Monday, March 28, 2011

The Final Countdown

Days 7 &8:

It is remarkable how close ten strangers can become over the course of eight days. Our last few nights together were spent talking late into the evening at our very last campfire and doing the last few bonding activities that Caroline and I had planned. Blogging was not at the top of our priority list.

However, what we (along with over a hundred other volunteers) managed to pull off the Friday and Saturday before we departed for College Park is certainly noteworthy, so I have decided to recap our final accomplishments.

The hour and a half drive from CBF to one of Baltimore County's farms was a beautiful one. The sun was out as we drove through the long and winding roads of Falls Drive (please ignore my frequent Beatles song references). When we arrived on Friday, we helped our new friend Rob, a watershed restoration scientist, set up for Saturday morning's volunteer project that consisted of over 100 volunteers around the state plant 1,400 tress and shrubs.  We learned that this helps prevent runoff and erosion into the Chesapeake Bay: one of the crucial necessities to improve the drinking water quality in Maryland.  The setting up included strategic placing of several different kinds of Oak trees, Sycamores, and Redbuds, all of which were unloaded and carried mostly by hand to the pre-augered holes drilled into the ground by a very helpful and witty farmer named Skip. Caroline and I even got interviewed by a local news reporter about Maryland's AB program and some of the other activities we helped with during our week. (Look for the article in the Carroll Eagle!) At the end of the day, we all agreed that watching a multi-acre open field turn into an amateur forest within hours was truly amazing.

So our Alternative Break has now come to an end, an unfortunate but inevitable circumstance of time. I think it is safe to say that we all learned so much from our experience working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and all of the wonderful community assistants, advisors, volunteers, and staff members that helped us along the way. We now get to take home everything we learned about what service means and how to incorporate it into our daily lifestyles, as well as learning more out ourselves, our capabilities, and each other.

Despite the rain, mud, cold, questionable sleeping conditions, lighting, and a little bit of blood shed,  we, as a team, managed to make a difference in the world far beyond what one could ever try to make tangible. Go us! :)

To Laura, Rob, Karl, and the other supportive CBF staff, thank you so much for the hard work you preform every day to ensure the conditions of the state (and beyond!) that we live in. Please let us know about future projects that arise... we are already excited to lend our ten sets of hands to you again.

To my phenomenal AB participants, Co-Trip Leader, and Staff Advisor, I miss you all dearly! But remember, this is not goodbye. It is the start of something greater...

See you all soon :)


Sunday, March 27, 2011

(Some of) the Science of Service

Sunrise over the Chesapeake Bay, and the Philip Merrill Center.
Over the course of the week, we’ve had our hands in a few different projects.  But the two that we’ve had the most experience with are oyster restoration and tree planting. Why are these two projects on the top of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “to do” list, and why do they need your help?  Well, hopefully I’ll be able to give you a bit of an idea as to why the work that they are doing is essential for helping to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay is home to a wonderful variety of plants and animals. One of the invertebrates that makes a home here is the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica. In fact, the name Chesapeake is derived from an Algonquin word meaning "great shellfish bay". This bivalve mollusk, which was once abundant in the Bay, has faced many hardships in the recent past. Over-harvesting, poor water quality from over nitrification and pollution, and in increase in sedimentation from runoff has caused populations to decline to less than 2% of their historical numbers. This is a problem for the oysters, and other denizens of the Bay.

Crassostrea virginica (Eastern oyster) spat attached to reclaimed shell in an oyster float.

When oysters breed, the larvae float in the water column until they find a hard substrate to latch onto. Often, this substrate is the shell of other oysters. But with less oysters in the Bay, it is becoming harder and harder for the larvae to find a place to call home. The once abundant oyster bars (or reefs) are no more, which means that other fish and invertebrates also no longer have a place to make their homes. If a lucky oyster can find a resting place, it latches on, and starts to secret a shell around it. These juveniles, known as spat, are hermaphroditic, only becoming male or female later in life. Once they reach reproductive age, they release eggs and sperm into the water, and the cycle starts again.

