CHURCH CREEK, Md. – Harriet Tubman led slaves to freedom through the thick reeds and marshes of her hometown here on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
And in an effort to preserve that history, President Barack Obama recently designated the area the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument.
But even a presidential proclamation can’t halt natural forces.
Sea levels have been rising in the Chesapeake Bay at more than twice the global rate — and one of the most important stops on the Underground Railroad likely will be largely underwater within the next 50 years.
This bleak fact wasn’t mentioned in the celebratory pronouncements for the monument, nor in the National Park Service study, directed by Congress, that supported the designation and federal funding.
Rising waters are expected to claim much of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, where some of the monument’s most important landmarks lie. Blackwater also contains the largest contiguous tidal marsh in the Northeast United States — where the peregrine falcon, American bald eagle and Delmarva fox squirrel thrive.
Cultural, historical and ecological sites all along the Maryland’s 7,700-mile shoreline are threatened, from the cobblestoned streets of Baltimore’s Fells Point to Fort McHenry, the birthplace of the National Anthem, to Eastern Neck, a winter habitat for tundra swans. Also in peril are the old crabbing town of Crisfield; Assateague Island, a haven for wild horses; and St. Mary’s City, the state’s colonial capital.
Sea-level rise is a global phenomenon, tied to gradual changes in climate and melting polar ice caps. But its effects are more pronounced in the Chesapeake Bay region, where the land is sinking. Studies show the Chesapeake Bay rose more than a foot in the 20th century and very likely will rise another 2 to 5 feet over this century.
More intense storms also are predicted.
CNS analyzed the potential impact, using land elevation data from the U.S. Geological Survey and population survey data from the census. The effect of local man-made structures such as seawalls is difficult to determine and not included in the calculations.
A rise of 2 feet would put another 800 square miles of Maryland underwater, a Capital News Service analysis found.
The affected land includes more than 200 Maryland sites on The National Register of Historic Places. Even though federal and state agencies have identified many landmarks likely to be swamped, they don’t have the means or money to protect them all.
“At the statewide level we can’t really save everything,” said Jen Chadwick-Moore, historic preservation research specialist at the Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency.
“We need to document everything and then decide what we can save.”
Since 2001, the Geologic Resources Division of the National Park Service has worked with the U.S. Geological Survey to assess the coastal vulnerability of 22 sites on the 7,500 miles of shoreline that the park service is responsible for. The only Maryland site assessed was Assateague Island National Seashore, and tens of millions of dollars are being expended to protect it.
A combination of state and federal agencies manages the new Tubman monument and the Blackwater wetlands, which are located in Dorchester County, one of the poorest counties in the state and one of the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.
Blackwater is critical to the local economy. The economic benefit from Blackwater is valued at almost $28 million dollars annually, and local business expects an estimated boost of $4 million to $6 million annually in tourism revenue from the Tubman monument alone.
Even if the government takes steps to protect it, Blackwater eventually will succumb, said Inga Clark, co-author of a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study that predicts Blackwater will be underwater by 2050.
“The sea is coming. In that particular area, I think we can win a few years — but not a substantial amount of time,” she said.
The National Register of Historic Places lists 80,000 properties. Only 3 percent of them specifically commemorate the accomplishments of minorities and women.
A century after Tubman’s death, the lands on which she was born and raised are receiving monument status, granting the wishes of advocates who have been pushing for federal recognition of the area for over a decade.
Before she escaped to freedom at age 27, Tubman worked as a slave on the lands of Dorchester County. Tubman returned to her birthplace about a dozen times to lead slaves to the North.
Obama’s proclamation in March designating the Tubman monument was cause for celebration, with press releases from the U.S. Department of the Interior, The Conservation Fund, Chesapeake Conservancy and the Sierra Club applauding the move.
An environmental assessment of the land done before its historic designation notes that the land “is subject to seasonal flooding” — but there is no mention of predictions that some of the area will be permanently covered by water within several decades.
Allen Cooper, chief of park planning and special studies at the National Park Service, said that, to his knowledge, sea-level rise was not considered in the monument planning process, and hasn’t been discussed since his appointment in 2011. It likely will be taken into consideration in future planning. he said.
The threat is no secret to the state, which broke ground on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and visitor center two weeks before the presidential designation of the monument. The center, located within the monument’s boundaries but managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, will be built on higher ground and elevated in deference to rising sea levels.
Even if the new visitor center will be able to withstand the future effects of sea-level rise, there is no simple way to save some of the historical sites where the heart of Tubman’s story lies.
One such example is the Jacob Jackson home site, mentioned by President Obama in his proclamation.
Jackson was a free black man who assisted Tubman in rescuing her brothers from slavery. In 1854, Jackson decoded a message from Tubman to her brothers, letting them know she was coming to help them escape from being sold as slaves.
