40th Anniversary of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

May 21, 2014

The Nature Conservancy Restores Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Michael Lipford, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Chapter

(Richmond, VA, Wednesday, May 21, 2014) – This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which The Nature Conservancy transferred to the federal government in 1974. Spanning from southeastern Virginia into northeastern North Carolina, Great Dismal Swamp represents one of the largest coastal forests in the East. The swamp’s protection ensures not only ecological benefits, but also preserves relics and sites of great significance in American history. The Nature Conservancy remains actively engaged in the Great Dismal Swamp, now working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enhance wetland habitat and reduce threats from intense peat fires, which have released hazardous smoke into the Hampton Roads area and beyond. Acting as “nature’s water engineers,” the Conservancy is working to restore water that has been drained from the swamp through ditching—starting with George Washington himself—and to actively manage water flows. This restoration involves installing and maintaining several water control systems in the refuge, with the goal to make the underlying peat wetter and thus less susceptible to severe, prolonged wildfires that threaten wildlife and people. Some of the work The Nature Conservancy is doing this year is funded through the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.

Because the swamp was such an inhospitable environment, it also provided sanctuary for thousands of fugitive African American slaves right before the Civil War, earning it a designation as an official site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The Great Dismal Swamp is home to more than 200 species of birds and one of the last remaining stands of Atlantic White Cedar. However, because of the long history of ditching, the hydrology of the swamp no longer works as effectively as it should. Lightning fires that burn for months underground have erupted in the swamp’s peat over the last few years because the swamp is too dry. In 2008 and 2011, the Great Dismal Swamp suffered two major peat fires that took two months and totaled $20 million to extinguish. The fires killed the pure and rare stands of Atlantic White Cedar and released hazardous smoke into the Hampton Roads area and beyond (some reports put the smoke as far north as Annapolis, Maryland, 250 miles away).

For more information visit: fws.gov/refuge/great_dismal_swamp/.

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