Ten Threats: Protecting Crumbling Shorelines

  • This is a private beach Charles Shabica developed for a homeowner on Chicago's North Shore. The grasses in the background are native to the area and help stabilize the beach and bluff. They also help trap and filter runoff. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Our
guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says the next report looks at protecting property
and protecting nature:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:


Great Lakes shorelines naturally change over time. Beaches erode. Dunes shift.
Sometimes, even the rockiest bluffs collapse.


That’s OK for nature, but maybe not for a house sitting on top of it. So it’s no wonder
that landowners try to stabilize their shorelines. To do that, they sometimes build walls
of steel or concrete to block incoming waves. It’s a tricky process. If the walls are too
short, they won’t stop erosion. But if they’re too long, they trap sand that moves
naturally along the lakeshore.


When nearby beaches can’t get sand, they degrade into muddy or rocky messes.


Charles Shabica is a coastal engineer. He’s been working at the problem for decades
now.


“My dream is to see the shores of the Great Lakes ultimately stabilized, but in a good
way and not a bad way where you’re causing problems.”


Shabica takes me to a small private beach north of Chicago. He engineered it to keep the
shoreline intact. The keys to that are two piles of rock that jut out into the lake.


The piles are just the right size – big enough to protect the shore, but small enough to let
some sand pass by. There’re other elements to the design as well.


Tall, blue-green grasses line the beach’s perimeter.


“Not only do waves tend to move sand around, but wind is also really an important agent,
too. So the beach grass and dune grass tends to stabilize the sand. And what will happen
is, you can see these things are seeding now, wind will blow the seeds and pretty soon
you get that stuff growing all over the place.”


A lot of homeowners and city planners applaud Shabica’s work. But not everyone does.


Some environmental groups say, once a landowner builds a wall or rock formation,
others have to follow suit, just to preserve their own sandy shoreline.


The environmental groups’ alternative? Keep development farther away from shorelines
and allow more natural erosion.


But that hands-off approach is not likely to happen. The majority of Great Lakes
shoreline is privately owned. And in many states, landowners often prevail in court when
they try to protect their investments.


Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says the question isn’t whether to
build near the shore, but how to do it.


He says, in the past, landowners tried to get off cheap. They didn’t pay for quality
construction or get expert advice on local geological systems.


“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to these systems, it’s gonna cost you a lot of money.
And if you build inappropriate structures or inappropriate recreational facilities, you’re
going to either be paying a lot of money to sustain them or you’re gonna lose them.”


A lot of coastal geologists agree that, for much of the Great Lakes coast, private
shoreline protection efforts – even the bad ones – are here to stay.


In urban or suburban areas, housing developments near the shore often include a buffer or
wall.


Michael Chrzastowski is with Illinois’ Geological Survey. He says, in these cases, the
shore can look natural…


“But it’s going to be a managed, engineered facility, because wherever you are on the
shore, you’re influenced by some other construction or historical development along the
shore that’s altered the processes where you are.”


That’s definitely the case along highly-developed, urban coastlines, such as Illinois’.
Other parts of the region are catching up, though.


“What’s going to happen is, other places along the great lakes as they become more
developed and they become more urbanized, they’re going to use Illinois as a model.”


That could bring more projects like Charles Shabica’s little beach. Shabica says that’s
not necessarily a bad thing.


It’s just a way to come to terms with our presence along the lakes.


“Human beings are here to stay. It’s our responsibility I think to make our environment
better for us, but not at the expense of the biological community, and your neighbors.”


That sounds reasonable enough. But it will ultimately mean the vast, natural coastlines of
the Great Lakes will be engineered, one beach at a time.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Coastal Development Pressures

  • Construction along the shorelines can put a strain on natural systems. (Photo by Carole Swinehart/Michigan Sea Grant Extension)

One of the more subtle but relentless threats to the Great Lakes is
coastal development. Condos, ever larger and nicer beach homes
and buildings and parking lots in the watershed all have an
impact on the Lakes. As the population grows and the suburban
lifestyle keeps spreading, the health of the lakes is compromised
in countless tiny ways. Reporter Peter Payette finds those tiny
ways all add up:

Transcript

We’re continuing our look at ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’
Lester Graham is our guide through the series. He says the
experts who were surveyed to determine the threats say rapid
development is among the problems affecting the lakes:


One of the more subtle but relentless threats to the Great Lakes is
coastal development. Condos, ever larger and nicer beach homes
and buildings and parking lots in the watershed all have an
impact on the Lakes. As the population grows and the suburban
lifestyle keeps spreading, the health of the lakes is compromised
in countless tiny ways. Reporter Peter Payette finds those tiny
ways all add up:


Greg Reisig is standing at the edge of a 20-acre construction site
just down the street from the shore Lake Michigan.


Below him is a man-made pond a few hundred feet long. It was a
dry summer around here, but the pond is full.


In fact, Reisig says the water level is always the same.


“And that indicates there’s a lot of ground water flowing
here…there’s a lot of water in this pond and you can see what
was a whole big wetland complex…there’s a lot of cedar and red
osier dogwood…all the wetland plants.”


There are no wetlands here now.


The site in northern Michigan was excavated for homes a few
years ago.


But now the Army Corps of Engineers says the wetlands that
were here need to be restored. A few acres likely will be
restored. But Reisig says almost the whole site was wetlands
once. He expects it will soon be a subdivision with not much
more than a drainage ditch connecting it to Lake Michigan.


