People walking on a trail
Going Strong Members of the Nassawango Stewardship Committee walk the trail during a workday at the preserve. © Matt Kane / TNC

Stories in Maryland/DC

Dedicated to Service and Nature

Meet the members of the Nassawango Stewardship Committee, going strong for more than 40 years.

Men standing and talking
Service to Nature Members of the Nassawango Creek Stewardship Committee take a break during a preserve workday. © TNC

“Ah, look at this!” On a brisk yet sunny November Sunday on the Eastern Shore, retired commercial photographer Gary Marine is delighted upon finding a message in the mud.

Surrounded by towering trees within the forest of Nassawango Creek Preserve, and accompanied by a handful of other local community members, he goes on to say, “It’s a deer scrape. This deer is leaving a message for anyone who wants to read it. For the juvenile buck, he is saying, ‘get out,’ and for the doe he is saying, ‘here I am.’ It’s like Tinder for deer!”

Gary came across this deer’s dual-purpose note while volunteering for the Nassawango Stewardship Committee, The Nature Conservancy’s longest-serving volunteer group. For a little over 40 years, members of the committee have given countless hours of their personal time to maintaining the Nassawango Creek Preserve, one of the last pieces of true wilderness left on the East Coast.

open water at nassawango creek preserve
Nassawango Creek Preserve One of the last pieces of true wilderness left on the East Coast. © Alan Eckert Photography

While Nassawango Creek Preserve is home to a diversity of wildlife and native flora, including river otters, red-shouldered hawks and pitcher plants, it is also a place for the public to experience the tranquility of nature on the Eastern Shore. Volunteers like Gary ensure that the beauty of Nassawango Creek Preserve is accessible to the over 4,000 visitors who walk the trails, canoe Nassawango Creek and admire the preserve’s rare and endangered plants and animals each year.

The preserve is currently 9,953 acres, which is quite a feat, considering that it started out as a donation of just 154 acres approximately 40 years ago.

How It Started

The impetus behind the donation of 154 acres came from two seasoned canoers, Joseph (aka Joe) and Ilia Fehrer of Snow Hill, MD. In 1972, this husband and wife team began intensive efforts to persuade the State of Maryland, along with various land trust and conservation groups—including The Nature Conservancy—to acquire lands alongside the Pocomoke River and its tributaries.

Joe and Ilia felt that preservation of lands along these waterways was imperative for a host of reasons, including the great biodiversity of the area; the amount of rare, threatened and endangered species; and the intrinsic beauty of this large unaltered space—they were right.

Two people posing at nassawango creek.
Joe and Ilia Fehrer Their passion and dedication led to the protection of Nassawango Creek and the establishment of its volunteer stewardship committee. © Dave Harp (l) / Mary Gerlach (r)
Red headed woodpeckers
After the burn Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) nesting in a burn unit at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Gabe Cahalan / The Nature Conservancy

In 1974, a survey designed by TNC revealed that out of 262 sites studied, the Nassawango cypress forest was one of the top three most ecologically important wilderness areas in the Chesapeake Bay region. Given this incredible finding, TNC decided to proceed with land acquisition along the Pocomoke River.

On December 29, 1978, E. Stanton Adkins, a trustee of TNC’s Maryland chapter, launched the Nassawango Creek Preserve with his gift of the first parcel—154 acres between Red House Road and Furnace Road—a stunning combination of cypress swamp and mixed hardwood uplands.

Ilia and Joe were thrilled by Adkin’s donation to TNC, but this newly acquired pristine parcel would require some serious tender loving care to be maintained.  

Looking up into the canopy of a mature Atlantic white cedar tree
Mature Atlantic White Cedar These majestic trees can live up to 1,000 years when their habitats are undisturbed. © Matt Kane / TNC

The Nassawango Stewardship Committee

In 1979, Steve Hamblin, the director and founder of TNC’s Maryland chapter, wrote to a local attorney who had offered land stewardship assistance in the past. Steve asked the lawyer to please work with Joe Fehrer on assembling a group of eight to ten people who would serve as the stewardship committee for the newly acquired Nassawango Creek Preserve—a preserve that was expected to expand considerably.

Shortly after Steve’s request was made, Joe and Ilia found themselves in a cramped room with a small group of community members who would soon comprise the first fleet of the Nassawango Stewardship Committee.

