Areas in red outline the proposed acquisitiion areas for parcels that will comprise the proposed Southern Maryland Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge. (Map courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working to fill a protected habitat gap in southern Maryland by creating a new refuge that includes pockets of land throughout Anne Arundel County.

The proposed Southern Maryland Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge would also include protected land in Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s Counties.

Representatives of the Patuxent Research Refuge and the FWS’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office met virtually with members of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society earlier this year to discuss details and educate SMAS members on the scope of the conservation work.

According to Jennifer Greiner, refuge manager at PRR, the effort began in 2011 with a preliminary project proposal approved by the director of FWS, followed by a landscape conservation design.

The third step, where the process now stands, will establish a Land Protection Plan and the environmental assessments that accompany it. Once approved by the FWS director, that plan will provide the authority to acquire up to 40,000 acres from willing sellers over a 30-year timespan.

“It’s a highly deliberate process and collaborative at all stages,” Greiner said. “We’ve met with local organizations, tribal governments, federal, state and county agencies, and non-governmental agencies to align the needs of plants and wildlife and their habitats with the needs of people.”

Holistic approach

The concept for the new refuge is based on the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge model, using a landscape-scale conservation approach.

“A lot of other refuges are place-based and tightly constrained,” Greiner said. “This is based on strategic landscape conservation, not one species or habitat, looking holistically across the landscape.”

SMWNWR’s boundaries cover four watershed-based units that include the Lower Patuxent – Calvert Unit, the McIntosh Run – St. Mary’s Unit, the Zekiah Swamp – Wicomico Unit, and the Nanjemoy – Mattawoman Unit.

Implementation of the project has been championed by the Southern Maryland Conservation Alliance, Greiner said, a partnership of 46 conservation and community groups which organized in 2021.

“We have good support from local organizations and the State of Maryland,” she noted. “We’ve been coordinating with local governments and state agencies and are supporting administration priorities including climate resilience, environmental justice and tribal co-stewardship through this effort.”

Three state-recognized Piscataway tribes are included among the stakeholders.

Threatened biodiversity

Dan Murphy, manager of the Division of Habitat Conservation and Restoration under the FWS’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, said the landscape in southern Maryland provides habitat for 28 Birds of Conservation Concern, migratory waterfowl, and eight federally listed species, three of which have land protection listed as a priority in their recovery plans.

Birds of Conservation Concern include the scarlet tanager and prothonotary warbler, he said. Federally listed species include the tiger beetle that occurs at Calvert Cliffs and the dwarf wedge muscle that occurs in Nanjemoy Creek and McIntosh Run, while at-risk species include the wood thrush, monarch butterfly and spotted turtle.

The FWS has identified a 577,000-acre acquisition boundary containing 170,000 acres of individual parcels greater than 20 acres in areas of importance for migratory birds and waterfowl. Although the FWS is only looking to acquire parcels in excess of 20 acres, Murphy said exceptions could be made for properties down to 5 acres in size that adjoin other acquired properties or provide a habitat corridor between two properties.

The acquisition effort will start with landowners willing to donate land, and is expected to move on to negotiations for direct fee acquisitions and conservation easements once funding has been established, which could take approximately two years.

“Funding is a competitive process,” Murphy explained. “We have to submit something like a grant proposal to the FWS and we’ll be competing with other refuges across the country.”

FWS will also negotiate public access permissions with landowners.

Evolving asset

The FWS is currently reviewing public comments and updating the draft Land Protection Plan and Environmental Assessment where warranted. That document is expected to be finalized and approved by the end of summer, at which point the official acquisition boundary will be established.

“The refuge will be formally established when we take ownership of the first parcel,” Murphy said, confirming that some landowners are already discussing donations with FWS’s nongovernmental organization partners, and others have expressed interest in purchasing land to donate to the refuge.

Funding for future direct fee acquisitions and conservation easements will come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is permanently funded at about $900 million per year from oil leases on the continental shelf, and from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which is supported through the sale of Federal Duck Stamps.

Greiner said the protected land is expected to support some passive recreation opportunities, and perhaps some active opportunities as well, including hunting and fishing, depending on the interests of individual landowners.

“At some point we’ll need to establish a refuge management presence in the region with an office or collocated office and some staff, particularly if there are any hiking trails to be maintained,” Greiner said. “There will likely be horseback riding and biking as well. I imagine it will be a spectrum, and it will evolve.”