“What will that do to the amount of flow of water going into the
bay? Because of hard road surfaces, hard driveways, roofs,
buildings and supposedly fertilized lawns. What will happen to
the water and how will that increase the flow to the bay?”


The developer’s attorney says this is nonsense. Matt Vermetten
says this land was heavily farmed and mined for clay.


“There are pockets of quote unquote wetland and those are there
because of excavation for clay. So is this a wetland complex of
the nature we speak of when we typically speak of such a thing? I
think not.”


Disputes like this are becoming more common around the Great
Lakes. John Nelson is the baykeeper with the Grand Traverse
Bay Watershed Center. The bay off Lake Michigan and attracts a
lot of people. But Nelson says development doesn’t have to be a
problem.


He says the problem is people don’t think about the ecology of
the lakes. For example, east of Traverse City, Michigan, resorts
dominate the coastline. Along the beach, thick stands of sedges
and rushes extend out a few hundred feet. But the sections of
dark green marsh alternate with stretches of clean sand and white
lawn chairs.


(birds calling on beach)


Nelson grew up here and says this part of the lake was never a
sugar sand beach.


“They’ve located in a coastal marsh. Instead of celebrating and
dealing with that they’ve chosen to see it as they would like to
have it and then change it.”


The impacts of the changes are cumulative. Fish and wildlife
habitat is fragmented. The natural filtering properties of the
wetlands are gone.


So every time the city gets a rain shower all the dust and grime
and pollution are washed right into the lake.


Census data show people are leaving many of the Great Lakes
coastal cities and spreading out along the coastline. But it’s not
clear how local governments should plan for the growth.


Mike Klepinger studies land use planning for the Michigan Sea
Grant program. He says it’s hard to make direct connections
between a healthy lake and particular land uses.


“We are getting more planning along the shoreline than we had
thirty years ago in the state. The number of counties and number
of townships that have a plan has gone up, for example. But we
don’t know whether those plans are really doing any good.”


And it’s hard to implement good planning on a broad basis. In
any area, dozens of different local governments might have
independent control over development.


Multiply that by the number cities, townships and counties along
the coasts of the Great Lakes… and it’s hard to see how it all can
be managed so that enough coastline habitat is preserved.


For the GLRC, I’m Peter Payette.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Concrete Shores

  • Hardened shorelines protect buildings, roads, and homes, but many developers say a more natural method should be used. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Along many Great Lakes cities, long concrete or stone seawalls protect property against
wind and wave erosion. It’s a hardening of the shoreline that some people say is
necessary to protect expensive real estate. But some scientists and environmentalists say
it’s part of one of the ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. They’re worried those concrete
seawalls are not only hurting the environment… in the long run, they’re hurting the
economy. Lynette Kalsnes has this report:

Transcript

In our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes,’ we’ve been looking at how humans make
changes that affect the health of the lakes. Lester Graham is our guide through the series.
He says the next report shows how far we’ll go to try to manage nature:


Along many Great Lakes cities, long concrete or stone seawalls protect property against
wind and wave erosion. It’s a hardening of the shoreline that some people say is
necessary to protect expensive real estate. But some scientists and environmentalists say
it’s part of one of the ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. They’re worried those concrete
seawalls are not only hurting the environment… in the long run, they’re hurting the
economy. Lynette Kalsnes has this report:


(waves lapping against concrete wall)


In the middle of a miles-long concrete shoreline, there’s a tiny beach. Steve Forman points
toward a small bluff at the base of a tree. The professor of earth and environmental sciences at
the University of Illinois at Chicago says the sand, grass and dunes help soften the impact of
waves and rain.


“This kind of relief is what you’d see in many natural coastlines, a coastline like this can
accommodate change better than one that’s been concreted up.”


Just feet away, the concrete picks back up, like a stark white runway that bisects the land and the
lake. Concrete revetments like these in Chicago are a familiar sight in urban areas across the
Great Lakes.


Roy Deda is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps manages much of the
construction on public shorelines. Deda says hardening the shore is one way of protecting against
erosion.


“Where hardening of the shoreline is important and used, is where you have an existing
community in an urban area like Chicago. You have a lot of development in place already, and
basically you’re protecting what’s been built over a long history.”


Deda says it protects property. But scientist Steve Forman says using concrete walls comes at a
cost: the destruction of natural systems that are often helpful.


Forman says wetlands and stream valleys normally act like a sponge to absorb high lake levels.
They also release some of the water back when lake levels are low. Forman says concrete can’t
buffer those fluctuations.


“It makes the extremes potentially even more extreme in terms of lake level variations.”


So, when there’s a rainstorm, Forman says the water runs off the concrete quickly… instead of
being absorbed across sand or wetlands slowly.


He says the same thing is true for the water flowing into the lakes from rivers.


Discharge into rivers can go up by 50 times the amount it would if natural areas buffered the
rivers.


“Any time we change the landscape from its natural components, we also change the plumbing of
the Great Lakes. We change the way water is routed in and around and through the Great Lakes
as well.”


It’s not only rushing rivers and lake levels that cause problems.


When the shoreline is hardened… the wildlife and organisms that once lived there disappear.


Cameron Davis is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says many rare species live in that
narrow ribbon where the land meets the water.


