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Stephen Godfrey’s minivan is decorated along both sides with decals shaped like creeping, crawling, walking and running fossils.

When asked, Godfrey listed them as readily as most people say their ABCs — a prehistoric dolphin, camel and horse, a gomphothere (an extinct elephant-like creature) and a peccary (a coarse-haired animal resembling a pig), all dating back 5 million to 23 million years.

There’s solid evidence, Godfrey said, that these animals, and many more, lived in the region. And he looks for their fossils in the receding shores at Calvert Cliffs, where he was headed in that minivan one recent afternoon.

“For me, erosion is a good thing,” said Godfrey, curator of paleontology for the Calvert Marine Museum. The cliffs’ surface peels back with the help of time, the elements, and animals and insects that burrow inside and make their homes there. The exposed cliffs, Godfrey said, tell a story of how life on Earth has changed, and could be a clue to how it will proceed.

But to the folks who live on the edges of those cliffs, erosion is a hazard to homes and property values.

If he had his way, and money were no issue, Godfrey said he would buy the homes from everyone living in the cliffs, let the land erode and turn it all into a geo-park.

“We have sort of this unique habitat,” Godfrey said. “And I’m at a loss as to why we don’t make more of an effort to preserve it.”

His approach to erosion is a point of contention, and he knows it. Ultimately, Godfrey said, it comes down to protecting a few homes or preserving millions of years of history.

In at least the next 50 years, more than 3,000 acres of wetlands are projected to erode in Maryland, according to a 2010 erosion management guide developed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. About 975 acres, which are home to culturally significant sites, also are vulnerable, the report stated.

Stakeholders across Southern Maryland are working to protect dream homes and national security. They’re dedicating their lives to preserving Native American artifacts that date back 12,000 years and protecting settlements where English colonists landed and began calling Maryland home.

People living in the cliffs say they have lost shoreline by feet at a time, during storms or over the course of a few years. Residents there have been consumed with debates, fear and thoughts of what they would do if forced to leave their homes because of one species of rare insect, Puritan tiger beetles (Cicindela puritana), and fossils that are protected in the cliffs.

The mention of Godfrey’s name makes some of them shudder.

“The only thing I can tell him is, I hope he rots in hell,” said Sue Davis, a former cliff dweller. At 72, she’s been displaced from her retirement home. Her residence was part of a buyout of 10 homes the government said were in imminent danger of falling down with the eroding soil.

For the past month, Davis has been trying to make the place she moved to on Mill Creek feel like she belongs there. But she’s still in disbelief. If she had been allowed to put in riprap like so many other property owners along the Chesapeake, she said, her home never would have become so dangerous. She moved in to the house in 1992, and said she has never seen a tiger beetle.

“They want us to get out of our homes so they can dig in the cliffs and find fossils,” she said.

Tony Vajda, a resident of the cliffs and an advocate for people who live there, has been fighting for 15 years to secure permits that would allow him to buffer his shoreline.

“Every year, it gets more expensive and less probable,” he said. When asked why he wants to stay, Vajda said the love for the cliffs can only be experienced if you come and visit for a while. The scenery changes as the sun rises and sets, or as the moon shines.

Everybody with property on Southern Maryland’s shores is looking to protect it.

“But there’s no comprehensive plan,” Vajda said. “I understand what Stephen’s position is as a paleontologist. But there are property rights. There has to be a middle ground.”

Although their saga seems all-consuming, cliff dwellers and a lone paleontologist aren’t the only ones in Southern Maryland grappling with erosion and disappearing property.

Ed Chaney, deputy director of the Maryland archaeological conservation laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in St. Leonard, is somewhere in that middle ground. He wants to protect his museum’s archaeological heritage.

“I would think as those sites disappear, the memories disappear from them as well,” he said.

For Chaney, erosion carries artifacts away from the places where they have context. A ceramic bowl in the earth where a Colonial home once stood, near animal remains, could show how the upper class ate. Marks from wooden posts nearby could show how close servants’ quarters were to the main house. If those pieces of pottery are washed offshore due to erosion, so is Chaney’s ability to tell an accurate story about Southern Maryland’s past.

