Stories in Maryland/DC

Planting Atlantic White Cedar

A decade-long partnership is returning native Atlantic white cedar to Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Looking up along the rough bark of an Atlantic White cedar tree into the spreading branches of its crown.
Mature Atlantic White Cedar These majestic trees can live up to 1,000 years when their habitats are undisturbed. © Matt Kane / TNC

Spring weather in Maryland is unpredictable, but on a Thursday morning in late March, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping as middle school students plant Atlantic white cedar seedlings at The Nature Conservancy’s Nassawango Creek Preserve.

Why are the students planting Atlantic white cedar trees? Why are they doing so at this particular nature preserve? And how did middle schools in Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset County acquire these trees in the first place? To answer these questions, let’s go back to 2009 when an unanticipated, yet very fruitful, partnership between the National Aquarium and TNC began. 

Thin, spindly tree seedlings are collected in shallow plastic containers and arranged up in rows on the back of an open trailer bed.
Atlantic White Cedar Seedlings Since 2009, Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset County middle school students have planted more than 37,000 Atlantic white cedar seedlings at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Matt Kane / TNC

A Conservation Partnership Is Formed

The National Aquarium is home to a diverse cast of underwater creatures. Yet most people might not realize that this non-profit organization excels at connecting people to nature and teaching youth the importance of conservation. In fact, the National Aquarium’s mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures.

While outreach and education are core tenets of the National Aquarium, land acquisition is not. TNC’s Maryland/DC chapter has helped protect more than 75,000 acres of land and owns 31 nature preserves in Maryland. These were the enabling conditions for a partnership that started in 2009 and has continued to thrive ever since. 

Animated gif looping an aerial scan of a young forest of Atlantic white cedar trees.
10 Years of Growth Aerial view of Atlantic white cedars planted in 2009 at Maryland's Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Severn Smith / TNC

In 2009, the National Aquarium acquired thousands of Atlantic white cedar seedlings in an effort to restore this native species and its habitat. Cedar swamps were once found throughout the Gulf and Atlantic coasts but centuries of development and land conversion have reduced these habitats to a fraction of their original range. Cedar swamps are home to a host of plants and animals and provide ecosystem services for people including water filtration.

After being approached by the Aquarium, a middle school on the Eastern Shore agreed to add the tree planting to the students’ curriculum as a field trip. Everything seemed to be in place until the planting site that the Aquarium had secured fell through at the last minute.

The Aquarium was left with trees to plant and kids to plant them, but with nowhere to actually plant the trees. 

TNC heard about the Aquarium’s dilemma shortly after completing a project to restore the hydrology at a section of Nassawango Creek Preserve, which was done in anticipation of a cedar restoration plan. The timing was perfect. The Aquarium now had a place to plant trees with students and TNC now had trees to go in the ground.

A restoration partnership, now 10 years in the making, commenced.

A woman stands next to a young Atlantic white cedar tree, holding one of its branches in her hand and examining the needles.
Atlantic White Cedar MD/DC Conservation Ecologist Deborah Landau at an Atlantic white cedar planting site at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Matt Kane / TNC

A Signature Species: Atlantic White Cedar

Atlantic white cedar (AWC) trees are actually a member of the cypress family. These tall evergreens reside in swamps, marshes and other wet regions of the mid-Atlantic. Given that the straight-grained wood from these trees is light, buoyant and resistant to decay, Atlantic white cedars have been heavily logged since European colonization. In the 1700s, Atlantic white cedars were utilized for ship-building, shingles, charcoal, barrels and more.

But humans are not the sole beneficiary of Atlantic white cedars. This tree species provides cover and food to a variety of insects, birds and mammals. The yellow-throated warbler nests in Atlantic white cedar swamps while white-tailed deer are particularly fond of the tree’s tasty foliage. These majestic trees can live up to 1,000 years when their habitats are undisturbed.

Given the importance of these trees for both people and nature, TNC and the National Aquarium have worked together for more than a decade to return this native species to the region at a scale that will endure far into the future. However, restoring Atlantic white cedar is much more than just planting trees. It requires a restoration of the habitat conditions that the tree needs to thrive.

Atlantic White Cedar (AWC) Swamp Community

Once nearly logged to extinction, Atlantic white cedar's role in maintaining swamp ecosystems has become better understood as a result of efforts to replant them. These trees stabilize stream flows, filter water, reduce the rate of soil erosion and remove carbon from the air.

Explore this biodiverse habitat. RETURN
Two people in a canoe paddle along a wide, flat creek. The creek shore is thickly lined with trees. A gnarled cypress tree with spreading branches rises out of the water.
Nassawango Creek Preserve Canoeing past a cypress tree on Nassawango Creek. © Alan Eckert Photography

True Wilderness: Nassawango Creek Preserve

Nassawango Creek Preserve is one of the few areas of true wilderness left on the Eastern Shore. Characterized by bald cypress and black gum, the massive trees of this primeval forest envelop canoeing and kayaking visitors with ample shade and security.

