On a warm Saturday morning this fall, more than 30 landowners gathered on a property in Baltimore County to learn a little about promoting the birds and the bees. Literally. The workshop, titled Get to Know Your Backyard Habitat, invited local residents to see an example of stellar wildlife habitat tended by landowners Pascale Meraldi and Joe Clarke for almost a decade.

In 2008, the couple bought a property that was an all too common sight in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: a one-acre sliver of forest with another five acres encompassing the house and an enormous manicured lawn.

Meraldi, a landscaper by trade and native plant and insect enthusiast, decided to try to improve the property for pollinators and save Clarke hours of mowing each week. Through many setbacks and hard lessons learned, she converted three acres of lawn to native meadow and much of the rest to a grove of trees and an expanded pollinator-friendly garden.

The field now brims with various native wildflowers and grasses throughout the growing season. On the day of the workshop, it treated attendees to a sea of big bluestem and blooming goldenrod.
Participants learned about the benefits of meadow habitat for pollinators and songbirds, then took a tour through the woods to learn about forest management from local horticulturist Steve Allgeier. They heard about invasive plant management and practical steps for restoring habitat, and went home with the understanding that even a modestly sized property can be substantially improved for native flora and fauna — currently of utmost concern in the Chesapeake watershed and nationwide.

This was the third habitat-focused event since June organized by the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance in partnership with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Forests Program. The PWA is a volunteer organization whose goal is to restore and protect the water quality of the Prettyboy Reservoir, a primary source of drinking water for Baltimore City.

It may seem strange that the focus of these events was bees, butterflies, wildflowers and songbirds rather than the water itself. Increasing stewardship on private land is a key strategy to improving water quality in our region, but improving water quality is often not the motivation for private landowner stewardship. Improving the land for wildlife — and wildlife viewing — is a much greater incentive in promoting active stewardship.

These aren’t separate goals, though. If landowners become invested in the native plant communities and wildlife that could occupy their land, they are more likely to restore habitat where they can. Creating natural areas of native trees, shrubs and other flora does a world of good for local water quality, whether the restoration work was implemented for the creeks or the creatures.

The Prettyboy is an excellent microcosm of the Chesapeake Bay. The watershed spans county and state lines, and the reservoir is impacted by both municipal and agricultural runoff. Some local residents may not see the importance of working to improve the water that’s just going “elsewhere” downstream, even though the Upper Gunpowder Falls, a main source of the water in the reservoir, holds a tremendous resource; a reproducing brook trout population, representing 25 percent of Maryland’s brookies. There is federal, state, municipal and nongovernmental funding available for landowners in the Prettyboy watershed that address pollution goals, but as is the case in the larger Chesapeake watershed, these programs are not reaching the landowners that may reap their benefits.

The PWA has realized that their focus needs to be on exposing landowners to the many programs that provide resources and assistance not only for clean water but other conservation issues as well. A riparian forest is a critical agriculture best management practice for reducing pollutants from entering a stream but can also be equally important to an agricultural producer for keeping cattle healthy. Creating a meadow increases the permeability of the soil and water infiltration, but it also provides excellent habitat for a variety of pollinators and other fauna.

The PWA, like many organizations working around the region, understands that private landowners need to be personally invested in their land for watershed restoration to succeed. The stewardship of private lands is essential to the restoration and protection of the region’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay, but we have to constantly remind ourselves that this is not likely what inspires most private landowners to act.

There are myriad interests that motivate landowners to conserve, restore and sustain their natural resources. Working to reach the local total maximum daily load for water quality just may not be one of them.