We’re not going to stop wildfires in the swamp, but we can reduce their intensity.
The Nature Conservancy brokered the nation’s first major corporate donation of conservation land in 1973. The following year, Union Camp Corporation's gift of nearly 50,000 acres established Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which today encompasses more than 110,000 acres.
The Great Dismal Swamp has a rich history, starting with George Washington. He began the process of ditching the swamp for agriculture, leading to many of the hydrology issues The Nature Conservancy is trying to address today.
The swamp was also once on the Underground Railroad, and offered a haven for a community of African Americans fleeing slavery.
The refuge is now a magnet for migratory birds and for birders seeking to expand their life lists. The refuge also offers recreation opportunities such as boating, fishing, hiking and biking.
The Great Dismal
Spanning from southeastern Virginia into northeastern North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp is the largest intact remnant of a vast habitat that once covered more than 1 million acres. Surveyor William Byrd famously took a dim view of the swamp in 1728, describing it as a “horrible desert ... toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists. Not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it.”
But Byrd was mistaken. In fact, Great Dismal Swamp is home to more than 200 species of birds and one of the last remaining stands of Atlantic white cedar. Two-thirds of all the species that occur in Virginia are found in the swamp, including butterflies and skippers, frogs, snakes, and turtles and more than 330 plant species. Between 300 and 350 black bears, one of the largest populations on the eastern seaboard, have been documented in the refuge.
Since the Conservancy transferred Union Camp’s land to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1974, Great Dismal Swamp has been managed for the primary purpose of protecting and preserving this unique ecosystem and the diverse animals and plants that call it home.
The Underground Railroad
Protecting the Great Dismal Swamp and its wildlife also preserves rich chapters of our nation's history. Thousands of African Americans fleeing slavery in the years prior to the Civil War sought a different sort of refuge. The swamp's oppressive heat, snakes, bugs and mud made for an inhospitable environment, but also an ideal hiding place. The refuge is designated as an official site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
The swamp was likely not just a stopover; the community may have persisted for decades, if not for a century. Archeologists from American University in Washington, D.C., have been working to unearth clues about these maroon communities. Since 2001, anthropology professor Dan Sayers has uncovered a variety of artifacts, including glass and pottery shards, lead shot, arrowheads, and stone shavings.
Plumbing Out of Balance
Great Dismal Swamp is 10 miles wide and 20 miles long. Challenges to its natural hydrology date back to George Washington, who began a long tradition of draining the swamp in an attempt to convert it to agricultural land. Because of this long history of ditching, the swamp’s hydrology no longer works as effectively as it should.
While fire is a natural disturbance among the swamp’s ecological processes, a swamp that’s too dry becomes more susceptible to damaging wildfires. In 2008 and 2011, Great Dismal suffered two major peat fires that took months and $20 million to extinguish. At one point during the 2011 fire, more than 450 firefighters were at work in the swamp. The fire persisted even after Hurricane Irene dumped 2 inches of rain; a soaking from a second tropical storm finally put it out.
The Nature Conservancy is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the threat of these intense fires. Acting as “nature’s plumber,” we’re seeking to manage the water flow, mimic seasonal flooding and re-wet the swamp. This project involves installing and maintaining several water control systems across the refuge. We’re not going to stop wildfires in the swamp, but we can reduce their intensity to make the refuge healthier for wildlife and safer for communities.
The hydrology work that The Nature Conservancy and Fish & Wildlife Service are implementing in the Great Dismal Swamp is the first of its kind, especially for a peat swamp. Using $3 million in funding appropriated by the Department of the Interior under the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2013, we will be implementing a large-scale hydrological restoration and management program to increase water storage of drained forested peatlands, making them more resilient to the effects of storms, wildfires and drought caused by climate change.
The goal of the project is to improve our ability to manage the refuge's water levels for flood control, fire suppression and habitat benefits. At the end of this project, 15 water control structures will have been installed or replaced. Increased groundwater storage will
- Reduce flooding impacts to nearby Hampton Roads communities
- Increase water storage available for the Intercoastal Waterway through the Dismal Swamp Canal
- Reduce fire vulnerability of carbon-rich peat soils to drought events
- Reduce wildfire smoke impacts on public health and tourism in surrounding urban areas
- Enhance favorable conditions for peat accumulation and carbon sequestration
- Improve wildlife habitat diversity and resilience
- Protect and improve water quality
Explore the Swamp
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is free and open to the public. Trails are open daily, sunrise to sunset. The refuge headquarters and visitor center is open Monday - Friday, 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. It is closed on weekends and Federal holidays.
(links redirect to fws.gov website)
In the News
- Passport to Nature: Redefining the Great Dismal Swamp
A trek into the swamp reveals its rich, yet troubled, past and challenges to its future.
- Slaves of the Great Dismal Swamp (WVTF Radio IQ)
Most Americans have heard of the Underground Railroad - a trail that allowed Southern slaves to escape to the North, but there were other escaped slaves who stayed in the South, living in a place their masters feared - Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.
Archaeologists are now digging there - finding proof of sizable communities where defiant people found freedom.
- Summer Season Fires a Threat to the Great Dismal Swamp (WVTF Radio IQ)
Summer is just about here, and in many of the nation’s national parks, that means forest fires. Here in Virginia, it may also bring a different kind of blaze - one that threatens a vast wetland and wildlife refuge near Norfolk. After losing thousands of acres in years past, experts have come up with a plan for saving the Great Dismal Swamp.