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The Planet

The Planet, March 1997, Volume 4, number 2

Hands Across the Waters

Atlantic Coast Ecoregion

By Marie Dolcini

Tucked among three old Rhode Island mill towns along the Blackstone River just north of Providence, the abandoned and flood-prone Lonsdale Drive-In buckles with sprouting grasses and small trees. What distinguishes this 27-acre asphalt-choked wetland isn't its neglected state as an artifact of autocentered Americana, but its resiliency, its potential as a healthy marsh and its centrality to the Sierra Club's ecoregion conservation campaign vision.

Adjacent to some of the state's best wildlife habitat and a stopover on the Atlantic Flyway for rare and threatened bird species, the deserted drive-in has been for sale for years. Its owner would like to see it developed, but Club activists like Rhode Island state lobbyist and Blackstone River Project organizer Karina Lutz have other ideas. They've been working for its purchase and management not only to restore a healthy, high-functioning wetland, but to link fragmented open space and repair a highly damaged ecosystem.

"Lonsdale is a classic great wetland because it has high potential for habitat, water purification, recreation and flood prevention," said Lutz, who also envisions canoe ramps and wildlife viewing platforms for community use. "When we formed a chapter four years ago, the restoration idea brought us together. Since then, our efforts have catalyzed expansion of the campaign along the entire Blackstone watershed." That includes 48 miles of the Blackstone from its headwaters near Worcester, Mass., to its Atlantic confluence in Pawtucket, R.I. as well as its riparian corridors, valleys, meanders, tributaries and coastal estuary. Lutz is now aiming to coordinate restoration efforts with Massachusetts Chapter volunteers by pursuing an interstate bike path designed to link public lands to the river corridor.

This principle of starting out small and planning big is at the heart of the ecoregional conservation model, and is being pursued by Club activists from the Gulf of Maine to Florida's interior (see map).

What makes the Atlantic Coast an ecoregion, as opposed to just one big stretch of sea coast? Atlantic Ecoregion Task Force Chair Barb Postles says it comes down to thinking in terms of a healthy and biologically diverse living system defined by the waters feeding into the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Canada to the Virgin Islands, and relied upon by resident and migratory species, like the black bear, Atlantic sturgeon and piping plover.

"The idea excites so many people because we have the tools to pursue it, it involves them and you really see results," said Postles. "It goes back to the Club's early tradition of protecting places and connecting those that are already protected and building on existing initiatives."

The ecoregion strategy consists of a three-point approach to environmental restoration and protection of the eastern seaboard: improving water quality, fighting sprawl development and, most exciting to Postles, establishing an Atlantic bioreserve by linking restored and protected areas. As task force chair, her charge is to put activists like Lutz in touch with others pursuing related conservation efforts in their home watersheds and to encourage cooperation among private and public land owners. Postles and Atlantic Ecoregion Coordinator Joy Oakes are communicating this broader vision by helping groups removing asphalt from a neighborhood wetland make connections with chapter volunteers upstream fighting sprawl and group activists working for clean water downriver.

Before the ecoregion program, conservation activists across borders didn't have the support to work in concert as much as they were encouraged to focus on traditional lobbying methods. The Club adopted the ecoregional conservation model in the early 1990s to address environmental problems that transcended political boundaries; the effort to restore the contaminated, border-jumping Blackstone is a case in point. "We're researching key properties, contacting land trusts and getting local people talking to their local agencies," said Lutz. "Cleanup has been magnificent considering the extensive development along the whole Blackstone corridor, but a hundred years of toxic sediments are left to clean up behind the dams. We're looking at the potential of wetlands to help heal America's oldest rust belt by acting as a buffer and purification system."

Chapter Chair Helen Tjader moved to Rhode Island four years ago and attended a Club meeting as a way to meet people. "I never went on a hike or anything and got involved on a whole other level when I saw how excited everyone got just brainstorming on this project. It's a fantastic opportunity to show people that we can turn it back into what it was like before. It's been overlooked because no one has considered restoring land that's so badly damaged." Tjader organizes seminars focusing on freshwater wetlands featuring slide shows on the Blackstone produced by volunteer Jim Turek. So far, she's helped convince Sen. John Chafee (R) to call for a study by the Army Corps and alerted the state to the fact that federal funding is available for restoration and protection of critical wetlands along the corridor.

"We're maximizing the potential of this project by activating more members along the length of the watershed," said Tjader, who regularly schedules chapter meetings at a different locations along the river.

Several watersheds to the south, Sierra Club activists on the Delmarva (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia) peninsula prefer to further the ecoregional agenda by boat. Instead of focusing their time and resources on rewriting laws to protect the Chesapeake, Delaware and coastal bay drainages, they take state and federal decision-makers out in sea kayaks to view threatened areas up close.

"Outings as a conservation tool are a Club tradition," said field organizer and Project Water Watch Coordinator Mike D'Amico. "By taking the regulators out there, you can show them a migration phenomenon that not a lot of folks know about or expose them to an endangered species. You just can't make that kind of an impact at a public hearing." Project Water Watch was born over two years ago when the state of Delaware proposed to dredge the Assawoman Canal to create an intercoastal waterway facilitating motor boat traffic. Project concerns ranged from degraded water quality to destruction of critical finfish nurseries and coastal forest habitat. Club volunteers didn't just invoke the Clean Water Act to protect the place they invited the agency official in charge of dredging the canal into a kayak. "You could see the wonder in his eyes when he paddled up to within five feet of a foraging great blue heron," said D'Amico. Soon after the trip, participating officials issued new comments based on the information Water Watch volunteers provided and halted the project with calls for further studies.