“When we harden the shorelines, we basically sterilize them in a lot of ways, because we’ve not
providing the kinds of habitat and cover that we need for many of them.”


And beyond the effect on wildlife… hardening the shoreline can also be a bad economic decision.


Steve Forman says permanent structures built near the shores are not as stable as they might seem
when lake levels are high and winter storms cause big waves that erode the land underneath them.


“When the lake levels go up, the erosion rates are just phenomenal…what you see are hanging
stairs everywhere, instead of stairs that take you down to the beach, they’re hanging over the lake,
basically.”


That’s why scientists and planners are taking action. The Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Cameron
Davis is calling on planners to balance protecting the shoreline … with preserving ecology.


“Frankly I don’t think shoreline planning across the region is that great. There really is no single
unifying policy we’re all using to guide what our shorelines ought to look like.”


He’s hoping that some cities will experiment with restoring natural areas along their shorelines…
He says we need to see if in the long run, nature can do a better job of protecting the shores.


For the GLRC, I’m Lynette Kalsnes.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Saving Wetland Remnants

  • Winous Point Marsh Conservancy and Duck Hunting Club's Roy Kroll collects millet. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Among the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the loss of thousands of square miles of wetlands along the lakes. From Superior to Ontario and on up the St. Lawrence Seaway, we’ve lost some of the most important wildlife habitat along the edges of the lakes. For example, 200 years ago, much of the southern shore of Lake Erie was a huge swamp. Most of those wetlands have been drained and filled since European settlement. Julie Grant reports on efforts to maintain the little bit that remains:

Transcript

In our next report in the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes, we’re going to hear about changes to a large area that drains into the lakes. Our guide through the series is the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham:


Among the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the loss of thousands of square miles of wetlands along the lakes. From Superior to Ontario and on up the St. Lawrence Seaway, we’ve lost some of the most important wildlife habitat along the edges of the lakes. For example, 200 years ago, much of the southern shore of Lake Erie was a huge swamp. Most of those wetlands have been drained and filled since European settlement. Julie Grant reports on efforts to maintain the little bit that remains:


Researchers from the Cleveland area park district have been driving hours to get here to this bit of swamp nearly every day since last spring. Biologist Rick Spence and his partner wade through two feet of boot-sucking mud. They’re looking for turtles. Blanding’s turtles, to be exact. With a distinctive bright yellow chin and throat, it’s designated as a ‘species of special concern’ in Ohio…


“The Blanding’s originally were found in this area in the southern portion of Lake Erie, along this basin area. And so there’s a lot of the Blanding’s in here. It doesn’t get any better than this. We have nothing like this really around the Cleveland area that I know of.”


This area is the 150 year-old Winous Point Marsh Conservancy and Duck Hunting Club. It’s the largest privately owned coastal wetland in Ohio. It’s a thin strip of marsh that runs eight and a half miles along the shore.


Roy Kroll has been Executive Director of the Duck Hunting Club for more than twenty years. He keeps busy balancing the needs of researchers, biology classes, and reporters.


Kroll takes me onto the marsh in a wooden boat. He uses an old-fashioned pole to push us through water that’s only a couple of inches deep. It’s slow and quiet. He stops and uses the pole to slap the water for a call and response with migratory birds. (slap) He can hear who’s hiding in the cattails, arrowhead, and other emergent wetland plants…


(Kroll slaps water twice, birds respond)


“Well, looks like the teal have left and the rail are here.”


Kroll says the 4,500 acre marsh harbors over 100,000 waterfowl, mostly ducks, during November’s peak migration. There aren’t many places like this left on the Lake Erie coastline. More than 90 percent of the region’s wetlands have been drained. Most of that was done in the mid-1800s.


The area was once known as the Great Black Swamp. It stretched from Lake Erie all the way to Indiana. Much of it was under a dense canopy of hardwood trees. Kroll says it was a great system to filter river waters entering the lake. But European settlers and land speculators cut down most of the trees, dug ditches and straightened stream channels to move water quickly off the land. They built roads and transformed the swamp into rich, productive farm fields.


“You have to put yourself in the time period. Rightfully so, that was considered progress. And now we have to look back and say, well, yeah, it was progress and now it looks like it’s not progress. And if we’re not going to eliminate all these wetlands, we’re going to have to take some proactive measures to do it.”


Even at Winous Point, some of the wetlands are in poor condition. Standing on a man-made dike we look one way and see all kinds of plants: cattails, duckweed, and lily pads. But look to the side that’s not protected by the dike, and there’s no vegetation. Hand-drawn maps from the 1800s show a diversity of plants here, but now it looks like an open bay…


“What we’re looking at now is an open water wetland. And again, with no plants, we don’t have the structure for fish, invertebrates, and even plankton and algae to colonize on plant stems. It’s nowhere near as productive.”


Kroll says it’s not nearly as productive as the protected area. He says high lake levels, invasive carp, and pollution running off the land and into the rivers that drain into the lake have all made it tough for marsh vegetation to survive. Without plants, Kroll says the wetland can’t clean water running off the land…into the lake. He says it’s unrealistic to expect a short band of remnant wetlands to do the job of a hundreds of square miles of swamp forest.


“The key is to start at the upstream far upstream head of the watershed and begin restoring wetlands from there down to here.”


There are some efforts to re-store small parts of the Great Black Swamp. But Kroll says it’s also important to protect the little bit of the original coastal wetlands that are still left.