Over the years, JPPM, situated between the Patuxent River and St. Leonard’s Creek, has had breakwaters built and riprap installed. U-shaped coves along the river shoreline dissipate wave energy, and strategically planted beach grasses hold sand and soil in place.

“I would say it’s been pretty successful,” Chaney said. “We hope to stabilize the creek side in the near future.”

Across the water to the south sits Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Environmentalist Skip Simpson was on his way to Hog Point, which is called that because some say it looks like a boar’s head. He stopped on the tiny peninsula that’s in danger of becoming an island. As it shrinks, the point allows more waves to strike and eat away at a portion of Pax River’s main shore.

“We want to make sure the entire shoreline is stable,” Simpson said.

If it’s not, “we’re losing valuable real estate,” said Mike Smolek, Pax River archaeologist and cultural resources manager. The Navy owns about 20,000 acres in the region, including St. Inigoes at Webster Field; Solomons; Naval Support Facility, Indian Head; and property off the Eastern Shore, which is still considered an active range, Smolek said. “It’s actively eroding.”

Smolek said the Navy also has “lost a lot of archaeological sites along the shore,” referring to American Indian and colonial settlements. Those Indians saw the Chesapeake Bay being created, Smolek said. About 12,000 years ago, what’s now known as the bay was the mouth of the Susquehanna River and just a narrow waterway along which people made their homes, grew crops and hunted. But after an ice age, glaciers melted, some as close as New Jersey, and the river flooded, eventually creating the bay.

Today’s erosion, however, isn’t totally a natural occurrence, Smolek said. Much of it has been caused by man’s missteps. Now, he said, the Navy is working to protect its investments in the region.

They’ve begun dredging off the shore of Solomons, moving silt that makes it difficult for small vessels to pass through, Simpson said. He drove along Cedar Point Road, past trees and beach grass, pointing out decades-old attempts to buffer the waves, such as wooden beams planted between the water and the sand. More recent efforts include hiring out experts to install expansive stretches of stone riprap.

Similar work is underway at the Navy-owned portion of Point Lookout. Half of that site, part of which is owned by the state, is already underwater, along with Civil War history and the remains of its soldiers. In Indian Head, an ongoing project to plant grasses on Patuxent River shorelines to control erosion is underway.

Jennifer Chadwick-Moore, an information systems specialist for the Maryland Historic Trust, said that as land erodes, sea levels also are rising and Maryland is sinking, and it’s threatening historic sites. In St. Mary’s County, there are at least 19 historic sites in danger of being damaged as a result of rising water, Chadwick-Moore said. There are nine in Calvert and seven in Charles. There might be even more sites that aren’t registered, she said.

The trust calculated that 20 percent of all recorded archaeological sites in Maryland could be affected by up to 5 feet of sea level rise, and that number increases in coastal counties, such as Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert. Sites most at risk are Native American and Colonial. They were close to the shorelines of the Susquehanna and a young Chesapeake Bay.

The trust is documenting as much as it can, Chadwick-Moore said. But the key questions are, “how do you save things?” she asked, and “what do you save?”

Henry Miller of Historic St. Mary’s City wants to save Maryland’s first capital. Part of that, he admits, has come at the cost of preserving fossils. Miller, the Maryland heritage scholar for HSMC, said erosion threatened Chancellor’s Point, at the end of the museum property on the St. Mary’s River. The site had eroded by about 200 feet since the 17th century, Miller said. Erosion was revealing a crop of fossils there “from millions of years ago,” he said. “But it was also destroying some of the archaeology that was on top.”

So HSMC put in riprap, allowing plants to grow alongside the areas where fossils would have remained exposed if erosion were left to take its course. “They’re not making 17th-century sites anymore,” Miller said.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles) is interested in preserving another site where Maryland’s founders walked. The land around Trinity Church, also in St. Mary’s City, is eroding. A cross at the point is now “completely surrounded by water,” Dyson said. “I remember many, many years ago that being solid land.”

He visited the church one recent Sunday to talk about ways to slow erosion there. The work would likely cost about $100,000, Dyson said.

