Joel Dunn

Joel Dunn is the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

Getting wilder, in a good way

Nature is part of city life in Baltimore

When people think about nature in the Chesapeake region, I would bet that most people don’t automatically conjure up images of downtown Baltimore and city life.

But nature is abundant in the Chesapeake’s cities. Leaving the city is not required to connect to our natural environment and experience the great outdoors, especially in Baltimore.

Baltimore has been judged by the National Wildlife Federation to be one of America’s Top 10 Cities for Wildlife. Baltimore’s Leakin Park is the second largest urban wilderness in the United States. In addition to Leakin Park and its connected Gwynns Falls trail, the city features other large parks for a total of 5,700 acres of parklands, 73 eco-schools and a number three national ranking in schoolyard habitats per capita. It also has urban gardens and pocket parks in many neighborhoods.

Baltimore is destined to become even wilder. Recently, Congressman John Sarbanes and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, together with Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, launched the Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition, an effort to expand the network of open spaces and trails as well as conserve wetlands and resilient watersheds in Baltimore and central Maryland.

The idea is to connect Baltimore’s green spaces to the surrounding suburban and rural areas through trails and conserved corridors. The outcomes would include more recreational opportunities, improved environmental education opportunities, enhanced habitat connectivity for wildlife, a stronger connection to the natural world, as well as a boost for the region’s economic vitality and quality of life for its residents.

The initiative has support from the City of Baltimore, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, The Conservation Fund and many other local government and nonprofit organizations, including the Chesapeake Conservancy, where I work.

This system of interconnected, conserved spaces would add to the region’s resiliency and ability to adapt to climate change. More trees and green spaces will cool the region and take up carbon and, if stream valleys are protected, floods can be calmed and mitigated.

Previously neglected sites can become green spaces with restoration. Ridgely’s Cove is one such site. The Gwynns Falls trail, which runs from north to south through Baltimore’s west side — much of it in Leakin Park — ends (or begins) its 15-mile path here. With the vision of coalition partners, Ridgely’s Cove, a former industrial site in the shadow of an incinerator and major highway bridges and interchanges, can be transformed — its wetlands and uplands restored and naturalized to serve as a home for wildlife and a place for people to enjoy the outdoors.

Masonville Cove, on the Middle Branch, is another. Here, on a site where soils dredged from Baltimore’s harbor channels have been deposited, wetlands have been restored, walking trails built and a kayak and canoe ramp put in. There’s a nearby nature center that serves the community and visitors. The cove provides access to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which extends from the harbor throughout the Chesapeake Bay and up its great rivers.

Sometimes, busy schedules make connecting to nature more difficult, so the Chesapeake Conservancy provides virtual access. More than 1 million visitors in 2015 have viewed our webcams featuring peregrine falcons that make their home on the ledge of Baltimore’s Transamerica skyscraper at 100 Light Street and a pair of nesting osprey on the shores of Kent Island. You can view the wildlife cams at chesapeakeconservancy.org/wildlife-webcams.

What we hope for is a Baltimore where people find endless opportunities for wilderness in their own backyard — where trails and walkable communities connect people to trees, gardens, wildlife and water. So go outside and take a walk on the wild side in Baltimore.

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Joel Dunn

Joel Dunn is the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

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