For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Farmland to Wetlands

  • Installing vast networks of underground drains, known as tiles, is a common practice on farms throughout the country. Farmers can get their machines onto the fields sooner, and crops grow better when their roots aren't wet. This field, near Sherwood, OH, was once part of the Old Black Swamp. (Photo by Mark Brush)

One of the Ten Threats is the loss of wetlands. A lot of the wetlands of the Great Lakes were
turned into cropland – farmland. But before farmers could work the fields in the nation’s bread
basket, they first had to drain them. So thousands of miles of ditches and trenches were dug to
move water off the land. Losing millions of acres of wetlands meant losing nature’s water filter
for the lakes. Reporter Mark Brush reports… these days some farmers are restoring those wet
places:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you stories about Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. On today’s report, the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham introduces us to a story about how farmers are
getting involved in restoring some of the natural landscape:


One of the Ten Threats is the loss of wetlands. A lot of the wetlands of the Great Lakes were
turned into cropland – farmland. But before farmers could work the fields in the nation’s bread
basket, they first had to drain them. So thousands of miles of ditches and trenches were dug to
move water off the land. Losing millions of acres of wetlands meant losing nature’s water filter
for the lakes. Reporter Mark Brush reports… these days some farmers are restoring those wet
places:


We’re standing in the middle of a newly-harvested corn field in northwest Ohio. This area used
to be wet. It was part of the old Black Swamp – one of the biggest wetland areas in the country.
The Swamp stretched 120 miles across northwest Ohio and into Indiana. It filtered a lot of water
that eventually made its way into Lake Erie. And it provided habitat for all kinds of wildlife.


Today, the Black Swamp is gone… It was drained and turned into farmland.


“Is it o.k. to go?”


“Yeah, go.”


(sound of trenching machine starting up)


Lynn Davis and his crew are cutting a trench into the earth. The trench is about a half a mile
long and five feet deep. Workers trail behind the machine feeding black, plastic pipe into the
trench.


The underground pipe will drain excess water to a nearby ditch.


Davis says these drains help the farmer grow more crops. It’s a common practice that’s been
going on for more than a hundred years. Farmers can get their machines onto the field sooner,
which makes for a longer growing season. And crops grow better when their roots aren’t wet.


Years ago, wetlands were considered a bad thing – places that stood in the way of farmland
development – and places where diseases spread.


The federal government actually paid people to drain them. And by the end of the 20th century
more than 170,000 square miles of wetlands were drained.


Lynn Davis’s family has been in this business for close to a hundred years. Davis admits that his
family helped drain the Black Swamp. But he says much of what’s been done can be reversed:


“You know, there is no question that this was of course one of the largest natural wetlands in the
country. And what we’re doing here was responsible for eliminating that wetland. Now what
we’ve done is relatively simple to reverse. If for some reason it was decided that we don’t want to
farm and live in this area any more, why we can put it back to a swamp real quick.”


And some of that is happening today.


Instead of paying people to drain wetlands, the federal government pays people to restore them.


(crickets)


We’ve driven about fifty miles north to where Bill Daub lives. He was hired by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife service to find suitable land for restoration. And he’s restored well over 500 wetland
areas in the fifteen years he’s been doing it.


Daub says nature bounces back. He says every time he’s broken an old drainage pipe, dormant
seeds of wetland plants stored in the soil popped open:


“What’s amazing with the wetlands is that you see all these cattails, and wetland plants growing
in here – that stuff was in a seed bank, even though they were growing corn here, there was a seed
bank of wetlands species, waiting for water.”


The federal government will pay a farmer to take marginal cropland out of production under the
Wetlands Reserve Program. And Daub says it’s worth the money:


“Every one of these wetlands is a purification system. The water that finally leaves this wetland
has been purified through the living organisms in the wetland.”


(natural sound)


Janet Kaufman lives just down the road from Bill Daub, and eight years ago, she had a crew dig
up an old drainage pipe on her farm. These days, on the back end of her property there’s a pond
with a tall willow tree draping over the water:


“So this wasn’t here before?”


“Not at all, not at all! I mean it’s just shocking. And when the backhoe hit that it was like a
geyser, the water just poured out it just flew up in the air. They had to crunch it shut. I mean the
quantity of water that flows underground is unbelievable unless by chance you see it like that.”


Kaufman says a lot of her neighbors have been signing up to restore wetlands on their property.
The wetter areas aren’t that good for crops… and with the government offering money to let
nature take its course… it makes financial sense for the farmers.


But because a lot of the old Black Swamp area is good for farming, it’s not likely that we’ll see
huge swaths returned to wetlands.


