If one of them isn't laying siege to the 112,000-acre wilderness, the other is often whispering to Lowie, the refuge manager, that it soon might do so.
It was flooding's turn late last summer and early fall. Three storms in four weeks, culminating in Hurricane Matthew in early October, dumped more than 30 inches of rain over parts of
On a warm early March afternoon, however, those record-setting rainfalls felt like ancient history as Lowie walked along a ditch in the Great Dismal's northeast corner. The water level in the ditch was low, the leaves and pine needles in the forest that surrounded it crispy dry.
"If we don't get a substantial amount of rain, we're going to be on fire by May," Lowie said.
Fortunately, he had something to look forward to: the completion of a
The work includes about a dozen heavy-duty aluminum structures that can be turned into small dams. When they're fully installed in the summer, Lowie will have greater control over water levels in about 30,000 acres in the northern part of the refuge.
That'll allow him to more easily channel away water in advance of hurricanes or other storms, so that the ground can then sponge up more when the deluges come. And when the weather's hotter and drier, he'll be able to retain extra water in the ditches so it can be pumped to put out fires.
All of this should be good not just for the swamp, but for people whose lives can be affected by the upheavals inside it, Lowie said.
And not just neighboring residents who worry about flooding.
In 2011, when the second big wildfire in three years scorched thousands of refuge acres, it burrowed so deep into the peaty soil that smoke kept billowing in a trail that stretched hundreds of miles well after the last above-ground flames were doused. Satellites captured images of the plume.
Across huge swaths of the Eastern Seaboard, people with breathing problems were encouraged to limit their time outside.
Fires are natural and some controlled ones might be useful under the right conditions. But Lowie said an unplanned blaze is never good news.
"When you've got 1 1/2 million people pretty much downwind, our job is not to let it burn," he said. "Our job is to put it out as fast and efficiently as possible."
He said the new project could pay for itself if just one fire is quickly quashed. The two most recent big blazes cost a combined
If all of this intervention sounds a bit unnatural for a wildlife refuge, you're right. Typically, managers prefer a light-handed approach -- as much as possible, letting nature take its course.
But the Great Dismal is no ordinary refuge. Started in 1974 with about 49,000 acres donated by the paper-mill giant
The swamp is believed to have been much bigger then -- 1 million acres, roughly. It was chopped down to size by many more wood-cutting ventures over the next 200 years, and many more ditches. Their main function became draining the swamp so loggers could take down the trees more easily. Roads were built alongside them to get in the logging equipment and get out the harvests.
Lowie said that when he arrived at the refuge in 2007, he naively asked: "Why not take out all the ditches?"
It wasn't long before he realized that they had jigsawed the natural hydrology so much -- and that the forests had adapted so much in response over two centuries -- that "there's no restoration ecologist who'd be able to re-create what was here."
Nowadays his philosophy is, "We got what we got. Let's manage it and not be a victim of what we inherited."
What's left is still widely considered a national treasure. Stretching across the state line into
Black bears are probably its most famous, and infamous, residents. Roughly 300 prowl the refuge, and some of them meander in and out of adjacent farms and neighborhoods.
Lowie made clear that increasing biodiversity is the main purpose of the water-control project. Though there will be times when they'll use the new structures to channel water out, Fish and Wildlife officials say that more often they'll be focused on keeping it in -- and spreading it farther around.
By making the swamp swampier, they hope to encourage more of the plants and animals, and their habitats, that prevailed before it was drained for logging -- and less of what took over afterward.
"If we wet an area too fast, it stresses the trees out and can kill the forest," Lowie said. "So we have to take an incremental approach, a conservative approach, to allow the trees to readapt."
He said Fish and Wildlife biologists believe that by "rewetting" more of the refuge they may help slow climate change as well. Peaty soils, which predominate in the Great Dismal, are especially efficient when wet at sequestering -- basically, storing -- carbon dioxide. That's the gas whose increasing concentration in the atmosphere has been widely linked by climate scientists to global warming.
Because he applied for the funding through the Hurricane Sandy relief bill, Lowie also had to show that the project has the potential to lessen the effects of natural disasters on neighboring communities.
It won't eliminate floods and fires, he said, "but what it will do is reduce the impacts of those catastrophic events."
A smaller-scale project in the southern part of the refuge called "The Blocks" gave him the confidence that a soggier soil can limit fires. Though lightning has hit in that area in recent years, Lowie said, the damage has been limited to the trees that were struck. He theorized that's because the ground was too wet for flames to spread further.
But there will be times, particularly when a hurricane is predicted, when the opposite is the case. "Then we'll call them and say, 'Are you getting the water out' in advance of the storm?"
Martin said the city has some projects of its own in the works to improve stormwater drainage in
Scussel said that water levels in the canal hit record levels after the rains in October, surpassing the previous top set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Nothing the wildlife refuge is doing now would hold back enough water to prevent flooding in
"That trifecta of storms that we had, Hermine and Julia and Matthew, was pretty devastating."
But he said there's a good chance the work that's soon to be completed will help during lesser events for many decades to come.
"I'm setting the stage for the next manager, and the manager after that, and the manager after that."
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