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Expanding the Great Dismal: Nonprofit working to connect more people to Hampton Roads’ massive swamp

A new pavilion at the Jericho Ditch Lane entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
A new pavilion at the Jericho Ditch Lane entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the last vestige of a swamp that once covered more than a million acres.

The nearly 113,000 acres that remain cover a large swath of Suffolk, Chesapeake and North Carolina just south of the Virginia border.

But many people who live in Hampton Roads don’t really know the swamp exists or that it’s open for recreation like fishing and biking, said Lucky Lakoski, co-president of the nonprofit Friends of the Great Dismal Swamp.

It’s “this big rectangle (on a map) right in the middle of Hampton Roads that so many people are not familiar with,” he said. “They take the interstates around it, but they don’t realize that this huge resource is here.”

His organization’s working to change that, slowly implementing a long-term plan to boost public access to the wildlife refuge.

The idea is to build a better “gateway to the swamp,” Lakoski said.

The Friends organization recently received about $580,000 through the Chesapeake WILD grants program in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program supports conservation and preservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Kay Adams, the Friends of the Great Dismal Swamp’s other co-president, said the new grant is broken into three categories.

One is focused on engaging with underserved communities throughout Hampton Roads, including immediately surrounding the swamp. 

Adams said the organization is hosting listening sessions with people in those communities to hear about what they need to better access the swamp. They’ll use the feedback when prioritizing improvements.

Another piece is partnering with Suffolk Public Schools for in-class presentations and field trips.

“We've created a very ambitious goal that we would like to be the catalyst for ensuring that every Suffolk public school student has at least one visit to the Great Dismal Swamp before they graduate from high school,” Adams said. 

The Friends organization is also building physical improvements at the refuge’s Jericho Ditch Lane entrance in Suffolk.

That includes transforming an empty field into a new pavilion that can be used for field trips and outdoor concerts or other events, surrounded by trees and pollinator gardens. 

Plans are underway to expand existing trails, install bike racks and possibly build a community park. 

The Dismal Swamp has played a critical role in local history, including serving as a refuge for enslaved people seeking freedom and as a home for Indigenous peoples such as the Nansemond Indian Nation.  

Adams said they hope to connect people to the swamp so they can learn about that history as well as the refuge’s importance as habitat for species like black bears and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. 

The goal is “that people not only recognize this as their land, but they seek to enjoy it,” she said.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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