But even the restoration of a fraction of the wetlands will help improve the health of the Great
Lakes.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Wetlands – Where Life Begins

  • Great Lakes coastal wetlands filter water, give lots of wildlife a place to live and help prevent erosion. These wetlands are also greatly responsible for feeding the fish of the Great Lakes. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The Ten Threats to the Great Lakes were identified for us by experts from all over the region.
Again and again they stressed that the shores and wetlands along the lakes were critical to the
well-being of the lakes and the life in them. Great Lakes coastal wetlands filter water, give lots of
wildlife a place to live and help prevent erosion. But the coastal wetlands are also greatly
responsible for feeding the fish of the Great Lakes. Biologists are finding that when people try to
get rid of the wetlands between them and their view of the lake, it hurts the fish populations.
Reporter Chris McCarus takes us to where life begins in the lakes:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. One of the
keys to the health of the lakes is the connection between the lakes and the land.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham is our guide through the series:


The Ten Threats to the Great Lakes were identified for us by experts from all over the region.
Again and again they stressed that the shores and wetlands along the lakes were critical to the
well-being of the lakes and the life in them. Great Lakes coastal wetlands filter water, give lots of
wildlife a place to live and help prevent erosion. But the coastal wetlands are also greatly
responsible for feeding the fish of the Great Lakes. Biologists are finding that when people try to
get rid of the wetlands between them and their view of the lake, it hurts the fish populations.
Reporter Chris McCarus takes us to where life begins in the lakes:


(sound of walking in water)


About a dozen researchers have come to Saginaw Bay off of Lake Huron. They walk from the
front yard of a cottage into some tall grass and black mud out back. The coastal wetland is wide
here.


Don Uzarski is a professor from Grand Valley State University. He wants to see just how many
different kinds of microorganisms live in this wetland. He asks a colleague to dip a fine mesh net
into the muck.


“Why don’t you give us your best scoop there…”


The net’s contents are poured into a tray. The water and muck is pushed aside and tiny animals
are revealed. None of them is any bigger than an inch.


“There are a lot organisms right there. That’s a lot of fish food. Lot of water boatmen. We have
scuds swimming through here. We have snails. Probably a bloodworm. I don’t see it. But the
red thing.”


Uzarski says this is a healthy patch of wetland. It’s where Great Lakes life begins.


“The whole community starts here. And we’re talking about everything from the birds and fish
and all the things that people tend to care about more. But without this stuff we don’t have
anything.”


These microorganisms are at the bottom of the food chain. Lake trout, walleye and salmon are at
the top. But this natural order has been disturbed by humans. Only parts of the wetland are able
to work as nature intended. The bugs, snails and worms are supposed to be everywhere here. But
Uzarski says they’re not.


“Look at if we take 20 steps over there we’re not going to find the same thing. It’s gonna be
gone. And where’s that coming from? It’s coming from these disturbed edges. Which were
disturbed by? It was the spoils from dredging out that ditch right there.”


The dredging material is piled along the edge… a bit like a dike. Uzarski says that’s one of the
three main threats to coastal wetlands.


The dikes stop the natural flow of water. Farm and lawn fertilizers, sediment and chemical
pollution are not filtered out when they run off the land. Dikes also stop the water from carrying
food for fish out into the lake… and in the other direction, water can’t bring oxygen from the lake
into the wetlands. They’re at risk of becoming stagnant pools.


A second threat to the wetlands is alien invasive plants. Ornamental plants intended for gardens
have escaped. Phragmites, purple loosestrife, and European water milfoil among others all choke
out the native plants that help make the wetland systems work.


But… the greatest threat to the coastal wetlands is construction. We’ve been building homes,
buildings and parking lots right over the top of some of the Great Lakes’ most critical wetlands.


Sam Washington is Executive Director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the state’s
largest hunting and fishing advocacy group. He says we need healthy wetlands if we want to
keep fishing the Great Lakes.


“If we didn’t have wetlands, if we didn’t have the ability to regenerate the bottom foods in the
food cycle of these animals, we wouldn’t have the big fish that people go out in the Great Lakes
to catch everyday. They just wouldn’t be there.”


Washington says the way to fix the problem is easy… but it will require us to do something that
comes really hard…


“The best thing human beings can do for wetlands, even though we really believe we know how
to fix everything, is just to leave ’em alone.”


Sam Washington gets support from the biologists who tromp out into the wetlands. They say
we’ve got to protect the whole food chain… so we should leave wetlands alone and just let nature
do its job.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Lessons Learned From Wetland Rescue?

  • Spotted salamanders - adult and baby. Volunteers collected 14 species of reptiles and amphibians from a half-acre wetland in Ann Arbor, MI. (Photo by David Mifsud)

A lot of new shopping centers and subdivisions have wetlands
at their edges. Sometimes those wetlands are as new as the buildings next to them. Developers often build new ponds when they drain and fill existing wetlands. But experts point out that many man-made wetlands can’t match up to the ecosystems that evolved over hundreds or thousands of years. One group of people is trying something it hopes will be more successful: they’re moving a wetland, piece by little tiny piece. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has the story:

Transcript

A lot of new shopping centers and subdivisions have wetlands at their edges.
Sometimes those wetlands are as new as the buildings next to them.
Developers often build new ponds when they drain and fill existing wetlands.
But experts point out that many man-made wetlands can’t match up to the
ecosystems that evolved over hundreds or thousands of years. One group of
people is trying something it hopes will be more successful: they’re moving
a wetland, piece by little tiny piece. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Rebecca Williams has the story:


Making a new wetland might not seem that hard. You need certain things – a
big hole in the ground, water, plants, some frogs, some snakes. But wetland
ecologists will tell you that it’s hard to get a man-made wetland to be a
replica of a natural one.


But this group of people is giving it a try. Volunteers are leaping after
baby frogs and snakes at the edge of a wetland in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


“He’s fast, look at him go!”


They’re scooping the animals up and putting them in buckets to move them to
a new manmade wetland. The original wetland is small – just half an acre –
but it’s teeming with life. It’s also sitting right where a new high
school is going to be built.


