Watching Artificial Wetlands

  • Natural wetlands that are developed are supposed to be replaced by man-made wetlands somewhere else. (Photo by Lester Graham)

More than half of U.S. wetlands have been drained for
development, farmland, and other purposes. That’s 100
million acres now dried up. The Bush administration has
continued “no net loss” policy of any more wetlands.
So, when someone wants to drain a marsh or a swamp for,
say, a new housing development, they’ve got to build a man-
made wetland to replace it. But a new study is finding that
most of those man-made wetlands aren’t doing very well.
Julie Grant reports:

Transcript

More than half of U.S. wetlands have been drained for
development, farmland, and other purposes. That’s 100
million acres now dried up. The Bush Administration has
continued a “no net loss” policy of any more wetlands.
So, when someone wants to drain a marsh or a swamp for,
say, a new housing development, they’ve got to build a man-
made wetland to replace it. But a new study is finding that
most of those man-made wetlands aren’t doing very well.
Julie Grant reports:


(Sound of truck stop)


These 18-wheelers are lined up on a huge black parking lot
behind a truck stop off Interstate 80. Looking at it, this
wouldn’t seem like the ideal place to create a wildlife area.


But wetland ecologist Mick Micacchion has chosen this place
to show that man-made wetlands can be successful.
At the edge of the parking lot, we walk down into some
brush. The ground is mostly even, there’s no big ditches… just
some gentle slopes. The weather’s been dry the past few
weeks. But water starts seeping into my shoes:


(Mike:) “You getting wet?”


It might be bad for our shoes, but saturated soil is a good
sign for a wetland, and so are a lot of the plants we’re seeing.


As we walk, Micacchion stops at plant after plant…
Impatients, monkey flower, and lots of grass-like plants called
sedges. These all grow in wet soil:


“So even in sedge community, we’re seeing some diversity.
Which is unusal in a wetland that’s only been constructed for
a few years. But it tells you some good things are going on
here.”



Checking out what’s going on at wetlands like this one is a
new job for Micacchion. He works for the state government.
Federal officials used to take authority over wetlands as part
of the Clean Water Act. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision
six years ago took away some of that federal authority, and
left responsibility for these kinds of isolated wetlands up to
states.


That’s why Micacchion is studying man-made wetlands for
the Ohio EPA: to assess how well the state program is
working.



Wetlands that work are not only good for wildlife…they
provide a holding area for water when there’s heavy rain.
That helps prevent flooding. It also gives polluted sediments
time to drop out of the water, so it’s filtered, which means
it’s cleaner by the time it drains into streams, rivers and
lakes.


But this story of a successful man-made wetland is the
exception. A study Micacchion’s is conducting is finding that most are in fair
or poor condition.


The loss of functioning wetlands can lead to more flooding
and polluted waterways.


Micacchion says when developers drain natural wetlands,
they often don’t understand how to build artificial wetlands to
replace those original systems.


Our next stop is a good example of that. We pull into a parking lot just behind a busy street
of car dealerships. One company drained a wetland back
here to build an access road. And to replace it, they built a
pond.


Tom Wysocki walks out of the car dealership to see what
we’re up to out on his property:


“Is there someone in your office, who I mean, is this your
Beliwick in the office?”


“It would come to my desk.”


“You’re the wetlands expert at Klaben Ford.”


“I’m the expert on everything.”


Originally, this site might’ve correctly designed for a wetland. But
Wysocki decided it didn’t look right to him because it wasn’t
holding water. So he had it dug again to make a pond.


He and the actual wetlands expert definitely have a different
idea about what a successful wetland looks like. Micacchion
says a pond isn’t a wetland:


“Usually with natural wetland systems, the slopes
are very gentle. And you have to walk out maybe 15-20 feet
before you get a foot deep of water. Here, you could step in
and maybe immediately be in a foot to two feet of water. And then, the deep
water it becomes difficult for certain plants to grow.”



The area is dominated by a couple of kinds of plants. But
Micacchion says they’re both invasives. And they’re
crowding out the native wetland plants. Native plants would
provide habitat for wildlife:


“This is all reed canary grass. The biggest problem with it, it
comes in, and you can see it gets very thick. It’s pretty much
only species you see growing with just a few other things you see
poking their heads up here and there. This eliminates some
of diversity we might see otherwise.”


Micacchion says his study is finding that this is pretty typical.
Even if a developer starts out with right kind of plan,
somebody can make an arbitrary decision that defeats the
original purpose. But Micacchion says it doesn’t have to be
that way. Man-made wetlands can work if they’re designed
by ecologists and engineers who understand the details of
what makes natural wetlands so useful.


