On the observational walks I lead around Columbia, participants are surprised to hear that there is much more biodiversity here today than in the years before Columbia. After all, much of what is today the city of Columbia used to be corn and soybean fields, sand and gravel pits and hunting preserves. Nature was restricted to hedgerows between fields, woodlots along steep stream valleys and fallow fields. Some of the wildlife (deer, woodchuck, beaver, fox, rabbit, raccoon, quail and crow) was kept in check by hunting — for food, for fun or to limit their impact on crops.
Of course before the Europeans came there was a vastly more diverse ecosystem here, but it is probably not realistic to think we could ever go back to those days.
Columbia developer Jim Rouse’s vision of setting aside 30% of the land as “open space” proved to be significant for the future health of the region. Columbia Association (CA) now manages nearly 4,000 acres of open space, and the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks manages another 12,000 acres across the county. These green areas have allowed for larger chunks of forest and wetlands to develop, and as a result we have a wider variety of birds and other species living here today.
It is not just the open space that attracts humans and other species. We have also planted close to a million trees in this little suburb of ours. One hears the pileated woodpecker and the wood thrush much more today than in years past.
Residents have planted a wide variety of shrubs and plants in their yards as well. Many of these plants help support a wide variety of butterflies, fireflies and birds.
The lakes are another habitat that did not exist 50 years ago. They have brought in a wide number of new species that can be communed with throughout the year by walking the paths around lakes Elkhorn and Kittamaqundi, and Wilde Lake, as well as many of the smaller ponds and streams. It is not uncommon to see eagles; osprey; kingfishers; and great blue, green and night herons fishing on these lakes. They are also wonderful winter havens for hooded mergansers, ring necks, pied bill grebes, buffleheads, canvasbacks, coots, loons and other water birds.
In summer we are treated to a range of warblers and other beautiful songbirds like the Baltimore oriole and the scarlet tanagers.
One of the major Piedmont-type habitats that we are sorely missing is meadowlands. Gone with the meadows are the meadowlark, quail and pheasant that used to be common in this area. The best meadows left today are at the Howard County Conservancy and along utility right-of-ways.
A Green Plan
To better preserve these natural areas, Howard County has developed a Green Infrastructure Network plan that attempts to tie these green areas together. The hope is that all future development, as well as private or public land management, would consider the importance of this network and do whatever is possible to enhance it.
A wide variety of ecosystem services are supported by the nature found in this network. For instance, it can help keep flooding to a minimum, improve air and water quality, and keep us and other life healthy.
Over the years many of the streams and the lakes in Columbia have been badly damaged by flash flooding and runoff from residential and commercial development. This will only get worse as bigger storms become more frequent.
There is now an effort to restore these streams. All landowners could be a big help in this effort by installing rain gardens and other bio-retention systems to slow the flow of rainwater, allow rain to filter into the soil and recharge the groundwater table, rather than running off into local streams, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
Restoring the Balance
New local developments should, remarkably, improve water quality because the county has modernized the development process and requirements. Many of the current problems result from waters not being able to soak into the ground because of all the impermeable surfaces. I am looking forward to seeing many of our vast parking lots and warehouses be rebuilt with modern stormwater management techniques.
Howard Hughes has completed an excellent stream restoration project behind Symphony Woods and in its Crescent area. It also has done a remarkable job in the parking lot of the Whole Foods store. They and other developers are to be commended for helping to reestablish some balance between man and nature — to the benefit of us all.
All homeowners and businesses could help with this goal by planting more native trees and shrubs. I see the future as one where we do understand the impacts of our human activities and we learn what it will take to maintain a healthy balance with the natural world. I see it as humans learning how to co-evolve with nature. Nature is certainly trying to coevolve with us.
We can never go back to the pre-colonization days, but as we have shown over the last 50 years, we can learn how to make our land healthy again. It will take the efforts of all of us as our population here in Columbia continues to grow.
Ned Tillman is a sustainable business advocate and the author of “The Chesapeake Watershed” and “Saving the Places We Love.” He lives in Columbia and can be reached at [email protected], or visit www.SavingThePlaces.com.