Chickahominy a study of landscape and land use
Survey’s maps show development’s effect on quality of water, wildlife in watershed
The Jolly Pond Swamp looks like something that should be found in the Carolinas or thereabouts, with deep, dark water filled with tall cypress trees.
Yet it and other cypress swamps on the Chickahominy-north of the James River-have been a marvel to visitors for decades. "The cypress here protrudes its curious roots, and the funereal moss trails from the trees," journalist B.W. Bagby wrote in a 1872 coffee-table book "Picturesque America." "TheChickahominy," Bagby stated, "cannot fail to attract the artist and naturalist."
More than a century later, Diane Eckles has been making her own discoveries in the area.
"This is where the gar were," said Eckles, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as she stood along the edge of the Jolly Pond Swamp. "They were swimming between our legs."
The gar, a large, long-nosed-and ancient-fish had been noticed during a 1994 vegetation survey of the site. Similar surveys, for fish, reptiles and amphibians, birds and invertebrates are under way as part of the watershed project initiated by the USF&WS and aided by a technical committee of scientists from state and federal agencies and academic institutions.
Results are being placed in a computerized "geographic information system" that also contains a host of information about land use and other location-specific data from throughout the 470-square-mile Chickahominy watershed.
When all the information is examined together, scientists will be able to examine the cumulative impact of the wide range of human activities taking place within the watershed have on biological communities.
Ultimately, Eckles hopes this massive information base is something that can be used by local citizens, government officials and others to map comprehensive land use strategies for the Chickahominy-much of which is sandwiched between the rapidly developing Richmond and Williamsburg areas-that will protect the watershed and its resources while allowing for development.
Eckles began working on the project after years of regulatory work. In that job, she reviewed permits for projects affecting small bits of land. By themselves, the individual projects may have had little impact on the local ecosystem, but Eckles was concerned that many small projects in a given area could have significant impacts.
"This began out of frustration," Eckles said. "I kept thinking that there is a better way."
As a result, Eckles began a comprehensive "landscape analysis" project in the Chickahominy, which could be a pilot for other areas as well. By looking at the landscape as a whole-the size and shapes of forests, wetlands and other land uses and their relationships to each other-Eckles hopes to paint a more holistic view of how the landscape functions as an integrated ecosystem.
The Chickahominy has proven to be an ideal location for such a study. The watershed serves as a breeding ground and stopover for different species of migratory birds. The lower end of the river is a spawning area for striped bass and other migratory fish, its forested shorelines are home to bald eagles, its wetlands hold rare plant species, such as the swamp pink.
Also, the level of development generally decreases-and the amount of natural land cover increases-as one moves down the watershed. This allows biologists to compare the impacts of differing amounts of landscape disturbance within the same watershed.
Scientists on the technical committee will compare landscape structure-such as the total amount of forested wetlands and the size and shape of individual tracts-to the presence, absence, numbers or diversity of specific "indicator" species, such as neotropical migrant birds, migratory fish, frogs, invertebrates or wetland plant species.
Results of that analysis can show relationships between landscape structure and habitat quality. Such information can then be used to help planners decide where future development would have the least impact, or to weigh the environmental tradeoffs of developments in different locations. Likewise, future monitoring can serve as a biological measure of whether cumulative development impacts are affecting the watershed's resources. "Your watershed is not just water quality," Eckles said.
The linkage between the presence of indicators such as certain bird species and landscape structure is the heart of cumulative impact analysis. For example, a large forest located next to a wetland may have more species diversity than a fragmented forest next to a suburban area where they are more vulnerable to pets and parasitic birds that thrive on the forest edge.
Similarly, a wetland located between a stream and a woodland, which helps buffer it from other land uses, may have more reptile and amphibian diversity than one located next to a shopping mall.
Maps developed using information from Eckles' project bring that vividly to life.
Varied land uses are apparent. Different "layers" of the digital maps provide information about the locations of streams and roads, and the diversity of different bird species inhabiting different sizes and shapes of forested wetland patches in the watershed.
"Diane can show that from going to a 'patch size' of one acre to a patch size of 10 acres makes a dynamic jump in species diversity," said Dave Dowling, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
That has implications not just for protection, he said, but restoration. Instead of focusing wetland creation efforts on several small projects, for example, it may be better to do restoration in an area where several smaller wetlands could be linked, Dowling said. "It's a very clear picture very quickly," he said.
By using aerial survey maps from 1953, Eckles is also recreating what the watershed looked like four decades ago. Comparing that with recent monitoring data will allow her to estimate how land use changes have altered biological communities.
And there have been changes: Forest coverage has fallen from 50 percent of the watershed to 36 percent, although pine plantations are increasing. Farmland has fallen from 15 percent to 9 percent. Urban and residential lands have expanded.
Acres of vegetated wetlands have declined, as have the number of large wetlands. For example, in 1953, the watershed had 14 wetland patches of more than 400 acres, by 1994 there were only six.
A "future" analysis will also be conducted by comparing proposed land use changes in local comprehensive plans with 1994 data. That might help predict what those changes would mean for biological diversity.
Much of the Chickahominy, particularly lower portions of the watershed, still has good water quality-it is home to the largest reservoir for the Newport News water supply. But the watershed continues to change, especially as the suburbs of Richmond press farther into its upper areas.
A driving tour of the watershed that begins on narrow winding roads around Jolly Pond Swamp ends up on wide boulevards lined with industrial parks and shopping malls in the suburbs of Richmond. In this area, the Chickahominy-if it is known at all-isn't thought of as a river, but as a swamp.
Protecting its water quality for the long term will mean that people living in the diverse watershed must be able to understand, and use, the data that Eckles and colleagues have been amassing about birds, bugs, snakes and the like.
"People who live in the watershed may not care about these organisms, but they do care about their quality of life," Eckles said. "And whether they recognize it or not, that's what we are trying to get at here-the quality of living, sustainable landscapes that are supported by functioning ecosystems."
To help make that translation to the public-and to local government officials-the USF&WS, with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, has helped to form a watershed organization to introduce the region's growing population to the Chickahominy, its resources-and the development issues it faces. It is a difficult task because many people in the region focus on the larger James River rather than the Chickahominy, which is often is viewed primarily as a swamp.
"People didn't know-and still don't know-what the Chickahominy is," said Sarah Richardson of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. "All they know is that it has swamps."
Richardson has helped to create the Chickahominy Watershed Alliance, an organization with representatives from environmental groups, businesses, local governments and others. Ultimately, the group is to become a free-standing association that acts on its own.
"I see one of our goals as sort of leading people around and seeing what the resources are-public awareness and education," said Brian Moores, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Randolph-Macon College and president of the organization's board. "We're not going to be out chaining ourselves to the gates when they build a plant."
The group has already sponsored a variety of outings and programs for citizens, as well as a forum that helped to introduce local government officials to the work being done by Eckles.
"The James is historically the river for this area," said Dawn McGrain, another board member who also works for Henrico County. Over time, she said, educational efforts can help people better appreciate the unique watersheds they live in.
"I think the Chickahominy is a wonderful watershed," she said. "I'm always impressed with the wildlife we see just in this county, even as suburban as it is. We have some areas where milewide floodplain and wetland systems along this river are not uncommon. You can't even find the channel half the time. That's how the Chickahominy is."
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