According to Gov. Jack Markell, three years ago when he and former U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took a helicopter ride from Delaware City to Lewes, Salazar was so impressed by the beauty of the marsh area just south of the Reedy Point Bridge on Del. Route 9 that he compared its importance to that of the Everglades National Park in Florida.
Soon after Salazar’s visit, the 1,300-acre area known as Thousand Acre Marsh near Port Penn was included in the U.S. Department of Interior’s 50 most beautiful landscapes in America.
Now, efforts at the state and federal levels to preserve Delaware’s coastal and wetlands areas continue with the most recent being the Delaware Bayshore and Bayshore Byway initiatives, which were highlighted by legislators at a press conference near the Thousand Acre Marsh on Friday.
“This [marsh area] is unbelievable and we are so fortunate to have this,” Markell said at the press conference. “Once this is preserved, it will stay preserved. And, it will look like this for generations to come.”
The Delaware Bayshore
The Delaware Bayshore Initiative is a state program that seeks to protect, preserve, and protect coastal wildlife habitat areas and wetlands from south of Delaware City all the way to Lewes. While some of these habitat areas are state-owned, many are private and have to be acquired.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded Delaware with a grant for $1 million of which $731,000 was used to purchase the Bennett Farm, near Port Penn – a private area of land consisting of 148 acres that form part of the Thousand Acre Marsh area.
Delaware’s grant application convinced the federal government that its Bayshore initiative was one of the most important in the nation because it would preserve land that serves as key habitat for thousands of wintering waterfowl, millions of migratory birds, breeding grounds for waterbirds, fish, and muskrats, as well as one of the largest heron nesting areas in the East Coast.
According to Colleen Sculley, the chief of the division of wildlife and sport fish restoration at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the grant application process was highly competitive. Many other states presented similar important projects, but Delaware’s proposal was finally selected and it’s now one of the top 20 national priorities for coastal wetland protection in the nation, she said.
“I guess sometimes when things are just on your backyard you don’t realize the specialness of the area,” Sculley said. “And also, as we think about the river and potential storm events in the future, these freshwater wetlands will be your protection… We’re excited to be part of that protection effort.”
The state’s acquisition of the Bennett Farm brings a total of 528 acres of the Thousand Acre Marsh under permanent protection, and adds to the already 3,3130 protected acres that make up the Augustine Wildlife Area.
The Bennett Farm features a scenic walking trail and wildlife viewing platform overlooking the Thousand Acre Marsh.
According to Bill Stewart, the president of the Delaware Ornithological Society, the state’s acquisition of the Bennett Farm has now made a once privately-owned property open to everyone.
“There are two things about this property that I like best. One, it’s that not only it is pristine, gorgeous, and wonderful, but also that it now also has access – access has been given to all,” Stewart said.
The Bayshore Byway
At the Oct. 30 press conference, state officials also announced the finalized plan for the Delaware Bayshore Byway – a scenic route extending along Del. Route 9 from the City of New Castle to St. Jones Neck east of Dover.
The byway will include stops through Delaware City, Port Penn, St. Augustine, and Odessa.
DelDOT will be utilizing $146,000 from a grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund the program. State legislators will also provide additional funds.
The plan for the Bayshore Byway was two years in the making, according to officials. The next phase will include extending the scenic route from St. Jones Neck to Lewes.
There are many rewards for having the coastal areas such as Thousand Acre Marsh preserved, according to Markell, including a growth in tourism and recreation, as well as keeping a high quality of life for those already living in the state and future residents.
For state Rep. Kevin Hensley (R-Townsend), who also represents areas of Port Penn, the preservation of the marsh area will not only serve to provide protection to wildlife and people, but keep the area attractive and make the community proud.
“The preservation of the Thousand Acre Marsh is an awesome initiative. Not only does it provide shoreline protection from flooding and storms, but it creates a picturesque destination for residents of the MOT area and others to come and view eagles, waterfowl, herons and other waterbirds,” Hensley said.
“It’s a fabulous educational opportunity for our young people as well as a wonderful destination for a day trip for the family… I would encourage everyone in our community to take the opportunity to visit this beautiful site.”