by Mindie Burgoyne, Maryland Business and Economic Development Regional Field Director and writer of travelhag.com
Poplar Island is one of many small islands on the Chesapeake. It lies off the coast of Talbot County, north west of Tilghman Island.
In 1847, the Island a survey showed the island to be 1100 acres. By 1993, erosion had taken a severe toll. The island was reduced to about 3 to 5 acres, and had broken up into remnant islands. Also in the 1990s, the harbor into the Port of Baltimore was silting up. A channel with a depth of fifteen feet was necessary to accommodate the container ships and barges that brought goods into the port. The traffic at the Port of Baltimore was, and is crucial to Maryland’s economy.
The Maryland Port Authority along with the Army Corps of Engineers devised a cooperative plan to dredge the silted harbor and build Poplar Island back up with the dredge spoils; restoring the wildlife habitats the island was always known for. That plan eventually became known as the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project, named for the Maryland’s longest serving US Senator, and Eastern Shore native.
In 1998 construction began to place a stone border outlining the original 1847 island footprint. Dredge spoils from the Baltimore entry channel in the upper Chesapeake Bay were brought to Poplar Island and the great “fill in” began. By the project’s expected completion in 2029, the island should resemble its former 1100 acre self. The restored habitat for Poplar’s numerous bird species, waterfowl, and diamondback terrapins should be complete by 2039.
This project is a great testimony to how government agencies – in this case, State and Federal – can cooperatively improve infrastructure and help commerce while restoring the natural environment. Currently, Maryland Environmental Services (MES) runs educational tours to Poplar Island, and I was fortunate enough to be on a tour hosted by the Talbot County Economic Development Office.
The tours run in Spring and Summer (booked a year in advance). Guests board a boat on Tilghman, and are brought to the island by MES staff who provide in-depth knowledge of how the project began, how the dredge spoils are added to produce new land and habitat, and how the waterfowl and other wildlife on the island are adapting.
Our tour left Tilghman Island at 9 am, and while cruising to Poplar Island, our guide gave an overview of the project and what we’d expect to see. When we arrived we boarded a bus and were led on a tour around the perimeter of the island, where our guide pointed out the restoration “cells” in various stages of completion. She also led on walks into the marsh, and tried her best to describe the scientific process of turning dredge spoils into island earth that would serve Chesapeake Bay wildlife.