“I fell in love with the [Chesapeake] Bay – its ecosystem intricacies, the species that inhabit it, and the projects being done to save it, they fascinate me,” Ecologist Will Smiley explained.

For years, FOR has played matchmaker – connecting partners with their love for the Rappahannock. Will Smiley is just one of many who have continued to support and advance the mission of Friends of the Rappahannock. 

We had the unique opportunity to chat with Will about his passion and drive for the river and how his partnership with FOR has continued to accomplish so much over the years. 

Will graduated from Washington College on the Eastern Shore. His love for the Chesapeake Bay led him to work at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation doing education and restoration projects for 6 years. In 2003, he was hired to teach innovative science practices at Christchurch School. It was here where Will reached out to Friends of the Rappahannock to support educational projects such as restoring the Rappahannock’s natural oyster reef nearby the school. “I wanted to teach these students that science isn’t something you learn and throw away. It can be applied to everyday saving of our environment” Will expressed.

FOR assisted Will with grant writing and the implementation of these projects, using FOR ‘s educators and restoration staff to instill this education beyond the classroom. Will had students collecting aluminum cans to recycle and sell so they could purchase oyster seed and build an oyster farm, in addition they were reef building to improve water quality. By the end of Will’s tenure, these high school students practically had a seafood business running out of the waterfront with a working farm and successful reefs established. With the oyster reef project yielding success, Will continued to work with FOR by grant writing to restore oyster reefs in Urbanna Creek and later on Carter’s Creek. He then changed jobs to work at the Rappahannock Oyster Company.

After working for a year at the Rappahannock Oyster Company, a tour group came in fascinated by the oyster farming process. Little did Will know, but it was the owners of the Tides Inn and they wanted Will to come work for them. As soon as Will was hired by the Tang family, he immediately discovered their passion for reducing their footprint and making the Tides Inn more environmentally sustainable. Will shared, “The Tang family has great wants and needs to bring nature back. They see the balance of sustainability and the connection to people, planet, profit.”

Will called up Friends of the Rappahannock’s Deputy Director Bryan Hofmann to tell him about the project. Will shared the Tides Inn’s plans to complete oyster reef restoration, shoreline restoration and a walkable boardwalk to educate students or resort visitors about the work being done to support the river. Will then created the programming that would pair with the project and FOR assisted in procuring the plants. 

This shoreline restoration would include over 1,300 feet of waterfront wharf, over 150 linear feet of oyster reef and over 18,000 square feet of living shoreline. The impact of this shoreline and oyster reef restoration will be extremely impressive. Will explained “For this project, we are installing 4 out of 5 of the best water filtration systems- trees, riparian buffers, wetland plants, and oysters. We hope that with improved water clarity from the project, the fifth comes along later and it’s the aquatic grasses. When these aquatic grasses begin to grow in the creek, this is a bio indicator showing that our water quality has improved tremendously.”

This past summer, with FOR and many other partners, the boardwalk and living shoreline were installed. With support from FOR and the Tides Inn, resort visitors, volunteers, board members from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Environmental Concern and the Tang family all got knee deep in the sand to plant the living shoreline. “It was a beautiful thing, seeing people from all walks of life and experience be able to gather and create something bigger than themselves.” 

Will shared that while a majority of the project is completed, “It’s still a work in progress, as we will need to continue planting and installing oyster shells.” He will continue to partner with FOR to write grants in support of the project by installing oyster shell underneath the entire boardwalk. He’d also like to build a classroom to teach oyster gardening with appropriate materials and space for FOR and CBF to run workshops on oyster gardening.

As a last statement, Will expressed that “if anyone out there is on the fence about building a living shoreline or installing oyster reefs on their property, send them to me. I’ll share with them this beautiful space we have and show them the good that is being done for the Rappahannock, in this creek and countless others.”

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