As if hunting for real estate at such a young age doesn't pose enough of a problem, C. virginica also has trouble finding a proper meal. The Eastern oyster is a shallow water filter feeder. Large individuals are said to be able to filter over 40 gallons of water a day. In fact, the not so distant past, it would take all the oysters in the Bay between three and five days to filter the entire volume of the Chesapeake.  Now it takes them more than a year to accomplish the same goal. But they now face a new challenge in addition to decreased numbers. The sediment from runoff that clogs the Bay, also clogs their gills as they pump water through their shells. When they should be filtering out the plankton and other nutritious particulates, they are filtering dirt and polluted water, which effectively chokes them to death. This, in combination with the other factors mentioned above, makes the situation for oysters in the Bay rather grim.

Callinectes sapidus, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, on a reef of live Eastern oysters.
It's also no secret that the water in the Chesapeake Bay is not as clean and healthy as it once was.  The reduction in oyster population is part of the problem, but there are other anthropogenic factors involved as well.  One of the biggest is changes in the way the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been used in the last 100 years.  Many of the traditionally forested areas have been turned into agricultural, urban, or suburban areas.  This may seem like a good idea, as people need food and places to live.  But it has had some serious side effects on the Bay.  Trees play a crucial role in the watershed.  They literally hold onto the soil with their roots, preventing sediment and runoff from eroding into the streams, creeks, and tributaries that lead to the Bay.  They also absorb nutrients from the soil in order to survive and grow.  But today, these excess nutrients flow into the Bay, and are one of the major pollutant offenders.

These nutrients aren't only good for trees, but for another group of photosynthesizing organisms as well: algae.  And if the nutrients aren't absorbed by the trees, they make it into the Bay, where they cause algae blooms to flourish.  This is also not a good thing.  Algae live fast, and die hard, ad as their bodies decompose, dissolved oxygen in the water is used up, causing hypoxic conditions.  Low oxygen levels in the water means that the critters that live in the Bay - oysters included - have one more agent working against them.  The stress from poor water quality, over sedimentation, and excess nutrients, also makes them more susceptible to a number of diseases that hurt their populations.
A field of recently planted oak, redbud, sycamore, and shrubs that will one  day turn this farmland into a forest.
It's a vicious cycle.  Too many oysters are harvested, so the young don't have a place to attach and grown, and water quality begins to degrade.  Changes in land use release more sediments and unwanted nutrients into the Bay, which only makes the situation worse.  Disease takes a foothold.  Less oysters survive into adulthood, even in protected areas, and it takes longer for the Bay to bounce back.  The Eastern oyster serves a crucial role in the bay, providing a habitat for other species of plants and animals, and as the primary filtering agent. And it's easy to point to them and show their importance in protecting the fragile ecosystem of the Bay.  But like any ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay is a complex environment, composed of many living and non-living factors, and the interactions between them.  Trees might not seem all that connected, because when one thinks of the Bay, they think of blue crabs, osprey, and diamondback terrapins. But trees also play a vital role, as do the people working to restore many of the traditionally forested areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Luckily there are both organizations and individuals working to help “save the Bay”.  Certain areas of the Bay are now protected from harvesting, so that oysters can live and reproduce with minimal human interference. Sustainable practices keep unprotected areas from becoming over harvested. And shells from harvested oysters are collected and placed back into the Bay, in the hopes that they will provide a home for spat that are "seeded" on these natural, man-made bars. Trees and forests are being replanted and monitored.  Pasture that was once set aside for growing corn is being converted back into grass land for livestock to graze on.  Underwater grasses are being restored to provide habitat and food for other species, as well as tackle the pollution problem.  After 100 plus years of changing the face of the Bay, humans are finally realizing the importance of these key plants and animals, and making a concerted effort to help them regain their former glory.

