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Poplar Island Reborn Thanks to Economic and Environmental Concerns

In many countries around the world there is often a conflict between economic development and a desire to protect the environment. But it can be a winning combination when the goals of business and environmentalists intersect.

That is the story of a small island located in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. VOA's Melinda Smith traveled to the Bay to see how this little spit of land has grown larger with some help from humans.

Tilghman Island is a small community on Maryland's eastern shore. Like many towns along the Chesapeake Bay, it is a haven for people who enjoy tranquility on the waterfront. Take a short boat ride from Tilghman across the open water and you soon arrive at Poplar Island, a strip of land that is even more remote, and uninhabited.

Poplar Island is in a state of transition. Three centuries ago, the island spanned more than 800 hectares. Over time, a combination of human activity, wind and wave erosion took their toll. Poplar Island's land mass was shrinking and by the 1990s, four small remnants totaling two hectares were all that remained.

That could have been the end of Poplar Island, if something else had not been occurring 46 kilometers to the north, in the ship channels leading to the port city of Baltimore.

Baltimore is an international seaport, one of America's largest. In 2004, the Maryland Port Administration reported at least 2,000 ships, primarily from Europe, came up the Chesapeake Bay and docked at Baltimore's marine terminal.

But these large vessels can't enter the harbor unless the shipping lanes are deep enough. Dredging must be done periodically to keep the channels clear, says Chrissy Albanese of the Maryland Environmental Service.

"That material has to be picked up so those container ships can safely enter the port and exit the port, and once you have all that material, you have to do something with it."

Dumping the dredged material in deeper water has not been a popular solution for many people living in communities along the Chesapeake Bay, who say the practice threatens the water quality of the bay.

So that brings us back to Poplar Island. Engineers and environmentalists came up with the idea of transporting the dredged material to the island. Chrissy Albanese says the old soil has been used to create a wetland on one side of the island, and an upland hillside on the other. In the last four years, vegetation has begun to grow on the new soil and life is slowly returning to the island:

"The grasses do slow the erosion on the outside and they also provide more of a habitat and a food source and a shelter for the wildlife that might be in the area."

The goal is to restore Poplar Island to 461 hectares, roughly the same size as it was in 1847. It is a long-term project that will take another decade to accomplish and will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But Chrissy Albanese says it is a cause that seems to be worth the cost:

"If those channels weren't dredged, most of those large ships would not be able to enter the port and we'd be losing a lot of revenue."

And some say, without finding a better use for this dredged material, another piece of the Chesapeake Bay might also be lost.