The Great Dismal Swamp
In May 1763, a 31-year old Virginian aristocrat named George Washington traveled 200 miles south from his plantation on the Potomac River in pursuit of a deal that he hoped would earn him a tidy profit. His destination was a densely forested wetland with a forbidding name: the Great Dismal Swamp.
The word dismal was a synonym for swamp in Colonial times. But while the name may have been redundant rather than descriptive, it must have seemed appropriate to the local English settlers, who had given this million-acre wetland a wide berth for more than a century. The future Revolutionary War general and U.S. president, however, was more open-minded about the swamp’s potential.
As Washington explored the Dismal on horseback, he used his experience as a surveyor and mapmaker in recording the journey. He observed a dense forest of evergreens, rooted in black soil that appeared as fertile as the best farmland. Much of it was under water, but it wasn’t so deep that his horse couldn’t pick its way through. Near the swamp’s center, he camped on the shore of Lake Drummond, where bald cypresses rose out of still water on buttressed roots. The swamp on that spring day likely echoed with birdsong, and Washington later remarked that it seemed to be “a glorious paradise abounding in wild fowl and game.”
The swamp on that spring day likely echoed with birdsong, and Washington later remarked that it seemed to be “a glorious paradise abounding in wild fowl and game.”
The Dismal Swamp Canal, used mainly for transporting lumber, was completed in 1805, and it cut the swamp in half, further disrupting the flow of water. Logging increased throughout the 19th century, wiping out most of the slow-growing bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar.
Despite centuries of human tinkering, parts of the Great Dismal Swamp remained a haven for animals and a beloved retreat for local hunters and nature lovers. By the 1960s, the burgeoning conservation movement was beginning to recognize the Dismal as in need of protection, just as the swamp faced a new threat from the sprawling infrastructure development on its north side. In 1973, the Conservancy stepped in, brokering a deal to take ownership of nearly 50,000 acres of the Dismal from the Union Camp Corporation, a paper company that had owned much of the swamp since the early 20th century. The gift was valued at more than $12 million, a valuable tax break for the corporation. The Conservancy worked closely with officials to protect the land as a federal wildlife preserve, and the next year the property was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This saved the core of the Great Dismal Swamp and paved the way for further preservation.
“It’s an iconic wildlife refuge, nationwide. But for 200 years, there was basically a full-on assault to try to turn the swamp into something else.”
The swamp was a smart acquisition, says van Eerden, but the work wasn’t over. “It’s an iconic wildlife refuge, nationwide,” he adds. “But for 200 years, there was basically a full-on assault to try to turn the swamp into something else.”
Van Eerden and Lowie climb back into the SUV, passing the burn scar and heading east. A ditch of coffee-colored water flows lethargically along one side of the road as the trees close in overhead, blocking the afternoon sun. Deeper in the forest sits a structure that refuge staff have jokingly nicknamed the Hoover Dam—and this could be the key to the future of the Great Dismal Swamp.
Completed in October 2013 at a cost of $950,000 (funded under the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act), it’s a steel weir that spans the South Martha Washington Ditch. Standing on a narrow overpass, Lowie demonstrates the system of pulleys that allow refuge staff to add or remove planks, adjusting the flow of foamy brown water over the spillway in response to rain or drought. Since the swamp is fairly flat, even a small dam can affect the water level in a ditch for more than two miles upstream, which in turn affects the water table extending at least half a mile on either side of the ditch. The effect of this larger weir is expected to reach four miles upstream. Over the next five years, wells and study plots will allow scientists to monitor the effects on the water table and on the forest’s ecology, with the aim of striking the right balance between wet and dry.
In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Conservancy calculated that they would need to build 40 water-control structures, most of them much smaller than the “Hoover Dam.” With the help of $3 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 2013 Hurricane Sandy disaster relief fund and 2012 Conservancy funds, they are halfway toward that target, with several more structures planned as funds become available.
Many of the structures have been installed already, and they are beginning to make a difference. However, it will still take years of trial and study to determine how much water should flow through the 150 miles of ditches that crisscross the refuge. The forest has adapted to the drier conditions, with broad-leaved hardwoods now standing where moisture-loving evergreens once dominated. The Conservancy and the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see Atlantic white cedar return, but they can’t kill off the maple and gum trees on which migratory birds and other animals now depend. “It’s adaptive management—what we’re trying to figure out is trade-offs,” Lowie says. “We have to find that balance.”
He believes it’s an achievable goal—but he’s also playing a long game. After all, it took people more than two centuries to realize the natural value of the Great Dismal Swamp.