Wye Island:  Window on a Living Chesapeake

Katherine Casey
11th grader at the Key School; principal; Marcella Yedid


An osprey circles relentlessly over Grannery Creek, its broad and powerful wings carrying him effortlessly through the brilliant blue sky of a warm summer day.  With a splash it seizes its prey and ascends into the sky, holding a wriggling rockfish tightly in its talons.  The scene is a timeless moment in the life of the Chesapeake ecosystem, and yet one that is threatened by the equally relentless force of development.

One of the most urgent challenges that we face at the start of a new millennium is the need to protect our state's diminishing open space, and understanding our relation to our state's environmental history.  As citizens of Maryland, we must ask ourselves what the legacy of Maryland's environmental achievement is, and how we have dealt with our astounding and precious resources in the past.  Maryland's legacy has, through history, become centered around the citizen's choice to value the preservation of natural resources over the development of land for economic benefit.  It is this choice which has allowed Marylanders to view the living Chesapeake ecosystem as an inspiring example of the fundamental unity between man, his spirit and his surroundings.

Maryland's story of environmental preservation has deep roots in the historical events and figures which have shaped the way that we use and value our natural resources today.  One exciting chapter in our state's environmental history is the story of Wye Island, a small island located between the Wye and Wye East Rivers in the tidal recesses of the Chesapeake Bay.

Wye is an island of quaint but profound beauty, harboring lushly vegetated shoreline, exquisite views of the Chesapeake Bay, and abundant wild life.  Its appeal lies not in grand mountains and valleys that other regions of Maryland boast, but rather in its simple charm and the delicate balance of its natural resources.  In understanding the history and value of this small island, one can begin to see the development of our environmental legacy.

In the early seventeenth century, Welsh born Edward Lloyd first explored the area that is today Wye Island, to which he gave the name "Wye" in memory of a river in  Wales.  Having explored the area, he began the process of acquiring land which he intended for the cultivation of tobacco.  His ambitions were shared by Philemon Lloyd, who purchased areas of land on Wye Island in 1668 with the similar intention of investing his efforts in the cultivation of tobacco.  Lloyd was married to Henrietta Maria Bennett, the daughter of an established gentry family, and together they gave birth to Henrietta Maria Lloyd.  She, in turn, married Samuel Chew, with whom she bore two daughters.  These two daughters, the grandchildren of Philemon Lloyd, espoused William Paca and John Beale Bordley, who became co-owners of the island and who proved to be influential in its growth and development.

John Beale Bordley, motivated in his actions by his resentment of the British government and desire to create a model of self sufficiency for all of the colonies, made enormous changes to the island during the eighteenth century.  These changes marked the beginning of a period of development which challenged Maryland residents to reevaluate their appreciation of their state's natural resources.  In his first transformational act of many, he began to focus on the cultivation of the wheat as opposed to that of tobacco.  Equally as bold, Bordley took extensive measures to make the island self sufficient, constructing a wind mill, brickyard and kiln in 1773 and 1774.  The era of development begun by Bordley continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In fact, the island reached its most populous state in the latter portion of the nineteenth century.  By the mid twentieth century, much of the areas natural resources were depleted.

The threat of development arose again in 1974, when developer James Rouse announced his intention to buy the island and redevelop it entirely.  His proposal was ultimately defeated by local government, which refused to permit the rezoning of the island.  The defeat of Rouse's proposal provided an answer to the uncertainty of Maryland citizens in regard to the issue of development.  For centuries there had existed tensions between the benefit of development in a rapidly changing world, and the value of preserving the state's exquisite resources.  Rejecting Rouse's plans for development provided some degree of finality to the tensions, and established the importance of the conservation of the environment.

In 1963 Arthur H. Houghton Jr. and Clarence Mills, both wealthy philanthropists of the Post World War II era, further emphasized the value of conservation when they established the Wye Institute.  The two men were appalled by the state of over-use and under-care in which they found the resources on the island in the mid twentieth century.  They were thus inspired to establish an institute that would advise small agricultural communities of ways in which to accommodate the changing times without destroying the natural resources of the area.  The Institute took great strides in the direction of promoting the importance of preservation over that of economical pragmatism.

Perhaps the largest confirmation of the importance of conservation of Wye Island's natural resources, however, was its purchase by the State of Maryland.  The island became a Natural Resource Management Area when it was purchased by the state, and today 2,450 of the island's 2,800 acres are administered by the Maryland Development of Natural Resources State Forest and Park Service.  The making of the island into a protected land area is indeed a tribute to the passion that Maryland residents feel toward the conservation of the island, and an affirmation of the strength of Maryland's environmental legacy.  One of the largest affirmations of Maryland's legacy of environmental achievement lies in the direct involvement of citizens in caring for the island itself.  The thirty miles of shoreline and six miles of trails on the island demand a volunteer effort that involves shoreline clean-up, trail maintenance, tree and grass planting, and a great many other activities.  Thus, the willingness of Maryland habitants to invest their time in the preservation of an environmental treasure is indeed an affirmation of their passion for conservation, and a tribute to Maryland's environmental achievement.

More importantly, however, it is this involvement and passion that instills in all who visit Wye Island a sense of awe for its beauty, and a changed perception of their role in the context of the natural world.  On any given day upon the island, one will find groups of students planting grasses upon the depleted shorelines, or volunteers planting vegetation to prevent erosion and clearing the trails of debris.  One might also find residents from across the state of Maryland taking time out from the busy world to enjoy the quaint charm of Wye Island.  They come to hike, canoe, and bike, to enjoy the sun and experience the wildlife.  But most importantly, they come to reunite themselves with the natural world around them, and to redefine themselves as a part of a larger whole.

Maryland's legacy extends beyond all tangible realms and encompasses some greater element of humanity, for it is amid the spirit of protection and conservation that one begins to understand himself as a part of his surroundings, and but a single element of a larger cohesive whole.  Wye Island provides a spectacular setting in which man realizes the innate link between himself and his natural environment, and thus reestablishes his bonds with the outdoors.  Furthermore, it is through involvement with the outdoors that one begins to see himself as a functioning part of nature, able to help determine its future, but ultimately powerless to greater forces.  Man is both empowered and humbled by his surroundings, and is thus left only hold a deep respect for them.  Herein lies the passion that man consequently feels toward the protection of nature, and thus the true essence of Maryland's legacy of environmental achievement.

Maryland's legacy of environmental achievement has indeed been established and proven through the development of history.  The events and people who have been involved in either the destruction or protection of the environment have left us today with a respect for nature and the inspiration to preserve it.  It is the reverence for nature, however, which one develops as he begins to see himself in the larger context of the natural world, that fuels such passion for conservation.  Maryland's legacy, then, lies in the ability of the land to revive the spirit of man, and to make him passionate about seeing himself as a part of nature.

Brugger, Robert J. Maryland; A Middle Temperment, 1634-1980.  Baltimore, MD:  John's Hopkins University Press, 1988.

DiListo, James E.  Maryland.  Boulder, CO:  Westview Press, 1983.

Emory, Frederic.  Queen Anne's County, Maryland;  Its Early History and Developments.  Baltimore, MD:  J. H. Furst and Company, 1950.

Gibbons, Boyd.  Wye Island.  Baltimore, MD:  John's Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Wennersten, John R.  Maryland's Eastern Shore;  A Journey in Time and Place.  Centreville, MD:  Tidewater Publishers, 1992.

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