Returning more swamp habitat to Dismal Swamp State Park

The water control devices are a mix of pipes, culverts and fitted boards.
The water control devices are a mix of pipes, culverts and fitted boards.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

George Washington and his business partners figured that draining the Great Dismal Swamp – more than a million acres – would yield a bonanza of fertile farmland in northeast North Carolina and southeast Virginia. The draining went well; the farming not so much. The principal payoff of all those hand-dug, arrow-straight ditches was a swamp that was no longer very swampy in many places. Over many decades, cypresses, tupelos and coveted white cedars gave way to a mix of red maple, gum and other hardwoods. As the water table beneath dropped, a layer of peat many feet thick dried to the point that it would burn underground for months if lightning sparked a fire. To make matters worse, many of the ditches were deepened in the 1960s.

A project at Dismal Swamp State Park and the adjoining Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge aims to reverse this situation by installing water control structures to keep more of the water inside the swamp – to restore the critical hydrology that supports true swamp habitat. The 118,000-acre refuge is building its fifth such structure and two larger ones are being completed in the 14,432-acre state park. The structures are a system of culverts, pipes and fitted boards that can regulate water levels in the ditches.

The devices are fairly simple but the plan and the partners are a complex mix. Besides the state park and the refuge, the effort involves North Carolina State University, The Nature Conservancy, the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Christopher Newport University and the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, a major channel of federal funding. Grants for the work in the state park total more than $1.4 million for the water control structures and a system of wells to gauge how well it’s working.

The area surrounding the park's boardwalk is more typical swamp habitat.
The area surrounding the park’s boardwalk is more typical swamp habitat.

Natural resource managers for the state parks system say it may take many years to determine how well it’s working or how it can be made to work. “There is no guidebook,” said Jon Blanchard, natural resources program manager. “The scale of change is decades; it’s not something that happens overnight…our approach will have to be adjusted as we go.”

But the benefits could be enormous. Aside from reestablishing native plant and animal habitat, restoring the peat layer to its natural state could lessen the chances of devastating wildfires such as the 2011 Lateral West Fire and the 2008 South One Fire, which together burned more than 12,000 acres. The dried peat burning below ground made firefighting especially dangerous, leaving trees unsupported and likely to topple. The control structures should also make more surface water available in the ditches for firefighters. Also, moist and healthy peat works remarkably well to capture carbon emissions linked to climate change. It’s a plan bold enough perhaps to capture the imagination of the Founding Father.

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