware’s Inland Bays. It was an important part of the Underground Railroad, and a hideout for moonshiners and outlaws.

Logging has a long history there. In colonial times, cypress was cut and shipped to the Caribbean. After the Civil War, the swamp was harvested for timber, and after all the standing trees had been cut, the dead trees buried in the muck were excavated, too. In the 1930s, the federal government led a charge to dig a canal to connect the swamp to the Indian River, further removing it from its wetland origins.

Another force out to destroy the swamp was fire. According to environmentalist William Sipple, the first major fire occurred in 1782 and could be seen from as far as Philadelphia. The second fire occurred after a drought in 1931 and burned for six months. Legend says it began after a moonshine still exploded.

Delaware Wild Lands altered the fate of the swamp when it installed controls to hold back water to rehydrate it. Since then, they’ve planted around 200,000 trees – including many bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar.

“In addition to improving water quality, the swamp is improving air quality by sequestering carbon and mitigating temperatures,” Hackett said. “By plugging up ditches and allowing water to remain at the swamp, we’ve seen an incredible return of frogs and other amphibians and birds. There’s been a resurgence of the red-headed woodpecker. It’s not uncommon for us to go out and see dozens of bald eagles.”

The group has also implemented a Sustainable Forestry Initiative-certified forest management program, which includes measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat and at-risk species. Less than 10 percent of the world’s forests bear this certification.

Deterring deer

As any Delaware grower knows, preventing deer from eating your crops is a big job, and that goes for DWL as much as anybody. Deer think seedlings make an excellent meal. DWL has experimented with ways to protect the young trees, including fences and an expensive pellet that makes the plant distasteful to deer.

“Now we’re planting them at a density where, if they’re going to eat them, they’re only eating the outside edge. We’re also planting in more wet areas that are harder to get to,” Hackett said.

One of the problems with species in particular is that they don’t have any natural predators left in Delaware – except humans. Part of the swamp is leased to the Lower Sussex Sportsman Association, on strict hunting conditions that include age and gender specifications, in order to keep deer from completely destroying the plant life.

Baldcypress Bluegrass Festival

The Great Cypress Swamp doesn’t have visitation hours like a state park, as its main purpose is environmental, not recreational. However, once a year, the public has a chance to witness the active reforestation and some pretty entertaining bluegrass bands.

This year’s Baldcypress Bluegrass Festival will be on May 19, noon to 6 p.m., on the grounds of the Roman Fisher Farm. This farmhouse, set against the backdrop of the bald cypress trees, was restored by DWL for lodging employees and researchers. The headlining band is West Virginia’s Johnny Staats and the Delivery Boys, and the festival also features food, wine and beer.

More information is available at dewildlands.org.