Saving the frogs and snakes and newts is turning out to be a lot of work.
The group’s caught about five thousand adults and babies in all during the last five
months.


Dave Mifsud is a herpetologist; he studies amphibians and reptiles. He’s
in charge of the rescue. Mifsud surveyed the site last year and was
impressed that such a small wetland could hold so many species. He asked
the school district to let him lead a rescue.


“When I first proposed the idea, I was hesitant because whenever I’ve
suggested it in the past, it’s been received with laughs or a blatant no.”


Mifsud says in most construction projects, time means money. He says it’s
hard to get anyone to agree to wait while animals are moved. So, he was
surprised when school officials agreed to the rescue. Mifsud says the
school’s also trying to make the new wetland as much like the original as
possible. They’re moving water, soil, and plants from the old wetland to the
new one.


Randy Trent directs the school district’s environmental services. He says
instead of seeing Mifsud’s proposal as a headache, the school thinks of it
as a way to balance development and conservation.


“It gives us an opportunity to let our students have the history that’s
going on at this site as something to learn from.”


But critics are asking just what the school district is teaching by building
over an irreplaceable site. Ann Arbor resident Alan Pagliere is a vocal
critic of the district.


“There’s going to be a legacy left, there’s going to be a lesson taught, and what are those? You
certainly can’t teach a lesson about the environment by destroying wetlands, but clear-cutting landmark trees. These are decisions that are going to be with us for decades and the people
who are making the decisions will be gone when their terms are over.”


Pagliere says the school should preserve the existing wetland as a living
classroom instead of spending taxpayer money to destroy it and build a new
one.


The animal rescue has its skeptics too. Jim Harding is a wildlife biologist
with Michigan State University. He says moving amphibians and reptiles is
risky.


“An adult frog or adult salamander already has its idea of where home ought
to be; we have anecdotal reports of building new ponds for salamanders
and having them return in the spring to the old site which is now a parking
lot.”


(sound in, back with frogcatchers)


“Oh, I think that was mud.”


“It’s mud, it’s okay… if you’ve got the tadpoles, you can actually just dump them right on the edge.”


But herpetologist Dave Mifsud says he’s giving the frogs and toads a
fighting chance. He says the tadpoles he’s released will think of the new
pond as home. He’s also put up fences around the woods near the new pond. He
hopes they’ll direct the adults back to the new pond in the spring.


“Let’s start releasing the frogs along the edges…”


The frog-catchers’ buckets are loaded with baby frogs. Dave Mifsud’s taking
the cover off his bucket and coaxing frogs out into their new environment.


(Sound of tapping on bucket)


“Come on guys. You’ve been trying to get out of the bucket this whole time. Ah, this is the best part for me! Come on! You’re lucky if…in all my years I’ve seen maybe a handful of spring peeper babies. The fact that we were able to save these guys is incredible.”


Mifsud says it’ll be an uphill fight to make large-scale amphibian rescues
more common, but he says he isn’t known for keeping his mouth shut when it
comes to watching out for anything that leaps or slithers.


For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Duck Decline Blamed on Fragmented Habitat

  • A mallard duck hen sitting on her eggs in a strip mall tree planter in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ducks Unlimited researchers have found that recent declines in duck populations are partly due to a lack of corridors between grasslands where ducks nest and wetlands where they thrive. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Researchers with the hunters’ conservation group Ducks Unlimited are reporting they’ve found some of the reasons the duck reproduction rate is falling in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Researchers with the hunters’ conservation group Ducks Unlimited are reporting they’ve
found some of the reasons the duck reproduction rate is falling. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


(sound of birds, a duck quacking and a truck door slamming)


YERKES: “Load in.”


Two years ago, we went out in the field with biologist Tina Yerkes and other Ducks
Unlimited researchers.


YERKES: “Every day these guys go out and they track the birds and that’s basically how
we figure out what they’re doing. ”


(sound of newly hatched ducklings peeping with hen hissing)


At the time, they were tracking mallard hens, watching them nest, and watching them as
they moved their ducklings from the nests in the grass to nearby wetlands and lakes.
After three years of study, they found some of the reasons duck reproduction rates are
down. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Tina Yerkes about the study.
She says, surprisingly, they found that egg production and nesting are good, despite nests
being destroyed by mowers and predators eating the eggs.


TY: “The problem is duckling survival. We have very poor duckling survival in this
area. And, that leads us to believe that we need to alter habitat programs to actually start
doing more wetlands work.”


LG: “So, what’s happening is the ducks are able to nest, they’re able to hatch out the
ducklings, but then when they move from the grasslands where the nesting is to the
wetlands where the ducks feed, they grow, they’re not surviving. What’s killing them?”


TY: “What we’re seeing is that hens, once they hatch their young, they move right after
the first day into the first wetland and it’s a dangerous journey. Basically, because our
habitat is so fragmented that they’re moving these ducklings through non-grassed areas,
across parking lots, roads. It’s dangerous. And, a lot of the ducklings either die from
exhaustion or predators kill them on the way. A lot of avian predators get them at that
point.”


LG: “So, we’re talking about hawks and not so much domestic animals like cats and
dogs.”


TY: “Ah, cats are a problem, yeah. It’s hard to document exactly what is getting them,
but feral cats and domestic cats are a problem. Hawks and jays, sometimes…”


LG: “Blue jays?”