Pandion haliaetus (osprey) in flight over the Bay.
We’ve had the pleasure of working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on some of their ongoing projects over the course of the week, and we look forward to joining them again in the future.  Every tree planted; every oyster spat that grows to maturity makes a difference. And you can be a part of the action as well.  Whether it's picking up a piece of litter you find on the ground and preventing it from going down a storm drain, donating a few dollars or your time to a non-profit organization, buying local food, advocating for the cause, or just fixing a dripping faucet, each one of us has the potential to make a huge positive impact on the health of the Bay, or your local watershed.  So do what you can, when you can, and be a part of the process that will help preserve this beautiful place for generations to come.  The seafood lovers and beach goers of the future thank you!

-David Tana-

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever...

Day 6:

We started the morning with a tour of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters: the Philip Merill Center. We have spent the week thus far sleeping in their back yard (the beach), or taking cover under the building on nights and mornings we have found ourselves caught in the middle of lightning storms... eek!

Our tour guide, Dale, informed us of materials and systems used to make this building one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly buildings in the country. These include cork floors, solar panels, and "clivus multrum" toilets, where all waste leads to a gigantic compost pile at the bottom of the building. Having a non-flushing toilet system allows the Philip Merill Center to use 90% less water than standard office buildings equivalent in size. They use the resulting compost to fertilize the native plants that surround the building.

After learning more about the place we've been calling home, we headed to Clagett farm. This property is one of many donated to CBF as a place for preservation, education, and of course, food production. Here they grow many types of fruits, veggies, and beef cattle, all raised sustainably and organically. This produce and meat serves the local community in a couple of ways. First, about 40% of the food grown there goes to the Capital Area Food Bank, providing families with fresh fruits, veggies, and grass-fed beef that they might not otherwise have access to. The other 60% of the produce goes towards the Clagett Farm CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and is a program in which community members can support the farm in exchange for healthy, fresh food. This support can come in the form of labor on the farm or in purchasing shares, kind of like a co-op.

We worked in the fields at the farm, experiencing only a tiny sliver of all of hard work the goes into making good food. Our job was to weed the (fairly small) strawberry field, which was invaded by rye, a resilient grass that was taking over the beds. Man, was it HARD! For about 4 hours, we all crawled around on our hands and knees in the mud, pulling up the pesky grass. Even with 11 workers, we didn't even finish the bed! The last hour of work was rough; everyone was worn out and shivering, and it was frustrating not to see the end of our work. It's tough to go from a day like yesterday, where we worked efficiently and saw results, to one like today, where the work is slow and somewhat thankless. Still, it's important to note that this is the life of the local farmer; it takes time to do things the right way.

Finally, tired and sore, we headed back to camp to put on some dry clothes. We were rewarded for our hard work with pizza at a local joint, Rocco's. Laura, the amazing woman at CBF who helped organize our week, treated us to dinner while we gave her a breakdown of our week so far. No meal has ever tasted so delicious, nor been eaten so quickly. Refreshed, we headed home to watch Gasland, a documentary on the effects of "fracking" for natural gas. The images in the film are disturbing and are only a reminder of how much more there is to do for the conservation and restoration globally. Still, no doubt we'll still sleep soundly after the long day. We can't believe it's almost over!

That's all for now... tomorrow we will begin the planting of 1,400 trees!

Goodnight :)
Caroline & Kathryn

P.s. We decided to test our creative juices for reflection this evening by writing poetry... Jared surprised us with his hidden rapping talent, which was much too great not to share. We hope you enjoy his one hit wonder as much as we did!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wednesday, March 23

Day 5:

Today, we visited the Oyster Restoration Center and shoveled oysters to be repositioned in the sea. The experience was very exciting and productive, although a bit challenging at first. It was amazing to see the huge pile of oysters remaining even after our effort shoveling all of them in the cages. However, it felt very refreshing and rewarding after doing the work, as we learned the importance of contributing to the effort to save the bay. Our arms were sore after all the work, but we knew it was worth the while, as the environment deserves our best efforts to protect it.

