December 7, 2016

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Md. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has joined forces with the National Audubon Society and The Conservation Fund to implement an ambitious project to prevent tidal wetlands at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Maryland’s eastern shore from disappearing beneath rising tidal waters. 

The project, already underway, is transferring 26,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Blackwater River to the marsh surface in a process called “thin-layering,” with the goal of raising the surface of 40 acres of marsh to invigorate the growth of native marsh grasses. This is the largest wetland restoration project that has been attempted to date at Blackwater and the first thin-layer project in the Chesapeake watershed. 

This project is important to saving the treasured marshes at Blackwater, which provide critical habitat for migrating birds and waterfowl and storm surge buffer for surrounding communities. Scientists predict that, if no action is taken, virtually all of today’s tidal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay will erode to open water by the end of the 21st century as sea levels rise at an ever faster pace due to the thermal expansion of the ocean’s waters. According to the Maryland Commission for Climate Change, the current best projection of sea level rise in Maryland is 3.6 feet by 2100.

“The marshes at Blackwater have been around for thousands of years” said Matt Whitbeck of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who is the Supervisory Biologist at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. “But they could disappear in the next few decades because of accelerating sea level rise. If we lose these marshes we also lose the unique salt marsh wildlife assemblage, thousands of acres of essential fish nursery habitat where juvenile fish can grow in safety from predators, and natural protection for local communities against storm surges during hurricanes.”

Blackwater NWR is home to two bird species that are declining rapidly because of sea level rise. The Black Rail was recently listed as endangered in the state of Maryland because a survey of this species in 2006 found that it had declined more than 85% since the early 1990s. The Saltmarsh Sparrow lives only in tidal salt marshes in the eastern United States and its population, estimated at just 53,000, is declining at an alarming 9 percent per year. However, these species no longer occur at the 40-acre restoration project site because of excessive flooding.

“We’re catching this area of marsh in the nick of time,” said David Curson, Audubon Maryland-DC’s Director of Bird Conservation. “Between 2015 and 2016 the marsh surface has fragmented significantly. If we can extend the life of this marsh and demonstrate a technique that could help save the large wetland complex at Blackwater then the project will be a success. If we can also bring Saltmarsh Sparrows or Black Rails back here, that would be the icing on the cake.”

The current wetland restoration at Blackwater is part of a suite of long-term strategies devised by a partnership of USFWS, The Conservation Fund and Audubon Maryland-DC to ensure that the tidal wetlands in and around Blackwater NWR can persist in the face of climate-driven sea level rise.

The project is supported by a grant awarded to The Conservation Fund from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program, which allocated funds made available by the U.S. Department of Interior to 54 projects across the Northeast in the wake of the 2012 Superstorm Sandy. The Superstorm Sandy relief funding was appropriated by the U.S. Congress, including the Congressional delegation representing Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin and U.S. Representative Andy Harris, M.D.

“NFWF’s grant is enabling us to transform cutting-edge science into timely action for human as well as wildlife benefit. Blackwater’s salt marsh ecosystem is truly a national treasure well worth saving,” said Erik Meyers, vice president of The Conservation Fund. 

The restoration project at Blackwater will benefit the wetland ecology at the refuge in several ways. Raising the surface of the marsh by 4-6 inches will improve the health of marsh vegetation because it will allow oxygen to reach the plants’ roots. This should reverse the current disintegration of the root zone, which is caused by excessive flooding, and add several decades to the life of the marsh. It should also restore the site to a high marsh condition, above the level of daily tides, which is the preferred habitat of Black Rail and Saltmarsh Sparrow. 

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

The National Audubon Society saves birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at and follow @audubonsociety.

At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 7.8 million acres of land.

Media Contacts:
Erik Meyers | The Conservation Fund | 703-908-5801 |
David Curson | National Audubon Society | 410-558-2473 |
Matt Whitbeck | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serivce | 410-221-2034 |