GREAT FOX ISLAND, Va. (WAVY) – Fox Island is losing land, habitat and animal species and before long, it won’t be much of an island at all. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has used it for decades as a living classroom for curious kids and nature-loving adults.
Now it’s test time, and Fox Island is failing.
“You’re one of the last trips to be out here,” said Norah Carlos, Education Engagement Manager for CBF, as 10 On Your Side boarded a boat at Crisfield, Md. for the half-hour trip back across the state line to Fox Island.
Along for the ride were other journalists from Baltimore and Washington, to see where CBF converted an old hunting lodge into a living learning center.
As we approached, the captain called out ” If you keep your eyes out over here you might get a glimpse of the marsh.” But there’s less and less of that marsh and land, as the fate of extinction lurks for Fox Island.
“The forces of climate change have accelerated erosion to a point where we’re losing valuable land and habitat that we’re just not getting it back,” said CBF Director of Professional Learning Karen Mullin.
We got off the boat and followed a raised dock about a hundred yards to the center, perched on stilts above the menacing bay. In the 20th century you didn’t need the raised dock. You could walk on land.
People have been off the grid here for about a century. A perfect spot for duck hunting, for many years it drew hunters as a private lodge. Then CBF transformed it into an education center for field trips.
Where hunters once slept, kids could do more than just dream about life on the bay. They’d actually live it for a few days.
Pictures of school outings line the hallway that connects several bedrooms with bunk beds.
A timeline above a doorway traces the bay’s “glory days” in the 1950s when the water was clean, thru 1970 for the first Earth Day, to the present with the ominous message “You Decide”.
CBF says the lesson we can learn from the education center is the devastating effects of climate change and sea level rise. “It’s an alarming rate,” Mullin said.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” Carlos lamented. “It’s tough for us who have taken students and teachers out on these programs and seeing that transformation of students.”
And so the final school bell has tolled on this living classroom.
In colonial times, Fox Island had 426 acres. By 1968, it had just 70 acres, and now it’s a mere 34 acres. “We’re in tremendous danger of losing even more,” Mullin said.
If anyone can speak to the ravages of climate change over time on Fox Island, it’s author and journalist Tom Horton.
“I guess I first started coming down here in ’78,” Horton said as he held court with a group of journalists in the education center’s main room.
“I remember taking kids at night in canoes heading that way,” pointing southward. “You wouldn’t do that now because you’d be heading for Norfolk and there’s nothing but open water.”
Author of An Island Out of Time, Horton documented the effects of climate change on Smith, Tangier and Fox Islands, and presaged the current day of reckoning. “At the time I advised people to get out there and enjoy them because they aren’t gonna be there forever.”
CBF staff members can’t overstate the importance of losing the land, the marsh and the habitat.
“People for decades and decades have made their living off the bounty of the Chesapeake, the great shellfish bay,” Mullin said.
Carlos warns that when grasses are lost, the effects of climate change are compounded. “Marshes are also a great flood control and they brace communities from flooding. It acts like a giant sponge. When we lose marsh habitat we also lose that area of protection as well.
Horton has advice for those looking at bayside real estate. “I would not want to buy something that wasn’t six or eight feet above sea level down in Hampton Roads,” he said.
Mullin says she misses the many bird species that have fled the area. Gerald the pelican is still here. With only one wing, he can’t leave. He was a mascot for a dying little islet. For now, the mayor of Tangier is taking care of him and is looking for a wildlife rehabilitation center to take in Gerald.
The education center is leaving — but the lesson about the effects of climate change will remain.