“We’re going to try and get some money for it,” he said on a call from Annapolis. “This is where our forefathers and foreparents probably entered, coming from England, and established our state government.”

By the 18th century, erosion was affecting Charles County in a different way. The city of Port Tobacco was booming, but poor farming practices, such as deforestation and clearing fields between planting seasons, caused the uplands to erode, racing downward, said archaeologist Jim Gibb.

There was so much runoff that it eventually filled a creek with sediment. Boats could no longer access the water.

“And what did they do about it?” Gibb asked. “Not a hell of a lot.”

Residents established a warehouse about a mile south of town.

“They just went down to deeper water,” he said.

By 1873, a railroad came through La Plata, and La Plata eventually became the county seat, Gibb said, partly because Port Tobacco no longer commanded the transportation networks.

“There were consequences” to Port Tobacco’s lack of planning to stem erosion, Gibb said, “the cost felt by future generations.” Property values that were once high are now low. There’s environmental damage that can’t be repaired. With problems like erosion, we can deal with it now, Gibb said, “or your descendants can deal with it later.”

Sheryl Elliot has dealt with the issue by buffering the shoreline along her Swan Point property. She put in riprap and “not just pretty plants,” but cord grass, a hardy plant able to hold the shore in place over time. After about 10 years, she has a natural and man-made buffer around the property. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it and she was compelled to finish the job. For homeowners who live on the sea, Elliot said, “there’s definitely a romance.” Water has restorative power, she said, “healing of man’s soul.”

Godfrey knows that as well as anyone. He drove to the cliffs, drawn to spend hours at a time near the shore, looking for bones that help him tell the stories of millions of years past.

As much as he’s hated by some cliff dwellers, there is a sense of truth, passion and joy that seems to beam from him when he’s doing what he loves.

“I don’t know where that comes from,” Godfrey said, “where that innate interest comes from.”

As a boy, he was fascinated by skeletons, and spent hours admiring the repetition of bones in rib cages and solving the mysteries of how those skeletons fit together to comprise the frame of an animal. As a young teenager, he created a natural history museum of sorts in his room, with his parents fully encouraging him. Everything was labeled, and the reconstructed animals, shells and fossils were neatly placed on shelves.

On this recent road trip, Godfrey brought a family from Boston along on the tour. Two children, a father and a grandmother followed in the vehicle behind, traveling all this way to hunt for fossils. Once there, Godfrey was alert, smiling and fully engaged, possessing the knowledge of a college professor and the gentle congeniality of Mr. Rogers.

In the cold, salty air, he ran his fingers along the edges of the cliff, which felt like three-dimensional sandpaper. He pointed out places where animals might have burrowed into the sediment millions of years ago and left their clues like tracks and footprints.

The boy on the trip, 6-year-old Dane, raced off every few minutes, digging in the shallowest of streams and bringing back a handful of tiny shark teeth. Godfrey opened his own mouth and showed where those teeth would have grown in the animal. When Dane showed off a bone he’d found, Godfrey looked surprised.

“That’s a very lovely dolphin vertebra,” he said. “That’s a really good find.”

“It’s an amazing treasure, to be able to walk along the shore and see this ancient bounty of creatures erode out of the cliffs,” said biologist and dad Murray Robinson. “As a family, it’s really great to have a nature experience and get away from all the computers and the iPods.”

“All this old stuff should stay where it is,” said his daughter, Kaia, 8.

After more than an hour, Godfrey decided to drive to Scientists Cliffs to show an area where a combination of stone riprap and plants have been put in to slow erosion. As a result, greenery covers more of the side of the cliffs and the fossils that Godfrey has spent his life studying are largely hidden. Godfrey didn’t seem to want to spend more than 15 minutes walking the site. He did answer any questions asked and, along the sides of the cliff, touched some shells so soft that they crumbled with each stroke.

Taking a last look around, Godfrey seemed to have left most of his happiness back at Calvert Cliffs.

“This sort of grieves me,” he said, making his way back to the minivan. The cliffs are, “aesthetically, the most beautiful thing we have in Calvert.”

nclark@somdnews.com