State, Inland Bays buy Assawoman tract, convert farmland to forest

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The Center for the Inland Bays has partnered with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to protect and restore 52 acres of forest and wetland bordering the Indian River on Piney Neck.

Development is leading to a rapid decline in forests in the county with agriculture-related runoff in vulnerable areas damaging inland bays.

In 2019, the center learned that a parcel adjacent to the Piney Point Tract of the Assawoman Wildlife Area as being for sale. The tract is anecologically-diverse area on the river.

The center worked with DNREC to leverage its funds with those from the Delaware Open Space Program. In December of 2019, the property was purchased by the Department for inclusion into the Assawoman Wildlife Area owned and managed by the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Shortly thereafter in February, DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Center jointly funded and planted 16,600 tree seedlings to reforest 16 acres of the parcel. The team also purchased and installed 925 tree tubes to protect seedlings from deer damage. This and the benefit of a cool wet spring has made the planting an early success.

“While valuable habitats have been damaged by human activities over time, this latest project represents what can be done when we identify a need, leverage grant support and get to work,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin. “We have been able to preserve wildlife habitat, restore critical wetland and improve water quality for this Indian River community and for generations to come.”

The reforestation adds to the Indian River’s natural buffer and prevents more than 250 pounds of excess nutrients from polluting the water each year.

For decades, excess nutrients have caused algal blooms that have killed off the river’s underwater bay grasses and led to dissolved oxygen levels making the water unhealthy for fish and crabs.

The purchase of the property expands the Assawoman Wildlife Area on Piney Point by 11 percent, while the tree planting will create a larger tract of the forest for the benefit of wildlife.

Forests in Sussex County are disappearing rapidly due to development, and those that remain are becoming fragmented, reducing wildlife habitat, DNREC noted.

The reforestation effort will result in an additional six acres of important “interior” forest to support animals like the eastern box turtle and migratory songbirds such as the wood thrush.

Since the 1970s, populations of wood thrush have declined by 60 percent in the eastern United States.

“Partnership projects like this greatly benefit the Inland Bays and its communities,” says Chris Bason, the Inland Bays executive director. “Not only have we together with DNREC protected wildlife habitat and reduced water pollution, we have secured additional outdoor recreation opportunities for a rapidly growing local population.”

The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays is a non-profit organization established in 1994 and is one of 28 National Estuary Programs. For more information, visit www.inlandbays.org.

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