New wildlife preserve dedicated on Indian River Bay

On Sept. 19, DNREC Secretary John A. Hughes and Roger L. Jones Jr., Delaware Chapter state director of The Nature Conservancy, joined property donor Austin F. “Pete” Okie of Georgetown to dedicate a property of 118 acres, containing tidal salt marsh, wetlands, coastal forest and fields, on Indian River Bay as the Marian R. Okie Memorial Wildlife Preserve.

Okie donated the property, known as the Poplar Thicket Tract, to the Nature Conservancy last fall, with the intent that ownership be transferred to the State of Delaware. The transfer was completed in July, with DNREC taking responsibility for care of the property as a state wildlife area.

Protecting the property as wildlife habitat will help benefit the region by limiting the encroachment of development and minimizing contributions of pollutants to Indian River Bay, as well as providing sanctuary to a wide range of species, officials said.

Plans for the future of Poplar Thicket include planting select native trees and plants, removing invasive species, maintaining and improving habitat and erosion control. The preserve will be open to the public and is expected to be especially attractive to birdwatchers.

“This piece of property is a treasure, rich with a variety of plants and animals as well as key habitat. Poplar Thicket is home to a host of birds, from great blue herons and ospreys to mourning doves and goldfinches, as well as fiddler crabs, monarch butterflies and diamondback terrapins,” said Hughes.

“Marsh, wetlands and forest habitat are well-represented, as well as a quarter mile of undisturbed frontage on Indian River Bay. As the new stewards of the Marian R. Okie Memorial Wildlife Preserve, we at DNREC look forward to preserving and conserving all of these living resources for the generations to come and to fulfilling Austin Okie’s vision,” he said.

Jones expressed his appreciation for the gift of Poplar Thicket. “I thank Austin Okie for his generosity and am very pleased that The Nature Conservancy was able to play a key role in helping him achieve his vision and permanently protect this important piece of open space,” he said, adding, “I also applaud Mr. Okie’s foresight for the philanthropic example he has set for other Delaware landowners who would like to leave a conservation legacy.”

Okie said he finds it amazing that the property has remained untouched for so long – and for him, conservation and preservation of the land takes precedence in the face of so much surrounding change and development pressure.

“I feel a responsibility to the environment, for the wildlife that we are displacing, especially the birds — and I feel that people should have a responsibility for what we are destroying,” he said.

With no close heirs, he opted to make the land his gift to future generations. “I just could not stand the thought of McMansions and a golf course on this land,” he added.

Located just west of the Indian River Inlet on Long Neck between the communities of Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach, Poplar Thicket was purchased in 1918 by Okie’s maternal grandfather, L.P. Faucett, remaining in the family for nearly 90 years.

Though the origins of the Poplar Thicket name may be lost to antiquity – it does not even appear on old maps – Okie believes it may have to do with tulip poplar trees said to have once been plentiful there. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The Okie family has a history of commitment to conservation, with Austin Okie donating a conservation easement in 1997 to the Nature Conservancy on his 154-acre farm on Indian River. At that time, his mother helped finance the Conservancy’s