The recent award of three major grants totaling $220,000 is setting in motion Delaware Center for the Inland Bays’ reimagining of a Sussex County public treasure, the James Farm Ecological Preserve.
Plans to transform the 150-acre nature preserve near Ocean View are years in the making. Grant awards of $100,000 from the Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Trails Program, $100,000 from Crystal Trust and $20,000 from the Starrett Foundation will deliver upgrades to the preserve’s trail system and expand environmental education opportunities for people of all ages and abilities.
Sussex County also has committed nearly $300,000 toward this project which is being realized through a cooperative partnership with the county and the center. Sussex County owns the preserve and the center manages it.
“Sussex County is renowned for its picturesque beauty and environmental importance to Delaware and the mid-Atlantic region. The James Farm is a testament to that, and the ideal place to showcase nature at work,” said Michael H. Vincent, president, Sussex County Council. “Through this partnership with the Center for the Inland Bays, and with the financial support of the county and these generous benefactors, our residents and visitors alike will be able to better enjoy all that the James Farm Ecological Preserve has to offer, and hopefully expand their understanding of the natural wonder that surrounds us every day.”
This funding will support the implementation of the center’s master plan second phase which includes the construction of a new, three-season education building to enhance visitors’ learning experience while offering shelter from the elements.
Additional upgrades will include realignment of the existing trail system to improve visitor experience and adapt to sea level rise, installation of interpretive signs to educate visitors about the preserve’s ecosystems, permanent and ADA-compliant restrooms, and new maintenance facilities that will provide storage and workshop space to better care for the preserve while supporting the center’s restoration efforts elsewhere in the watershed.
The master plan for the preserve was developed with collective input from stakeholders, residents and visitors in an effort to address needs related to the physical restoration, improvement and management of the property, while also considering emerging issues such as sea-level rise.
“We envision a regionally important outdoor education site that has facilities that match the beauty of the preserve's diverse ecosystems,” said Chris Bason, executive director, Center for the Inland Bays. “The master plan will protect this one-of-a-kind amenity while greatly increasing our capacity to educate a growing number of visitors about the inland bays. Safe, immersive experiences in nature and quality environmental education are essential to realizing a new generation of residents dedicated to caring for these incredible ecological and economic assets.”
Currently, the preserve offers only primitive shelter and facilities, which can mean disruptions to outdoor learning experiences when bad weather hits. When the preserve was initially developed in 1998, facilities were not built to accommodate the rapid population growth Sussex County is undergoing.
In 2020, as more people found themselves seeking solace in the outdoors, visitation at the preserve markedly increased with nearly 40,000 visitors, a nearly 400 percent increase since 2012 visitation estimates. Over the past five years, more and more visitors have been learning about the unique offerings of this slice of serenity nestled along the banks of Indian River Bay. With its natural collection of diverse coastal ecosystems like freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, and maritime forests, the preserve supports osprey, shorebirds, horseshoe crabs and a plethora of other wildlife while showcasing the magnificent beauty of the Delmarva peninsula, all in one place.
The preserve also offers critical environmental education to underserved local students. The Day on the Bay program, which has served more than 19,000 students with fully-immersive, curriculum-aligned STEM education since it was established 20 years ago, will benefit tremendously from the planned improvements. The new education building will not only allow for more students and continued programming in inclement weather, but will also create an immersive learning experience so that students can foster a meaningful connection with the outdoors.
Fundraising for the project continues through the center’s Lessons in Nature capital campaign. The campaign is set to launch its public debut in spring 2021 and seeks to raise the rest of the funding needed by the end of the year. A unique naming opportunity for the education building is available and those interested in supporting the project are encouraged to contact the center.
“Being the stewards of this preserve is an honor,” Bason said. “Having the responsibility to teach others about the amazing waters of the Bays -- what lives in them, how they work, how they can be a source of life and danger - that is an awesome responsibility and something that we want to be able to share with so many more people.
Implementation of the first phase of the James Farm Master Plan began in fall 2018 and included expanded parking facilities to increase capacity while safely accommodating increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic, designated school bus parking for safe student transport, and a multi-purpose event lawn for open space recreation and community events.
The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays is a nonprofit organization established in 1994, and is one of 28 National Estuary Programs. With its many partners, the center works to preserve, protect and restore Delaware’s Inland Bays and their watershed.
For more information, go to inlandbays.org.