His office is creating wetlands guidelines. They want
developers to understand the natural wetlands they’re destroying and what they need to do to replace them.


For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Housing Developers Go Native

  • Views like this attract new housing developments around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo courtesty of the National Park Service.)

In recent years, the land surrounding America’s national parks has become attractive to residential developers. But the landscaping in these new neighborhoods can often feature aggressive, exotic plants, many of which threaten to choke out native plants. Now, a new program aims to keep these plants from sneaking their way into the nation’s most-visited park. As Matt Shafer Powell reports, the program depends upon an uncommon alliance of environmentalists and developers:

Transcript

In recent years, the land surrounding America’s national parks has become attractive to residential developers. But the landscaping in these new neighborhoods can often feature aggressive, exotic plants, many of which threaten to choke out native plants. Now, a new program aims to keep these plants from sneaking their way into the nation’s most-visited park. As Matt Shafer Powell reports, the program depends upon an uncommon alliance of environmentalists and developers:


Jason Love is standing next to a wall of roadside rock. He’s watching as the mimosa trees anchored in the rock wave in the wind from a passing stream of cars. The cars are all headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, only a few miles down the road. These days, he says the mimosas are a predictable part of the landscape for those visitors heading into the park.


“The mimosa was probably planted as an ornamental and from there, was spread by birds eating the seeds, and now, instead of just being in one place in one person’s yard, you can see it up and down the roadside here.”


Love is an ecologist with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. It’s an environmental education group that works with the Park Service. Love admits the mimosas are beautiful trees, with their brilliant spray of pink and white flowers and their strong perfume-like scent. His problem with them is that they’re killing off some of the plants that have called the Smokies home for thousands of years.


“We see more and more of these invasive exotics creeping up along the park’s edges and that makes it harder to control inside the park because just as birds brought this mimosa here beside us, these same birds go inside the park and carry these same seeds and then the park has to actively deal with it.”


And the park does deal with it the best it can. Each year, the Park Service spends a lot of money and time monitoring the plants inside the park and yanking out any invasives. The question is why, especially if the mimosas are so appealing. Back at the Tremont Institute, Love has a simple answer.


“We love this environment. This is the Smoky Mountains. It has over 130 species of trees, more than all of Europe. And when we bring in these invasive exotic plants, we are lessening that diversity, we’re making it a little less special.”


With new neighborhoods full of exotic invasives creeping toward the park, the park service and the Tremont institute decided the best way to address the problem was by educating developers. So they created a pilot program called the Native Landscape Certification Program. It’s a voluntary program where residential developers like Robin Turner promise to use only native plants in their landscaping schemes. Turner is currently developing a neighborhood on more than seven hundred wooded acres next to the park.


“That’s really why we’re all here. We’re here because of the beauty of this place, I mean we can pick anywhere in the country to live and we’ve picked this region because of the park and because of the National Forest and because of what’s here.”


Turner is sitting on the back porch of his sales office, a refurbished one room schoolhouse that stands only a few feet from a creek that dribbles through the development. He says he wants his exclusive – and expensive – development to blend in seamlessly with the natural landscape of the park. But he says it also has to make financial sense.


“It’s the right thing to do and it’s excellent business. I mean, we will make a very nice living doing this. I think our sales are higher and we’re getting higher prices because of what we’re doing.”


Ultimately, that’s what will determine the success or failure of such agreements. Meredith Clebsch runs an East Tennessee nursery that specializes in native plants.


“It comes down to money with them. Most of the time, they’re not going to be environmentalists like some of us might be, so they’re going to have to have a reason that it’s going to be beneficial to their pocketbook and you know, their customers have to want it.”


For the folks at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, this idea of ecologists and developers reading from the same page takes a little getting used to. Ken Vorhis is the Executive Director of the Tremont Institute. He says he often has some explaining to do to his environmentally conscious friends.


“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re joining up with the developers, aren’t you? Going over to the dark side?’ And we’re saying “No, these people want to do it right. There are going to be developments, we need economic development, those kinds of things, but can we do it in a way that makes more sense, that’s sustainable, a way that is environmentally friendly.”


Voorhis admits that the Native Landscape Certification Program isn’t going to resolve all of the friction between the forces of development and natural preservation. But he says it may be an important first step.


