Deborah Landau, an environmentalist, gently goes into the waist-deep dark water, gripping a long branch of a speckled alder tree. As she makes her way through the frigid labyrinth of Maryland’s Finzel marsh preserve, she says, “You can’t see anything, so watch your step.” The pleasant perfume of red spruce, the call of the regionally rare alder flycatcher, and a display of color in what looks to be unending blueberry and rhododendron shrubs make the swamp a sensory delight.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owns the preserve in the middle Appalachians of far western Maryland, which protects an unique boreal fen. The American larch (Larix laricina), sometimes known as the tamarack tree, is a deciduous conifer that is the cause for Landau’s stay in the swamp. Finzel swamp provides a year-round climate for the locally endangered larch and other more northern flora and fauna, as it is located within a “frost pocket” — a microclimate where cold air is confined by the neighbouring slopes and prone to regular frosts. It’s as though a piece of the Pleistocene has survived the warmer age to remind us of life in these ancient mountains.
The larch has been lost at four locations in western Maryland due to changes in temperature and water conditions. The Cranesville marsh on the Maryland-West Virginia border, which is also owned by TNC, is home to the only other population this far south – the tree is native to Canada and may be found in the upper northeastern US.
“When I first started at TNC, Finzel was one of the first sites I worked on because it was a high-priority site for restoration, but the larch were progressively dying,” Landau says. The natural flow of water had been disrupted by homes on either end of the reserve and a road that ran through the swamp. The larch was being killed by standing water, but repeated attempts to drain beaver dams from culverts beneath the road had failed.
Lead Image: Ecologist Deborah Landau inspects a young larch in the Finzel swamp preserve, where shrub clearance is helping new trees to thrive. Photograph: Mark Hendricks.
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