TY: “Blue jays can be mean, yeah. But, it’s interesting to note that if you put those
corridors back between nesting sites and wetlands, it’ll be a much safer journey for
them.”


LG: “So, what are you proposing?”


TY: “I would look more away from urban areas where those infrastructures are already
intact. We would not certainly expect anybody to tear that type of stuff up. But, outside
the cities and urban areas there are lots of opportunities to look at areas where there is
grass existing or wetlands existing and then piece the habitat back together where we
can.”


LG: “There are places, for instance in Chicago, where they’re working to do exactly that.
Do you see that kind of effort in most of the states you studied?”


TY: “Yes, actually we do. Some states like – Chicago’s a very good example. A very
strong park system not only throughout the city, but out in the suburbs as well and we do
see that in a lot of different places. That’s a positive thing.”


LG: “Where are the worst places for duckling survival?”


TY: “The worst duckling survival was the site that you were at two years ago in Port
Clinton, Ohio. And, if you think about what that habitat looks like, what you have is a
few patches of grass and an area that’s heavily agriculturally based, but all the wetlands
have been ditched and drained so that when a bird has to move from an area where it
nested to get to a nice, safe wetland habitat, they have to make a substantial move across
a lot of open fields that don’t have a lot of cover on them. So, here you’re looking at
maybe piecing cover back between the wetland areas and still being able to maintain farm
operations at the same time.”


LG: “What can farmers do to help duck survival?”


TY: “Oh, let’s see. Leave some patches of grass along the fields, especially if they have
wetlands in their fields. Leave a nice margin around the wetland, a nice vegetative
margin around the wetland because the ducks will nest right in that edge as well. Then
they don’t have to move very far to take the ducklings to a nice food source and a nice
wetland.”


LG: “Now, this is not just about making sure that mallard ducks reproduce. What’s this
going to mean for the ecosystem as a whole?”


TY: “Every time we replace a wetland or replace grass on the landscape, we’re
improving the water quality because those types of habitats remove nutrients and
sedimentation from runoff. So, there’s all kinds of benefits. There are benefits to any
other species that depends on grasslands to nest in or wetlands to either nest in or even
for migratory birds. So there’s just a suite of benefits beyond ducks.”


Tina Yerkes is a biologist with Ducks Unlimited. She says the group will be working
with states to develop programs to encourage development of corridors between the
grasslands where the ducks nest and the wetlands where they thrive.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

President’s Wetlands Plan Criticized

The Bush Administration has been under a lot of pressure from environmentalists, hunting groups, and state agencies to do something about wetlands protection. On Earth Day, President Bush responded by announcing a new initiative that he says will take wetlands protection to a higher level. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush takes a closer look at the President’s latest proposal:

Transcript

The Bush Administration has been under a lot of pressure from
environmentalists, hunting groups, and state agencies to do something about
wetlands protection. On Earth Day, President Bush responded by announcing a
new initiative that he says will take wetlands protection to a higher level.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush takes a closer look at the
President’s latest proposal:


In the last thirty years, urban sprawl and farming have destroyed millions of
acres of wetlands. Because of that, the past two Presidents called for a
policy of “no net loss of wetlands.” The current Bush administration says it also
supports that goal. And says it wants to go a step further.


On Earth Day, the President unveiled his latest plan to protect and restore
wetlands.


“The old policy of wetlands was to limit the loss of wetlands. Today, I’m going to
announce a new policy and a new goal for our country: instead of just
limiting our losses, we will expand the wetlands of America.”


(Applause – fade under)


The Bush administration says its policy will restore, improve, and protect a
total of three million acres of wetlands in the next five years. In his speech, the
President gave a general outline of the plan, saying he’s going to increase support for a
number of programs already in place.


Ben Grumbles is an Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection
Agency. He heads up the water and wetlands programs for the EPA. He says
the President has called on many agencies to implement the new plan:


“The heart of the President’s new goal and commitment is to use
collaborative conservation-based programs to gain three million acres of
wetlands and to do so through USDA, Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation programs and
partnerships with the private sector.”


While environmentalists approve parts of President Bush’s new plan, many of
them say it’s the wrong first step to take. Julie Sibbing is a wetlands
policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation.


“Although it’s a great thing that they’re going to get a million acres of
wetlands restored, and a million acres enhanced, and a million acres
protected, it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to what’s currently at
risk due to their policies on protecting wetlands under the Clean Water
Act.”


And that’s the main criticism – environmentalists and some hunters say the
Administration is not doing its job in enforcing current federal laws. Laws that protect
rivers, lakes, and wetlands – and worse – they say the administration has
actively weakened laws that protect millions of acres of smaller, isolated
wetlands. These critics see this latest announcement by the Bush Administration
as an attempt to shore up its dismal record on the environment in general…
and on wetlands in particular.


The National Wildlife Federation’s Julie Sibbing says the Administration
would make better use of taxpayers’ money by reviewing some of its policies
and protecting wetlands that already exist:


“It’s just too hard to build new wetlands for us to ignore protecting what’s
there right now. We love the programs that restore former wetlands, but the
most important thing is to try to protect those wetlands that we still
have.”


Officials in the Bush Administration say they are serious about enforcing
the law. And they say they are protecting wetlands. They say they’re just
taking a different approach.