Jackson’s home was one of the first safe houses on the Underground Railroad, and the 480-acre home site of forested area, farmland and wetland, sits adjacent to the Little Choptank River. It was donated to the National Park Service by The Conservation Fund.
Also sitting on the water are the Anthony Thompson home site, where Tubman was born, and the James Cook site, where Tubman was hired out as a slave when she was a child.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who supported the Tubman monument, also has advocated for protection of local communities from the effects of rising sea levels, said Sue Walitsky, his spokeswoman. But his efforts on that initiative and the Tubman monument were on “parallel tracks,” she said.
“Everyone in the process realizes it’s a risk,” Walitsky said of sea-level rise.
Inundation of the land in this area is more than a risk, scientists say. It is not a question of if, but rather by how much. And beyond the important historical landmarks, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a giant ecosystem, vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, that fish, birds and humans depend on.
The land that Harriet Tubman once called home has been the 25,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge since the 1930s. Often referred to as the “Everglades of the North,” Blackwater contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands.
These wetlands play a critical role in filtering water pollution before it reaches the already stressed Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary system in the United States and cornerstone of the ecological and economic vitality of Maryland.
Migratory birds traveling along the East Coast depend on Blackwater as a stop on the migration highway, and the refuge serves as habitat for the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel and two once-endangered bird species — the peregrine falcon and the American bald eagle.
It’s a bird watcher’s paradise for marsh fowl. The Audubon Society describes the marsh bird populations at Blackwater as globally important. Rising sea levels at Blackwater are pushing the salt marsh sparrow, black rail and seaside sparrow dangerously close to the endangered species list, said David Curson, director of bird conservation at the Maryland-DC chapter of the Audubon Society.
These birds are known as “marsh obligate” species, meaning they thrive and survive only in marsh habitats such as Blackwater. As sea levels rise and the land sinks, open water overtakes, and the birds can’t survive.
Curson said scientists predict a catastrophic loss of marsh habitats for these birds in the next few decades.
Wintering waterfowl also depend on Blackwater, not for permanent habitat, but as a stop on the critical migratory highway along the East Coast. At the peak of fall migration — usually in November — Blackwater and the surrounding lands see about 25,000 Canada geese, 5,000 snow geese, 500 tundra swan and 15,000 ducks. If marsh habitat in Blackwater is lost, the nearest alternatives — such as North Carolina — won’t help. They face rising sea levels too, Curson said.
“It could well be that we see a big population decline in these waterfowl if they don’t have wintering habitat,” he said.
Rising sea levels are not necessarily bad news for all birds. Blackwater is home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida. As sea levels rise and marsh converts to open water, the eagles could have more opportunities to hunt fish without the cover of the reeds.
But fish populations could diminish, a problem for eagles and humans. Two- thirds of the commercial fish species of the Chesapeake Bay use salt marsh creeks as habitat where their young can avoid being eaten by larger fish. If the salt marsh disappears, this safe haven will be lost, leaving younger fish defenseless and preyed upon before they have a chance to mature and be sold for the fishery industry in Dorchester County.
“If we lose those marsh habitats, those are vital components of the bay,” said Zoe Johnson, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“The other issue is that the area provides an ecotourism industry, and Dorchester County really needs that kind of business to be there.”
Local ecotourism and recreation revenue brings in almost $28 million annually to Dorchester County, with one-fifth of jobs in the county related to tourism in 2010.
The wetlands act as a storm buffer for nearby communities, absorbing the energy from wind and waves associated with strong storm surges that are predicted to become stronger and more frequent in the future.
The loss of Blackwater’s wetlands means the loss of critical protection from these storms for southern Dorchester County, including the 12,000-plus residents of the county seat of Cambridge.
Roughly 30,000 people live in Dorchester County neighborhoods that would be affected if the Chesapeake Bay rose 2 to 5 feet, the Capital News Service analysis found.
One way in which marsh plants stay above sea level is by building volume in their roots through accumulation of sediment. But marshes that kept pace with sea level for thousands of years now cannot.
In 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state funded a $530,000 demonstration dredging project to rebuild the lost marsh at some of Blackwater’s islands.
There had been discussion of large-scale efforts to restore marsh at Blackwater. Plans for a larger dredging project never got beyond preliminary planning stages, due to lack of funding and lack of a sediment source. Wetland managers have now shifted their focus to more cost-efficient, smaller-scale projects.
William Giese Jr. is a Dorchester County native who has lived a mile from Blackwater his entire life and worked on the refuge for 40 years. More people in the area need to take notice of the changes taking place, he said.
“The average person … they’re so kind of tied up in their day-to-day life, they don’t recognize what’s going on around them, but it’s happening — and it’s happening tremendously fast.”
Capital News Service reporter Lauren Loricchio also contributed to this article.