Through the years, the Nassawango Stewardship Committee grew in number and, as predicted, the preserve grew as well. By 1982, the preserve had increased to 1,500 acres. By 1990, the preserve was a little more than 3,000 acres. Today, Nassawango Creek Preserve is a total of 9,953 acres, which includes massive bald cypress and black gum forests, wildlife such as painted turtles and yellow-billed cuckoos, rare grasses and much more.

The Committee Today

That small group of determined environmentalists who met in a packed office 40 years ago paved the way for today’s Nassawango Stewardship Committee, which now has more than 30 active members under the leadership of chairman George Parker.

The tasks of our modern-day stewardship committee are varied. Todd Peterson, committee member and owner of a wood-working business in Ocean City, recalls that some workdays involve, “Cutting back growth and cutting out invasive species.” With a smile, he adds, “Greenbriar is always a favorite challenge.” Other duties of the stewardship committee include maintaining stream crossings, constructing rustic fences and maintaining the walking trails.

Performing these tasks may sound like a thankless job, but for the members of the Nassawango Stewardship Committee, maintaining Nassawango Creek Preserve brings great satisfaction.

Volunteer Janice Ward, a retired school librarian, remarked, “I live on Nassawango Creek, so you can imagine, it is important to me that we maintain the creek like it is.”

For Todd, motivation to volunteer comes from giving back to the community, “It is really fun to be out here doing something good for people and nature.” As a bonus, being a member of the stewardship committee brings a sense of comradery.

Janice adds, “We have a really nice group of people who all share a common interest.”

George Parker, Nassawango Stewardship Committee Chairman for the past ten years, comments on this special group, “I am particularly proud that this committee is the longest continuously running committee in the history of The Nature Conservancy. We don’t know of any as continuous as this one. To me, that is pretty amazing.”

The Beauty of Nassawango

Nassawango Creek Preserve is a sanctuary for wildlife, like the gray fox and the northern water snake, and Nassawango Creek itself is extremely ecologically important for a myriad of reasons.

The creek is a spawning ground for rockfish, herring and shad and it provides habitat for at least 16 native fish species including the mud sunfish, a state-rare species. The creek is also a nesting ground and protected route for many migratory birds including approximately 24 species of warblers. Waterfowl such as wood ducks, black ducks and several other species call Nassawango Creek home throughout the year.

Given the ecological importance of Nassawango Creek Preserve, TNC has worked to preserve and restore this Maryland treasure through various means. By reintroducing fire to sites around Nassawango Creek through controlled burns, rare plants have started making an appearance.

Stewardship committee member and amateur botanist Chase Howard recently discovered a dwarf sundew plant at the preserve, the first sighting of its kind in the state of Maryland. Visit the Nassawango Preserve page to learn more about this finding and about other species that are making their way to Nassawango, including beautiful white-fringed orchids and crested yellow orchids.

In partnership with the National Aquarium, TNC is also working to restore hydrology in degraded areas of Nassawango Creek Preserve by planting Atlantic white cedars. Learn more about this collaborative project, which celebrated 10 years in 2019. 

The Nassawango Creek Preserve is a true treasure for a host of reasons. TNC is very thankful to the Nassawango Stewardship Committee for their hard work and dedication.

Join the Nassawango Stewardship Committee

The Nassawango Stewardship Committee maintains the Nassawango Creek Preserve on Sundays bi-weekly five months out of the year (November through March) from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you would like to volunteer with this group, of if you would like more information, please contact Coastal & Lower Shore Project Manager Joe Fehrer Jr., by email jfehrer@TNC.ORG or chairman George Parker gparkerr65@gmail.com.

Visit Nassawango Creek Preserve

Nassawango Creek Preserve is open year-round during daylight hours for nature walks, kayaking and canoeing in designated areas. Use these activity ideas to help you plan your trip!

Two men in a canoe
Canoeing Nassawango Canoeing Nassawango Creek. © Alan Eckert Photography

Canoeing Nassawango Creek is an unforgettable experience as the massive trees of this primeval forest envelop visitors with ample shade. Rent a canoe in Snow Hill, MD and take a leisurely two-mile paddle on the creek between Red House Road and Nassawango Road. Along the way, you can take a rest and walk along the Francis M. Uhler Nature Trail.

historic furnace in the snow
Nassawango Creek Preserve Historic Furnace Town is your gateway to the Leifer Trail. © Daniel White / TNC

Walk the Paul Leifer Trail, a one-mile loop that winds its way through the upland woods, bald cypress swamp and a 19th century canal. Along the trail you will see interpretive signs, benches and boardwalks through wet areas. To reach the trailhead, visitors can simply pass through the Furnace Town visitors center during normal operating hours.