On a warm Saturday morning this fall, over 30 landowners gathered on a property in Baltimore County, Maryland to learn a little about promoting the birds and the bees. Literally. The workshop, titled “Get to Know Your Backyard Habitat”, invited local residents to see an example of stellar wildlife habitat tended by landowners Pascale Meraldi and Joe Clarke for almost a decade.

In 2008, the couple bought a property all too common a sight in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: a one acre sliver of forest and five acres which held the house and an enormous manicured lawn. Pascale, a landscaper by trade and native plant and insect enthusiast, decided to try to improve the property for pollinators and save Joe hours of mowing each week. Through many setbacks and hard lessons learned, she converted three acres of lawn to native meadow and much of the rest to a grove of trees and an expanded pollinator-friendly garden. The field now brims with various native wildflowers and grasses throughout the growing season, and on the day of the workshop, it treated attendees to a sea of big bluestem and blooming goldenrod. Participants learned about the benefits of meadow habitat to pollinators and songbirds and took a tour through the woods to learn about forest management from local horticulturist Steve Allgeier. They heard a lot about invasive plant management and practical steps for restoring habitat, and they went home with the understanding that even a modestly sized property can be substantially improved for native flora and fauna that are currently of utmost concern in our watershed and nationwide.

This was the third habitat-focused event since June organized by the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance (PWA) in partnership with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Forests Program. The PWA is a volunteer organization whose goal is to restore and protect the water quality of the Prettyboy Reservoir, which is a primary source of drinking water for Baltimore City. It may seem strange that the focus of these events was on bees, butterflies, wildflowers, and songbirds rather than the water itself. Increasing stewardship on private land is a key strategy to improving water quality in our region, but improving water quality is often not the motivation for private landowner stewardship. Improving the land for wildlife (and wildlife viewing) is far more incentivizing in promoting active stewardship. These aren’t diverging goals, however. If landowners become invested in the native plant communities and wildlife that could occupy their land, they are more likely to restore habitat where they can. Creating natural areas of native trees, shrubs, and other flora does a world of good for local water quality, whether the restoration work was implemented for the creeks or the critters.

The Meraldi/Clark meadow in July. It provides wonderful cover for wildlife and habitat for pollinators while filtering sediment and nutrients that would otherwise enter the local stream.

The Prettyboy is an excellent microcosm of the Chesapeake Bay. The watershed spans county and state lines, and the reservoir is impacted by both municipal and agricultural run-off. Some locals may not see the importance of working to improve the water that’s just going “elsewhere” downstream, even though the Upper Gunpowder Falls, a main source of the water in the reservoir, holds a tremendous resource; a reproducing brook trout population, representing 25% of Maryland’s “brookies”. There is federal, state, municipal, and NGO funding available for landowners in the watershed that address watershed pollution goals, but similar to the larger Chesapeake, these programs are not reaching the landowners that may reap their benefits. PWA has realized that their focus needs to be on exposing landowners to the many programs available that provide resources and assistance for not only clean water but other conservation issues as well. A riparian forest is a critical agriculture BMP for reducing pollutants from entering a stream but can be equally important to an agricultural producer for keeping cattle healthy. Creating a meadow increases permeability of the soil and increases water infiltration, but it also provides excellent habitat for a variety of pollinators and other fauna.

PWA, like many organizations working around the region, understands that private landowners need to be personally invested in their land in order for watershed restoration to succeed. The stewardship of our private lands is essential to the restoration and protection of our waterways and the Chesapeake Bay, but we have to constantly remind ourselves that this likely is not what inspires most private landowners into action. There are a myriad of interests that motivate landowners to conserve, restore and sustain their natural resources. Working to reach local TMDL’s for water quality just may not be one of them.