D'Amico said that activists are starting to pay closer attention to natural boundaries and it's translating into greater collaboration between the Delaware Chapter and Maryland's Eastern Shore Group, Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Group and, most recently, the Southeast Pennsylvania Group. "Because of our work, it's not unheard of for folks in these parts to go into a town hall and question a local development project by asserting that the area is important for the migration of a species," he said.

That approach is also helping Water Watch activists build stronger alliances with regional commercial fishers. D'Amico was recently asked to join fishers, scientists and fellow conservationists on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Advisory Panel for Atlantic Sturgeon. He said participants have already begun to find common ground around this keystone species, which may be bordering on the brink of extinction. Now the former electrician wants to develop a training kit to help activists read blueprints and be better positioned to understand and cross-reference public notices.

"We're making great strides," said D'Amico, "but many of us feel we still have a long way to go given that our region leads the nation in cancer mortality rates and many of our fish species are unfit to eat."

Atlantic Ecoregion activists don't limit themselves to stemming threats to thousands of miles of coastline. These stalwarts know that the only way to begin restoring the health of the place they call home is by viewing their neighborhood marsh in a broader natural context. They know that with the greatest number of North Americans residing along the eastern seaboard, setting out to save the backyard creek doesn't just mean ensuring water quality and strong, enforceable environmental laws. It also means working to fight sprawl by creating more livable cities, and by looking beyond state lines to places upstream, and points in between.

"The biggest challenge is getting people to get their feet wet," said D'Amico, "but once we reach them, we're on our way to restoring and protecting the whole seaboard, one watershed at a time." For more information: Contact Ecoregion Task Force Chair Barb Postles at (803) 732-0077; e-mail: <> or Joy Oakes in the Appalachian Regional Office at (410) 268-7411; e-mail: <>

Gulf of Maine

Maine Chapter Chair and Ecoregion Task Force member Joan Saxe is building support for the establishment of "a ribbon of green" linking wild and damaged coastal areas in the Gulf of Maine. Saxe speaks at chapter and group meetings from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia about how people can protect ecosystems beyond political borders. She's also soliciting volunteers to coordinate a mapping project of the over-3,000-mile regional coastline to show what's protected now and how to connect existing areas by expanding state and federally designated reserves. Once linked, these areas would form a buffer and corridor for species and help ensure the long-term health of the ecosystem. "Our first victory here will be the first pearl on the ribbon of green extending from the Canadian provinces to the Florida Keys," says the Maine native and 20-year Club veteran.

For more information: Contact Joan Saxe at (207) 865-3648; e-mail: <>

Blackstone River

Club activists are working locally to liberate the wetland beneath the Lonsdale Drive-In along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island. If they have their way, they'll soon be able to improve neighboring human and wildlife communities, benefit an entire watershed by removing 27 acres of asphalt from the site and score a major victory for establishing an Atlantic bioreserve.

For more information: Contact Karina Lutz at (401) 521-4734; e-mail: <>

Mattawoman Creek

Volunteer Bonnie Bick works for more livable cities in the Washington, D.C., area by fighting the sprawl development that continually pressures natural areas and contributes to disinvestment in existing neighborhoods.

Last year, the Southern Maryland Group conservation chair and other smart-growth advocates succeeded in staving off final approval of a proposed new city that would destroy a 2,250-acre ecosystem encompassing a critical fishery, a rich wildlife habitat and a historic landmark along the lower Potomac River at Chapman's Landing. She's now working to permanently protect Chapman Forest as an integral part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and as a source of Mattawoman Creek -- a key spawning habitat for anadromous fish species and a habitat corridor for migratory and resident birds such as wood thrush and bald eagles.

"Our wilderness is still at risk," says Bick. "Commitment to revitalization of decaying urban areas and preservation of sensitive natural areas adds up to long-term investment for city residents and regional wildlife."

For more information: Contact Bonnie Bick/Friends of Mount Aventine at (301) 283-2948; e-mail:

Delmarva Watersheds

Under the aegis of the Sierra Club's Mid-Atlantic Water Quality program, Project Water Watch volunteers are using existing environmental laws to end threats to local waterways. Project activists have halted dredging operations in endangered piping plover habitat and prevented a proposed bike path from encroaching upon two wetlands of international significance. They've also taken full advantage of portable video and phone technology to document and call in environmental violations.

"People enter the program monitoring their backyard," says volunteer Carl Solberg, "and then eventually spill over to monitoring the watershed and thinking in terms of protecting the larger ecosystem." For more information: Contact project coordinator Mike D'Amico at (302) 644-0627, e-mail:

Waccamaw River

In South Carolina, where black bears wander the Waccamaw from Myrtle Beach all the way up to its North Carolina headwaters, Ecoregion Task Force Chair Barb Postles is coordinating a conservation campaign to restore and protect bear habitat along the length of the entire watershed.

"The bear is a great focal point for local and regional work," says Postles, "and even though the watershed is highly developed, the river stem is still very wild and has a high potential for land protection." For more information contact Barb Postles at (803) 732-0077; e-mail:

Okefenokee Swamp

A vast bog and biologically rich ecosystem, the Okefenokee swamp forms the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Mary's rivers dividing Georgia and Florida. The refuge encompasses 438,000 acres, 80 percent of which is designated wilderness, and is home to endangered and threatened species such as the red cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, parrot pitcher plant and Florida black bear as well as migratory herons, hingas and woodstorks. But the Delaware-based Du Pont Corporation has designs to stripmine this wetland for titanium dioxide (see November 1996 Planet).

"This is a critical refuge along the Atlantic flyway," said Georgia Chapter leader Judy Jennings, "and mining could destroy habitat, alter air quality and groundwater and put all residents at risk."

For more information: Contact Judy Jennings at (912) 352-0122; e-mail:

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