In his speech, President Bush said good conservation will
happen when people don’t just rely on the government to be the solution to
the problem, saying more people should look to private sector land trusts
and voluntary efforts by landowners to get the job done.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Muddy Waters Around Wetlands Ruling

  • Federal protections for isolated wetlands like this one are in question after a 2001 Supreme Court ruling. Experts say it's not just wetlands that are at risk. They say lakes or streams that have been deemed "isolated" are losing protections as well. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Around the country, there are small, isolated swampy areas that are home to a lot of plants and animals. You can often hear frogs singing, or see ducks dabbling for food in these murky waters. Some experts say the government has weakened regulations that once protected these smaller wetlands. Now, they say, many of these wetlands are being drained, filled in and lost. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

Around the country there are small, isolated swampy areas that are home
to a lot of plants and animals. You can often hear frogs singing, or
see ducks dabbling for food in these murky waters. Some experts say
the government has weakened regulations that once protected these
smaller wetlands. Now, they say, many of these wetlands are being
drained, filled in and lost. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark
Brush has more:


This small wetland is nestled in the middle of a woodlot. Mud is
squishing under our feet as we walk around it. The water is still, and
dark… filled with last year’s rotting leaves.


This is no place for humans to live. But for wildlife, this is home.


(sound of chorus and wood frogs)


“That looks like what was left of a whirligig beetle – that’s a real
common insect in these types of habitats.”


We’re out here with Dave Brakhage. He’s a conservationist with Ducks
Unlimited. He says these small wetlands are where ducks take their
ducklings for food.


Brakhage brought us here to show us an example of a wetland that was
once protected by federal regulations:


“These wetlands are isolated because there’s not a direct water
connection from them to a lake or stream or other water body in the
area. They’re geographically isolated.”


Being isolated puts these wetlands into a sort of regulatory limbo. To
dredge or fill a wetland like this 4 years ago – you needed to apply
for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.


Now – in many parts of the country – you don’t need that permit.


That’s because in 2001 the Supreme Court ruled on a case from the
Chicago area that changed everything. The court’s decision opened up a
lot debate about whether isolated wetlands should be protected by the
federal government.


Dave Brakhage says the ruling gave the Bush Administration an
opportunity to issue a guidance to government agencies.


“The Supreme Court ruling certainly threw into question a lot of the
protections that were in place there. And that opened the door to the
guidance. And depending on how the guidance came down and the
interpretations associated with it. It could certainly make things a
whole lot worse.”


The Bush administration issued these instructions to the federal
agencies in January of 2003.


But conservation officials and environmentalists believe the
administration went too far with these instructions, going beyond what
the Supreme Court ruling required.

The instructions were issued prior to drafting a final, formal rule.


But before it finalized the rule – the Bush Administration got an
earful.


“There was a lot of concern expressed on the part of a pretty broad
swath of the American Public.”


Scott Yaich is the Director of Conservation Programs with Ducks
Unlimited. He says the Administration heard protests from those they
considered friendly:


“We were talking about people who were concerned about the environment,
and in this case there were a lot of hunters and a other sporting
groups and angling groups that went into him, and those are a pretty
core part of the Republican and the President’s base.”


So President Bush stopped the rule-making process that would lift the
protections.


But… the original instructions to the agencies still stand.


And the Administration has no plans to change them.


Julie Sibbing is wetlands policy specialist with the National Wildlife
Federation. She says getting the President to back away from finalizing
the rule was a small victory, but there’s still a lot to be done:


“It was a right decision at we do recognize that and we praise the
administration for taking the right step, but they’ve got a long way to
go yet. We still have a long way to go – and there’s a lot at risk.
In fact the EPA’s own estimates are that the guidance has put about 20
million acres, or about 20% of what we have left in the lower 48 states
of wetlands at risk.”


But the risk is not the same for wetlands in different areas of the
country. So today, when developers and landowners go to the Army Corps
of Engineers to apply for a permit, they get different responses
depending on where they are.


Some Corps districts have turned their back on the isolated wetlands,
telling developers no permits are needed.


Other Corps districts are waiting for clearer direction.


Mitch Isoe is the Chief of the Regulatory Branch for the Corps’ Chicago
District. He says he just wants to know what he’s supposed to do.


“We would like to have revised rules on the definitions for our
jurisdiction. We’d just like to have the critical terms that are
causing all of these difficulties defined in a way that two people in
two parts of the country can read the same sentence, go out on the
ground and end up at the same point. And, you know, right now the
field is helpless to do that, because the decision on not to pursue
rulemaking was made in Washington.”

With mixed messages coming from the White House, the Corps of Engineers
and the Environmental Protection Agency are struggling with how and
whether to regulate these wetlands.


In the meantime, it’s generally left up to the states to pass laws to
protect these areas.


Some states have laws that do that, others don’t.


(sound of frogs)


Ducks Unlimited and other conservation and environmental groups are
working with the Administration to protect these wetlands. Dave
Brakhage says doing so will benefit more than just ducks:


“And it’s not just the wildlife – you know wetlands are important in
terms of storing floodwaters, an important site for restoring ground
water recharge, and also have a big role to play in improving our water
quality.”


The Bush Administration says it’s committed to preserving wetlands, and
it even says it plans to increase the amount of wetlands in the U.S.


Environmentalists and hunting groups say they don’t see that happening
right now. But they’re pushing the Administration to make good on that
promise.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.


(frogs fade)

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