A rectangular sign reading, Conservation Easement Boundary Private Property, stands at the edge of an open field.
Nassawango Creek Preserve Conservation efforts at this preserve are supported by a volunteer stewardship committee in existence since 1979. © The Nature Conservancy

What started as a gift of 154 acres in 1978 by local residents hoping to maintain this natural wonder has since grown tremendously. Through years of dedication and partnerships, TNC has worked to protect 14,787 acres of swamp and upland forest along Nassawango Creek. Today, the preserve includes 9,953 acres of land and is one of the northernmost remaining examples of a bald cypress swamp. 

Some parts of Nassawango Creek Preserve retain their native beauty, yet other portions of land on the preserve were altered decades ago and no longer resemble a cedar swamp. Over the past century, large areas of the now-preserve were drained to make room for the fast-growing loblolly pine, a tree that is extensively cultivated in forest plantations for pulpwood and lumber.

It will take time to convert the loblolly pine plantations back into a swamp, but the payoff from this effort includes improving the overall health and biodiversity of Nassawango Creek and providing the majestic Atlantic white cedar a chance to make a comeback.

Close view of the needles on a thin branch of an Atlantic white cedar tree.
Atlantic White Cedar Young stands of Atlantic white cedar at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Matt Kane / TNC

In the summer of 2007, TNC began restoring degraded parts of Nassawango Creek Preserve by following a three-step process:

STEP 1: Identify, Harvest, Prep. Loblolly stands that have been drained for timber production and located adjacent to the unaltered mature cedar swamps are selected as suitable sites for restoration. The loblolly pines on these sites are then harvested. Once cleared, the fields are prepared with a controlled burn.

STEP 2: Restore Hydrology. Before the preserve was protected, timber harvesting operations ditched the land to drain water more rapidly into nearby Nassawango Creek so that the pines could grow more rapidly. To restore the hydrology of the site, ditch plugs, rock weirs and other techniques are used to convert the unnatural surface water system back to a groundwater system. Once this step is completed, water seeps into the soil creating wetland conditions, rather than rapidly draining off the land.

STEP 3: Plant Trees. For more than 10 years, TNC, the National Aquarium and Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset County middle school students have planted more than 37,000 trees at Nassawango Creek Preserve. Bringing back the iconic Atlantic white cedar trees after centuries of disruption is the final step in the process to restore a native ecosystem.  

Middle school students file out of a school bus, walking along a dirt road through a wide opening in a line of trees.
Planting Atlantic White Cedar Worcester County middle school students arrive at the planting site at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Deborah Landau / TNC
Orange handled dibble bars lay in a pile on the ground. The shovel-like tools have wide, thin blades to cut into the ground and prepare a hole for tree seedlings.
Planting Atlantic White Cedar Dibble bars are the tools of the trade for planting seedlings at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Bridget Moynihan / TNC

A Lesson in Nature

On a March morning, students from Snow Hill Middle School descend upon Nassawango Creek Preserve to plant trees. Some are eager to share their thoughts on the tree planting day. While handling a dibble bar­—a tool used by foresters to plant seedlings— a student named Josh explains simply, “I love being outdoors.”

Admiring the landscape, another student named Sloan states, “compared to the classroom, the planting is more of an interactive learning experience.” Katalina mentions eagerly, “the day is kind of like an adventure.”

Angela Landreth, a 20-year teaching veteran at Snow Hill Middle, observes, “Having the kids outside shows you a totally different side of them. I’m seeing partnerships that I wouldn’t see in the classroom. Kids that wouldn’t work well together academically are putting in good work here.” Angela then explained how the students kept the potted seedlings growing at their school for a full year before bringing them to the preserve to be planted: “It’s been nice for the kids to see the full process. They’re so excited.” 

Quote: Angela Landreth, Snow Hill Middle School

Having the kids outside shows you a totally different side of them. I’m seeing partnerships that I wouldn’t see in the classroom. Kids that wouldn’t work well together academically are putting in good work here.

Two students work together to plant a tree seedling. One holds the dibble bar used to create a hole; the second crouches on the ground planting the tree.
Planting Atlantic White Cedar Two students work together to plant Atlantic white cedar seedlings at Maryland's Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Matt Kane / TNC
Animated gif loop of a wide aerial view of students spread across an open field planting Atlantic white cedar trees.
Planting Atlantic White Cedar Aerial view of the 2019 planting site at Nassawango Creek Preserve. © Severn Smith / TNC

Bringing Back an Icon

Cedar swamps provide countless benefits to both people and nature. Healthy conifer forests help regulate temperatures year-round, so part of the goal in restoring these forests is to make the region more resilient in the face of climate change.

Cedar swamps can also help regulate the region’s soil hydrology by keeping the land wetter during dry periods and by storing water during wet periods. There is a growing body of scientific evidence, including studies led by TNC, that have quantified the benefits of harnessing nature as a strategy for tackling climate change while providing added benefits to people, water and wildlife.

Bringing Atlantic white cedar swamps back to Maryland is part of that strategy, and watching young people participate in the process gives us hope for a future where people and nature thrive together.

Bringing Back an Icon (1:24) The Nature Conservancy and the National Aquarium have worked together for more than a decade to return native Atlantic white cedar to Maryland's Eastern Shore.

How You Can Help

Seventh graders aren't the only ones who have the opportunity to plant Atlantic white cedar at Nassawango Creek Preserve. Each year there is a planting day in late March reserved for all volunteers. Sign up for our Nature News e-newsletter to get updates about this and other opportunities across Maryland and DC.