After our shoveling exercise, we went on a boat ride hosted by Karl Willey and Klide, who were kind enough to guide us through our visit. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to get a taste of the kind of work that is done at the ORC, and had a chance to enjoy a relaxing and refreshing boat ride. Although the weather was a bit cold and rainy at first, it got better as the day progressed. It was also interesting to see the different creatures in the sea, such as the bufflehead and other birds. When we got back from the boat ride, we split into groups, and some of us helped Karl clean up the engine of the boat, which was another very interesting, and productive experience. Having never seen the engine of a boat before, most of us were very surprised, and excited to learn so much about it. Cleaning up the engine felt rewarding, as the engine is the force behind the boat.

We also learned about the life cycle of an oyster, and learned how the oyster progresses through life. All in all, it was a very refreshing, rewarding, and informative day.

-Saqib Ahmed-

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Another day, another farm

Day 4:

Today we helped a farmer named Skip plant tress in a back corner of his rather large cow grazing field.

There were some obstacles along the way: being distracted by cows running around us and an adorable little beagle named Bo,

having to cross muddy streams,

and not having enough trees to fill the holes already pre-augered for us.

However, we accomplished a lot by putting our heads together and creating assembly lines of tree distributions.

When we came back to our home on the beach, we made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup to help warm us up before it was time for our nightly reflection... we anticipated this to be an easy dinner night, however a long day of hard work showed it's impact on our cooking abilities... :)

Another great day comes to an end... more environmental conservation activities to come!

Goodnight readers

Monday, March 21, 2011

Change Over Time

Day 3:

The day is Monday. Once again, we experienced both sides of Mother Nature. The early morning (2 am) started with a massive storm, wind blowing furiously at the tents. Already situated and half asleep, the boys decided to stay put... trying to keep the tent down with our hands and feet. In few hours, the thunderstorm woke us up and hurried us to save whatever is dry. That's only the bad part of the day. Luckily, the rest of the day progressed into a calm and pleasant day.
We received a brief introduction of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation program, and how the organization aims to both preserve and educate people of this region in order to save the Bay. I personally thought the information on the organic produce and meat were interesting; not everything is necessarily top-notch quality just because it has the "organic" label on it. When we headed down to the farm guided by Rob, we helped stake down the infant trees. The weather was very calm and breezy, allowing us to finally rid of our thick jackets and many layers underneath. The air was fresh. The group finally saw a tangible result from the trees; the trees that the foundation planted 5-6 years ago looked like a densely populated forest. This positive sight only motivated me further to conduct service, as I know in the future, the work we do now will help the environment of the future.

-Yoon Shin
University of Maryland

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shells, Birds, and Trash - Round One

Day 2:

Sunday began with a trip to Harris Seafood on Kent Island, where we loaded approximately ten bushels of oyster shells into buckets. The shell was littered with lemons, parsley, and rubbish from the Friday night all-you-can-eat oyster buffet, but we still enjoyed the powerful shellfish aroma. We took the shell to Professor Gerald Winegrad's home in Annapolis and distributed it on the oyster bar he has built up. From there, Prof. Winegrad took the group to a couple nearby beaches, where he continued to lecture and tell anecdotes about birds, the Bay, and other things as we picked up trash along the shore. Gerald Winegrad served as a Maryland state Senator for twelve years and was the Policy guru for American Bird Conservancy. Needless to say, he provided many insights and information about the Bay, its wildlife, and past efforts (or lack thereof) to save the Bay. He has always been at the forefront of environmental efforts in Maryland, so he was certainly a inspiration for the group - though a perhaps a bit quirky.

The night was filled with the usual fireside banter, s'mores, and shenanigans. David ate a sand flea...the video is posted below. The weather during the day was beautiful; all in all the second day was a resounding successful. The day proved that just a few phone calls and a couple connections allow small groups of individuals to make a small impact while learning a great deal about nature; it was just the beginning of a great week of continued service.

- Jeremy Hanson
MPP Candidate '12
Environmental Policy