Resilient Delaware

Science Weighs In

Conservancy scientist, Brian Boutin, weighs in on building more resilient landscapes in a post-Sandy Delaware.

Traditionally, solutions to holding back waters encroaching from a rising sea have focused on building walls and other engineered structures. However, the passing of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 showed that the built infrastructure alone is not enough.

This is something The Nature Conservancy has long recognized and why staff along the eastern seaboard has been developing a different approach – rooted in nature. Brian Boutin, the Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Programs in Delaware, speaks to these efforts in relation to the chapter’s work at the Milford Neck Nature Preserve.

Millions of migrating shorebirds traveling along the Atlantic Fly way visit Milford Neck each year. It also contains the only remaining forested area greater than 1,000 acres on the Delaware coast — a crucial spot for wildlife requiring large blocks of habitat during their life cycles.


What is the Conservancy's history at Milford Neck?

Brian Boutin:

Since 1990, the Conservancy has been working in partnership with the State of Delaware and Delaware Wild Lands to conserve the natural heritage found at Milford Neck. Today, this partnership permanently protects over 10,000 acres and nearly 10 miles of Delaware Bay shoreline in an area extending from the Mispillion River north to the Murderkill River. The Conservancy alone manages 2,801 acres of beaches and dunes, tidal marshlands, freshwater wetlands, swamp and upland forests, and farmland.


That's a lot of interest in just one portion of the state. What's so special?

Brian Boutin:

This mosaic of contiguous coastal habitat serves as a vital resting and foraging spot for more than a million migratory shorebirds that arrive each spring to feed on horseshoe crab eggs laid over just a few short weeks. The marshes and marsh ponds at Milford Neck have been identified as some of the most critical for waterfowl, particularly black ducks, migrating along the North Atlantic Flyway.

This landscape also stands out for its forests. Milford Neck contains the only remaining forested area greater than 1,000 acres on the entire coast of Delaware, supporting numerous species dependent upon large blocks of unbroken forested lands to survive. All of these habitats serve to provide essential protective buffers for some of the state’s most productive farmland and the adjacent communities of people who depend on the landscape for their livelihoods and enjoyment.


How have the organizations coordinated efforts to protect the Milford Neck conservation lands?

Brian Boutin:

The partnership has used every conservation tool in our collective toolboxes! We have secured millions of dollars in Federal, state and private funds to acquire fee interest or conservation easements at Milford Neck. We have also addressed numerous cross-cutting management issues, from researching the impacts of major hydrologic alterations on the area’s ecology to managing the spread of invasive Phragmites to coordinating landscape-scale reforestation.


You have recently reconvened other organizations working at Milford Neck to address urgent management concerns, right?

Brian Boutin:

Yes. In light of sea level rise and the increasing frequency of severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy, we’ve felt an urgency to re-coordinate efforts at a landscape scale. These events exacerbate the effects of stressors already on the landscape, like altered hydrology, which function to decrease ecosystem resilience and the ability of these systems to provide essential services to both nature and people. We know that we can make more of an impact by leveraging resources and collaborating on addressing these threats at scale.


Where do you hope it will lead?

Brian Boutin:

Our vision is to create a resilient Milford Neck which supports a healthy natural landscape and the people who depend upon it for jobs and recreation. We will get there through a combination of research, restoration and land protection which addresses the highest priority needs identified by the partners.

Over time, we hope to acquire the science necessary to illustrate the value of healthy ecosystems in reducing the disaster risk of adjacent human communities while building resilience into the diversity of habitats and providing these habitats room to move as conditions change. The lessons learned will be translated to larger regional efforts, including the State of Delaware’s Bayshore Initiative, to continue to make the business case for conservation.


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