Dave Warnock was standing knee-deep in the creek, electrofishing gear strapped onto his back and a electric rod in his hand that could stun any fish in the vicinity.
He and his partner, Buck Rufenacht, were conducting a "baseline survey" of this treeless section of the Little Gunpowder Falls to find out exactly what was there - "which isn't much," Warnock pointed out.
"This is like the search for the missing trout," Warnock said, "but we don't expect to find any."
But Warnock, Rufenacht and other members of Trout Unlimited expect this to change soon. The organization has been working with the Maryland Forest Service to restore a forested swath along upper portions of the stream that have been denuded for centuries.
Without forest cover, stream temperatures rose, making it unsuitable for trout. And without the trees to hold banks in place, grazing cows and rapidly flowing water caused large amounts of sediment - along with the associated nutrients - to fall into the water, further degrading downstream areas and ultimately, the Bay.
"We're planting trees to save the Chesapeake Bay," said Mike Huneke, a watershed forester who joined dozens of volunteers on a chilly, misty morning in early May to plant a 50-foot-wide tree buffer through a pasture. "This is one of the last stretches of the Gunpowder," he said.
When Huneke started working on the Little Gunpowder Falls three years ago, about 85 percent of the 25-mile river was lined with trees.
One by one, Huneke has gotten landowners to install forest buffers along the streams that wind through their pastures. After two miles of buffer are planted this year, 98 percent of the stream will be forested, Huneke said.
It is one of many projects under way as part of Maryland's watershed forester program, which is marking its 10th anniversary. Far from the stereotypical view of a forester managing vast territories, watershed foresters specialize in working to restore narrow strips of trees along selected rivers and streams that feed the Bay.
"This program has become a real training ground for our foresters because they come in and get educated to the whole importance of forests with regard to land use pressures, buffers and the Bay," said Jeff Horan, a regional forester overseeing central Maryland. "It really weaves the Bay's message through everything we do."
The program started in the Susquehanna watershed, but has since spread to the Gunpowder, Little Gunpowder Falls, Elk River, Bush River, Jones Falls, Gwynn Falls, Patapsco, Anacostia, Monocacy, Catoctin, Double Pipe Creek and Town Creek watersheds - a collection that includes waterways from the Eastern Shore to the Allegheny Mountains. This year, the program will expand to include the upper and middle Patuxent watersheds.
In the past decade, the watershed foresters have helped restore trees to 612 acres of riparian areas - or roughly 200 miles of streambank. Recently, they have averaged nearly 30 miles a year.
Efforts so far, according to state Forest Service calculations, are responsible for keeping 36,000 pounds of nitrogen and 7,600 pounds of phosphorus out of waterways each year. Nitrogen and phosphorus are two key nutrients responsible for polluting the Bay, causing large algae blooms that degrade water quality.
"It's the biggest bang for the buck that we can do to enhance the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay," Huneke said.
In fact, the whole watershed forestry program stems from the growing realization that streamside forests are essential to good water quality and aquatic habitat. Instead of managing large forest tracts for game animals and forest products, watershed foresters find themselves working with farmers, urban planners, community groups and others to restore forested bands that benefit birds, small wildlife and fish. In part, Horan said, this emphasis has evolved because Maryland lacks the large forests of Virginia and Pennsylvania, and consequently has a much smaller forest products industry.
"You realize that things like these wonderful tributaries and riverine strings that we have running throughout the state are really all we're going to have," Horan said. "You have to keep those ecosystems functioning."
The foresters acknowledge that there are still serious challenges to selling forest buffers, especially in rural areas. The large farms along the Little Gunpowder River generally are not the only source of income for their owners. Convincing them to dedicate land to forest buffers is easier than selling the idea to farmers who derive all their income from crop and pasture lands.
"The one community we're still having trouble getting to really buy in are active farmers," Horan said. "Farming is their bread and butter. Those people are busy during the times of the year when they would need to spend the most time doing these kinds of projects. It also costs them the most, because they're taking acreage out of production. And if it's not cropped acres, they can't borrow against it at the bank. So a whole series of different things happen when you take land out of production."
Horan said the state is slowly making headway. In the beginning, foresters had little more to offer landowners than their own technical expertise and seedlings from the state's nursery. Over the years, the state has added a wide range of forest buffer incentives, from $300-an-acre payments, to tax breaks to cost-share programs.
Financial tools are not the only tactics that watershed foresters such as Huneke use to sell forest buffers. They also give presentations and work with community organizations to spread the message that riparian forests help local streams and the Chesapeake.
That outreach pays dividends. Trout Unlimited, for example, has helped persuade landowners along the Little Gunpowder Falls - often their neighbors - that planting trees will help return the waterway to the trout stream it once was. Such grassroots effort, in turn, can literally open the door for Huneke and others to enroll landowners in the program.
The local Trout Unlimited chapter recently won a $10,000 grant from the national organization to help speed the recovery of the Little Gunpowder Falls. Part of the money is being used to plant larger trees - some 6 feet tall - instead of the usual seedlings along parts of the creek. The idea is to more rapidly restore shade to the stream and improve habitat.
"When we're done with this," Warnock said, "we will have created a trout stream all the way down to the Bay. I'd be surprised if we don't see some trout back in here in the next 2 or 3 years."