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Restoring Lake Mattamuskeet

In North Carolina, a local family sees the refuge as a legacy to be handed down, and joins the partnership to help the lake

Swan Quarter, North Carolina – Don Nixon grew up hunting, fishing and crabbing in and around Lake Mattamuskeet. It is land his grandfather once owned, and land he intends to pass on, figuratively, to his 12-year-old son Jacob, who loves to fish and hunt.

“It’s important what we hand down,” Nixon said recently. “I want to hand down a good lake to my son.”

A man and his son pose for a photograph in front of tilled farm land.
Don Nixon and his 12-year-old son Jacob live a quarter-mile from Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and enjoy hunting and fishing together. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Lake Mattamuskeet, the largest natural lake in North Carolina, faces serious issues. It has too many nutrients and suspended sediment. The nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorous - feed single-celled organisms called phytoplankton that cause algal blooms and can wreak havoc with aquatic systems. (A website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls algal blooms “tiny plants with a toxic touch.”)

“The lake is the hub of just about everybody here in Hyde County,” said Nixon, a local farmer and landowner whose brick ranch house sits just a quarter-mile from the refuge. “That’s why there’s been such an uproar to restore the lake.”

So Nixon put his money, or more specifically his land, where his mouth is. Some of his farmland is adjacent to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and water from those lands runs off into the lake. A year ago, he agreed to let researchers from East Carolina University put a testing station on his property. The station measures nitrogen and phosphorous run-offs from fertilizers, and sediment run-off, and the information could help guide the task force that is developing a lake restoration plan. It could also, potentially, point the finger at Nixon as part of the problem, as well as part of the solution.

“I was willing to put my neck on the chopping block,” he said. “I wanted to make sure our commercial fertilizers and farming practices aren’t killing the lake. I felt confident we were not hurting the lake, but at the same time I was afraid they would find that nitrogen was flooding the lake from the fertilizers I used.”

“Not an easy process”

“The lake needs to go on a diet,” said Michelle Moorman, a U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) field biologist who works at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR, which is in the far eastern part of North Carolina. “It has too much nitrogen and phosphorous now, which is feeding the phytoplankton and shading out the grass.”

For years, the aquatic grass grew thick on the bottom of Lake Mattamuskeet. Lake grass helps the water stay clear, supports a robust population of crabs, fish (in this case largemouth bass, black crappies, and catfish), and attracts waterfowl. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the change in chemistry in the lake started killing the grass, which led to the current problems. It’s a phenomenon that has happened in bodies of water all over the United States, such as Chesapeake Bay.

Moorman and the Service are part of a lake restoration planning group that also includes the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Hyde County, and researchers from several North Carolina universities, all united in trying to determine what is causing the lake’s problems and how to fix it.

“It’s good to remind people that lake restoration, especially in these shallow lakes, is not an easy process,” Moorman said.

And Lake Mattamuskeet is, indeed, extraordinarily shallow. Fourteen miles long and five miles wide, it averages less than two feet deep. At 40,000 acres, it comprises the vast majority of the refuge’s total 50,000 acres. That shallowness, and the impoundments that surround the lake, are attractive to wintering waterfowl, including tundra swans, Canada geese and 18 species of duck that fly down the Atlantic Flyway every year and stop in at the refuge.

“Hyde County is God’s gift to man”

One of those ducks, more than half a century old now, sits, mounted, on a shelf in Don Nixon’s home office.

“That’s the first duck I ever shot, right there,” said Don’s mother Ella. She is a big part of the story of family heritage and passing on a clean, vibrant lake to future generations.

“I’ve been down here since 1957, which is 90 percent of my life,” Ella Nixon said. “Hyde County is God’s gift man. I hope I never have to leave here.” She corrects herself. “Well, yes I do. I do want to go to heaven.”

She has seen successful recovery at the refuge before. “There used to be very few bald eagles at the refuge. I can remember when seeing a bald eagle was a sight to behold.”

(In 1973, the bald eagle was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Thanks to the ESA’s recovery process and other legal protections, and the banning of DDT, the bald eagle population rebounded, and in 2007 they were de-listed as no longer endangered.)

“And now, we have far more than we did in the ‘60s.” She switched to an elaborately bored tone: “Oh, look, there’s a bald eagle.”

The world’s largest pumping station

The Nixon family’s connection to the lake and the land goes back even further than Ella’s arrival in 1957. Before it was a part of a national wildlife refuge, Lake Mattamuskeet was part of an unsuccessful development plan in the early 20th century. Local farmers and developers built the world’s largest pumping station and tried to drain the lake to convert it into farmland.

The scheme did not go well, and was eventually abandoned. In the 1930s, the federal government bought the lake and nearby land to create a new wildlife refuge. Don Nixon’s paternal grandfather owned one of the parcels of land, including a fishing pond, and sold it to become part of the refuge.

In 1934, the New Deal agency the Civilian Conservation Corps converted the former pumping plant into Mattamuskeet Hunting Lodge, which operated until 1974. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and was transferred to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in 2007. There are plans to remodel and reopen the lodge, but the project has been stalled for years due to state budget issues.

An historic lodge in front of a lake with a lighthouse-like tower.
Mattamuskeet Lodge was built as a pumping station in the early 20th century, and was later converted into a hunting lodge. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places, awaiting funds for restoration. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

The refuge is set up to be a haven for dozens of species, including American alligators, red wolves, black bears, white-tailed deer, six kinds of frogs, and 29 kinds of snakes.

But it has become more than that to the local populace. Mattamuskeet refuge generates about $12 million a year in economic impact for Hyde County, the Service’s Moorman said.

“We don’t have malls, we don’t have shopping centers, she noted. “The refuge is one of the few public spaces.”

Chicken-necking

As the water quality has declined, so too has one favorite activity of folks like the Nixons: Crabbing. Also known as chicken-necking.

Ella Nixon, who’s been doing it for six decades, explained: “You tie a chicken neck on a string, and you put a nail or something heavy on the string. Drop it in the water, the crab will come up and cling to the chicken neck. You start pulling it up, slowly, and then you scoop him up in a net.”

“Crabs grow bigger in fresh water,” Moorman said. “The biggest ones might get 9-10 inches from point to point [the widest part of the body, not counting claws].” But the crab population has shrunk since the lake started having troubles, and Ella Nixon said she can’t remember the last time she went chicken-necking.

“All of us kids were raised up being hauled over there on the refuge and spent the afternoon catching crabs,” Don said. He has been doing the same with Jason. “It’s part of our heritage,” he said. “I’ve seen the lake bone dry and I’ve seen that lake neck deep. Generations come and go. That’s what is important to us here, generation to generation, handing this down.”

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