Great Cypress Swamp project boosts Sussex wetlands

An aerial image shows the L-shaped “Long Field” project in the Great Cypress Swamp undertaken by the Delaware Wild Lands Inc. and partners. Submitted photo

FRANKFORD — As a young boy, a high school student and now a 33-year-old adult, Andrew Martin has been swamped.

The Great Cypress Swamp, Delaware Wild Lands Inc.’s 10,600-acre property nestled between Gumboro, Frankford and Selbyville in southern Sussex County, has been his playground and classroom.

Now, the swamp is part of his full-time job as program manager/field ecologist and director of social media at Delaware Wild Lands, the state’s largest nonprofit conservation landholder.

Mr. Martin’s passion for the Great Cypress Swamp recently precipitated a project that led to the restoration of 80 acres of freshwater wetlands, benefiting various species of Delaware wildlife, as well as migratory shorebirds.

“With the swamp itself, part of it is just the scale of it. It’s over 10,000 acres, and there is not a larger contiguous forest in Delaware. It’s really down here in lower Sussex, about as close to a true wilderness as you’re going to find,” said Mr. Martin. “It feels different than any other forest we have on the (Delmarva) Peninsula, both its size and the assemblage of species we have out there.”

DWL’s executive director explained Mr. Martin’s background in the swamp.

“Andrew has honestly spent his whole, entire life at the Great Cypress Swamp. He grew up with one of Delaware Wild Lands’ staff members, his dad, and even as a boy, he was out looking for frogs in the swamp,” said Kate Hackett. “Later, as a high school student, he practiced cross country on the roads inside the swamp, while his dad was working. He has a lifetime of observation of what species are there and how water moves through that landscape. He put all that together, and eventually, this project crystalized for him.”

With camera in hand, Andrew Martin strolls through nature at one of Delaware Wild Lands Inc.’s properties. Submitted photo

Once a low-yield agricultural field, the 80-acre plot known as “Long Field” now consists of seven interconnected wetland cells that create a dynamic land- and waterscape.

Besides migratory birds, the project completed several weeks ago is proving beneficial to other waterfowl, rare and declining reptiles and amphibians, native pollinators and invertebrates, as well as many other species of wildlife native to Delaware.

“It’s providing a valuable wildlife corridor from the 10,000 acres in the Great Cypress Swamp down along the Pocomoke River into Maryland. It’s definitely of regional significance,” said Mr. Martin.

Strategic earthwork and select ditch-plugging completed as part of this project are diverting floodwaters back into the Great Cypress Swamp. Swales and hummocks created through excavation connect the wetland cells and diversify the habitat and landscape features.

A variety of partners contributed their expertise, funding, oversight and design skills to make this project a great success, including The Nature Conservancy in Maryland/DC and Ducks Unlimited.

The Long Field project was set in motion several years ago, when Mr. Martin shared his plan with another of DWL’s partner organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“That was really the beginning of conceptualizing that project in a tangible way, so that we then could take that and work with our partners, The Nature Conservancy in Maryland and Ducks Unlimited, to implement,” said Ms. Hackett.

Over the next two years, DWL will plant 10,000 native trees and shrubs across the 80-acre Long Field, including baldcypress, Atlantic white cedar and buttonbush.

“The one great thing about this project: I can’t say enough great things about our contractor, Lyndon Hitchens. He has done work for all of our partners before and knows the swamp and knows his stuff,” said Ms. Hackett. “He actually finished the project under budget. So we were able to take some of the money from that grant and allocate it to partially fund the tree-planting that will happen on the site next year.

Restoration of 80 acres of freshwater wetlands was recently completed at the Great Cypress Swamp, a project precipitated by Andrew Martin of the Delaware Wild Lands Inc. In photo is Ron Haas, Mr. Martin’s co-worker at Great Cypress Swamp. Special to the Delaware State News/Andrew Martin

“The earthwork, getting the contractors out there, all of that among all our partners was about $100,000. That doesn’t include our time,” she added. “We have never gone to the work of adding up the staff time. It’s hard to quantify the conceptual planning that went into the project.”

Scheduled fall 2021 plantings will grow into a forested wetland that, ultimately, will clean and cool the air, slow climate change through carbon sequestration, absorb rain from heavy storms to reduce flooding, provide enhanced bird and wildlife habitat and filter harmful pollutants from groundwater supplies.

“Geographically speaking, it will benefit the residents of two major watersheds — the Inland Bays for Delaware and also the residents of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Ms. Hackett. “By reconstructing that wetland and then reforesting it next year, the benefits to humans will be improved water quality and air quality, also floodwater retention.”

Mr. Martin’s exposure to the swamp has direct family ties — from his father, Peter Martin.

“My father has been with the organization (DWL) around 45 years. He’s part time now,” said Mr. Martin, a Sussex Central High School graduate, who attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, initially as a neuroscience major.

Through a glaze of ice, Andrew Martin captures nature with an upclose shot. Submitted photo

But after working a couple summers for Delaware State Parks, Mr. Martin decided he “needed to be doing something outdoors.”

The Long Field is described by DWL as an “L-shape disturbance” in the forested area of the Great Cypress Swamp, which is bisected by Del. 54, a connector of Gumboro and Selbyville.

“A lot of people have a difficult time visualizing what 80 acres actually is. It’s actually 60 football fields,” said Ms. Hackett.

“If you (go) through there in the summertime, you will notice a change in temperature. It’s cooler. It’s the canopy of the trees, the humidity of the water, so you can actually feel that change in climate,” she said. “It’s pretty remote at the swamp. Cellphone service can be limited there. It’s the largest remaining block of forestland on the Delmarva Peninsula. Interestingly, that geography of the Great Cypress Swamp is within a 300-mile drive of 20% of the U.S. population: Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Richmond, (Virginia), all of those places.”

The Great Cypress Swamp is the largest property owned and managed by the DWL, which has approximately 20,000 acres of land in Delaware and Maryland.

“We think of it as a refuge for wildlife now. It does have all this folklore and cultural history associated with it, too — everything from the Swamp Monster to the Underground Railroad, a place where people bootlegged booze during Prohibition and all those things,” said Ms. Hackett. “So it is a very colorful place in that way, too.”