Mark Mendelsohn has fond memories of visiting his grandparents on the West River in Annapolis. The family would pile in a skiff and run out to the banks of Poplar Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. There, his grandmother would catch so many bluefish that her arms would be sore.
But the past half-century was not kind to Poplar and the cluster of islands that surround it about three miles north of Tilghman Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Erosion and sea level rise had whittled away the islands. In 1847, Poplar Island covered more than 1,100 acres. By the early 1990s, when Mendelsohn and his Army Corps of Engineers colleague Justin Callahan went to survey the island, it was fewer than five acres.
Now, Poplar Island is slowly becoming the place that Mendelsohn remembers. And Mendelsohn, a 67-year-old biologist with the Corps, is helping it get there.
But the island is not just for engineers and biologists anymore. Tourists can visit, too: The Maryland Environmental Service offers free tours Monday through Friday from March until October. The boats leave from a launch on Tilghman Island off Chicken Point Road. Thousands of Marylanders already have taken the tour, including researchers, birders and schoolchildren who are involved in a program to release terrapins on the islands.
Some come to watch the waterfowl. Plenty of species have found refuge here, among them loons, ruddy ducks, cormorants, egrets and bald eagles. But others are interested in an engineering marvel still under construction. Part of Poplar looks like a moonscape, with a broken-up gray bottom that looks porous enough to make would-be island explorers exercise caution. Indeed, tour leaders have to warn the schoolchildren not to step in it — it’s like quicksand, and it’s easy to get stuck.
Tours begin with a quick look in the visitors center, where leaders point out what Poplar looked like over the last century and discuss the project. Then, it’s onto a bus where visitors can follow their drive on a map as they pass each “cell,” which have varied purposes. After the bus ride there is a little bit of time to explore, and visitors can look for birds from an observation deck.
Over the last 15 years, the Corps has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Environmental Service to restore Poplar to its 1847 footprint — about 1,140 acres — and even go beyond it. The island is being rebuilt with dredge material from the approach channels to the Baltimore Harbor. The dredging must be done so that ships can enter and exit the port safely.
Decades ago, the Maryland Port Administration dumped dredge material in the Chesapeake. After public outcry, port officials agreed to stop the practice in 2001. But then the question loomed of what to do with the several million cubic yards of sediment taken every year from the port’s approach channels.
A solution emerged, as the islands of the Chesapeake Bay continued to erode and sink into the slowly rising sea. When port officials proposed the first dredge island, at Hart-Miller in Baltimore County in the 1970s, residents took their opposition all the way to the Supreme Court. They didn’t want toxic sediments from the Inner Harbor near their homes, but they ultimately lost.
But times had changed; communities wanted the port’s material to help shore up their own homes. The Poplar project has helped protect Tilghman Island and the two small islands closest to it: Coaches and Jefferson islands, which are both privately owned hunting retreats.
But also, the material was different. Hart-Miller took polluted sediment from the harbor, but Poplar is built with sand and mud from the approach channels. While it’s probably not anything you’d want to eat, it’s not toxic.
So far, half of Poplar’s 1,140 acres are wetlands and half is uplands. The Port authority and the Corps recently got permission to expand the project by 575 acres. When Poplar is finished, it will cost $1.234 billion in 2014 dollars.
It has proved a winner on multiple fronts. The port has found a more environmentally suitable place to put its dredge material. The communities nearby feel safer. And birds might be the biggest winner: USFWS officials have counted more than 170 species of birds, 26 of which nest on the island. Other communities are begging for the Corps to shore up James Island, which will protect Taylors Island, and Barren Island, which will help protect Hooper’s Island.
For previous visitors who haven’t been back in a few years, it’s worth another visit. During my first trip to Poplar in 2007, it looked like a construction site, albeit a neat one. During this visit, the island looked more natural. Native grasses swayed in the wind, and the upland forest showed its fall colors. If you didn’t know its history, and you arrived by boat, you might well think it was always that way.
That sort of effortless look, Mendelsohn said, was two decades in the making, and the job will continue until 2040. “I asked to work on it when it was just an idea. I had no idea of the scale,” Mendelsohn said. “I consider it the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Poplar Island tours leave Monday through Friday from Tilghman Island. To schedule a tour, contact tour coordinator Megan Garrett at PoplarTours@menv.com or 410-770-6503.