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Nanticoke River Watershed

When Captain John Smith explored the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he discovered the gentle, meandering Nanticoke River in the heart of the Delmarva Peninsula. Smith named the river for the Native Americans who lived nearby.

The 725,000-acre Nanticoke watershed supports a wide variety of plant and animal species, including more rare plants than any other landscape on the Delmarva Peninsula. 

An estimated 20 percent of the watershed has been protected though the work of the Conservancy and its partners. The Conservancy’s Nanticoke preserves in Maryland and Delaware encompass 1,695 acres alone, and our work with partners continues as we strive to protect an additional 50,000 acres by 2015.  The watershed features an especially wide range of high-quality brackish and freshwater tidal wetlands.


The Nanticoke River, which flows from southern Delaware southwest through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most productive tributaries. When the Nanticoke Indians paddled their canoes here, hardwood forests and wetlands extended for miles in every direction.  These native people traded the bounty of the land and water, including animal pelts and beads made from oyster and clam shells. While forest cover has dwindled and the oyster population has plummeted, much of the diversity of plants and animals in the watershed remains today.

The Nanticoke River and its hundreds of miles of freshwater streams harbor commercially and ecologically important species such as rockfish, white and yellow perch, and herring. Atlantic white cedar swamps, once heavily lumbered for boat construction, are protected here, along with the delicate pitcher plants and other rare species these swamps shelter. Delmarva bays, which are non-tidal wetlands unique to the Delmarva Peninsula, have dotted this landscape for more than 16,000 years and are home to the rare carpenter frog and Eastern tiger salamander.

Ancient sand dunes support globally rare plants such as wild lupine. Many of these sandy ridges — formed 13,000 to 30,000 years ago — have already been lost to development, or sand and gravel operations. Native coastal plain forests, which help filter water draining into the river and then to the bay, are home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel as well as migrating songbirds such as the American redstart and the prothonotary warbler.

Rural Legacy Area

The Nature Conservancy is working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, and other local partners to preserve the watershed’s biodiversity, water quality, and natural systems. A key component of our efforts is the Nanticoke Rural Legacy Area in Maryland.

Established in partnership with Conservation Fund in the early 2000’s, the Rural Legacy designation created a greenbelt protecting forests, wetlands, and farms around the historic waterfront town of Vienna. Local government, farmers, and landowners have been strong partners in these efforts.

Funding from the state of Maryland has allowed the Conservancy to protect land through conservation easements to encourage agriculture, support forests for habitat and human use, and protect natural resources by limiting the amount of development on priority properties.

Legally binding conservation easements offer a direct tool for supporting coastal resiliency in the Nanticoke watershed. By restricting development along shoreline that is vulnerable to sea level rise, man-made infrastructure is kept out of high-risk areas. This eliminates the need to protect homes and other structures from impacts of future storms and flooding. An undeveloped shoreline allows both natural marshes and agricultural land to adapt and migrate in response to sea level rise. It also provides a buffer for human communities from tidal and wind driven water surges.

As a result of concerted efforts over time by the Conservancy, the states of Maryland and Delaware, and other public and private partners, a 50-mile corridor now exists along the western shoreline of the Nanticoke River, permanently protected from intensive development through conservation easements.


Since 2009 the Conservancy has doubled our funding stream for the Rural Legacy Area through a partnership with the US Navy. Patuxent Naval Air Station (NAS Pax River) in St. Mary’s County uses the air space over the Nanticoke River corridor to test all of the nation’s military aircraft, including jets, helicopters, and drones.

Known as the Atlantic Test Range, the Navy is supporting Conservancy land protection projects that fall under this restricted airspace in a mutual goal of keeping the landscape undeveloped and open. The Navy can also better avoid safety and noise issues from aircraft testing activities.

In April 2015, NAS Pax River was declared one of three national Sentinel Landscapes by the US Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Defense. The collaborative Sentinel Landscapes Partnership supports efforts to promote working lands, protect wildlife habitat, and ensure military readiness at military bases across the country. The Navy provide 50/50 matches to the Rural Legacy funding from their Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program.

Future efforts in the Nanticoke watershed will continue to build on past successes by identifying and prioritizing lands to be added to the Rural Legacy area for protection. 

Nanticoke in the News 

Navy, State of Maryland and Nonprofits Partner to Conserve Land in Dorchester County (Press Release / February 12, 2018)

A partnership between the U.S. Navy, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the Chesapeake Conservancy has led to the permanent protection of 230 acres on a family-owned farm in Dorchester County, Maryland.  The farm links protected areas to create a 7,730-acre corridor of conserved lands. 


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