For the Environment Report, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

Related Links

Land Trusts Save Local Land

Winston Churchill once said, “Americans will always do the right thing – after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” For Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Tom Springer, Churchill’s wisdom could also apply to land trusts. After decades of rampant sprawl, more Americans are joining land trusts to protect what’s left of the natural areas around them:

Transcript

Winston Churchill once said, “Americans will always do the right thing — after they’ve exhausted
all the alternatives.” For Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Tom Springer, Churchill’s
wisdom could also apply to land trusts. After decades of rampant sprawl, more Americans are
joining land trusts to protect what’s left of the natural areas around them:

Like many people who love nature, it’s always been my dream to save wild land from development. When I was younger, it seemed like an easy thing to do. I planned to graduate from college, earn serious money, and spend most of my income buying rural real estate. Unfortunately, the big salary never materialized. After five years, I had bought just one piece of property: a three-acre parcel of woods that can only be reached by canoe.

Since going solo didn’t work, I decided to join a national organization that’s famous for saving wild land. With my annual dues, I got a static window sticker and a gorgeous magazine that featured the group’s newest preserves. But after a few years, the vicarious thrill of sending money to save far-off places started to fade. I really wanted to protect land that was close to home. Yet for this organization, my corner of southern Michigan wasn’t even on the map.

At long last, I have found a better way to stave off the bulldozers. Along with 1,000 local citizens, I’m an active member of a land trust. Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that work with private property owners to save natural areas from development. Sometimes they buy land to create preserves. They also accept donated land, and establish conservation easements to prevent future development.

In the past decade, the land trust movement has seen phenomenal growth. There are 1,300 land trusts nationwide, a number that’s more than doubled since 1990. Together, they protect 6.4 million acres — up 220 percent since 1990.

So why are land truth trusts so successful? I believe it’s because their mission is unabashedly local. They’re not preoccupied with Chinese panda bears, or holes in the Arctic ozone layer. They’d rather rescue the 100-acre woods down the road. Or protect a suburban stream that’s the last neighborhood refuge for tadpoles and snapping turtles.

In our capitalistic system, land is a commodity. Yet land trusts use the free-market to their advantage by purchasing land to prevent development. So this business-like approach also appeals to conservatives and moderates who may not otherwise support environmental causes.

Yet another appeal of land trusts is their hands-on, dirty-fingernails approach to conservation. There’s always much more for members to do than just stick a check in the mail. Land trusts rely almost solely on volunteers to maintain trails, conduct field surveys, or stuff envelopes around the office.

A few weeks ago, my land trust hosted a workday at a five-acre preserve that’s a mile from my home. For three hours, I joined a happy band of retirees, college kids, and recovering yuppies as they uprooted Japanese honeysuckle that threatens to crowd out native wildflowers.

This preserve is too small for any government agency to bother with. Yet we know it as a pocket wilderness, where cardinal flowers and bluebells bloom in the rich soil of a floodplain forest. Maybe it’s not one of the world’s last great places. But it’s our place — and it’s our land trust. And if we want to save the natural world, our own neighborhood is always a good place to start.

Host Tag: Tom Springer is a freelance writer
from Three Rivers, Michigan.

Eco-Cows Munch on Invasive Plants

  • Researchers are finding that Scottish Highland Cattle, such as these Rockhill Red Cows, have an appetite for many types of invasive plants. Photo courtesy of Marv & Ann Rockhill.

Cattle that love to eat thorny shrubs and nasty weeds are proving they can clean up areas infested with invasive plant species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner has this report:

Transcript

Cattle that love to eat thorny shrubs and nasty weeds are proving they can clean up areas infested with invasive plant species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner reports.


For years, land managers have been trying to find better ways to control particularly troublesome plants. Invasive species such as multi-flora rose, prickly ash and wild parsnip used to be held in check by natural fires, or grazing by bison and elk. But ever since wildfires have been mostly controlled, and elk and bison populations have plummeted, many invasive species in the Great Lakes region have been growing out of control. So researchers have been looking for other ways to fight these invaders. At the University of Wisconsin, researchers have been testing Scottish Highland cattle on some fields containing invasive species. Consultant Martha Rosemeyer says the preliminary results look promising…


“One of the things we’ve found out by following the cattle is they really like wild parsnip when it’s young. Out of a field of grass they’ll identify and hone in on the wild parsnip and eat the whole patch of it.”


One of two farms testing the cattle’s weed eating potential is owned by Peter Rathbun. He says on one of the test plots, the parsnip was so high and thick, biologists wouldn’t go in to take samples.


“I was a little concerned, well are the cows going to go in and eat it and get sick, but they went in and ate it and they loved it.”


Rathbun has various weed and brush problems or “junk” as he calls it on 120 acres, including prickly ash, hawthorn, gooseberries and other plants that produce large thickets. He was one of the first farmers in Wisconsin to start raising the highland cattle several years ago and now has around forty animals eating weeds on half his farm. His goal is to return some o the land to its original oak savannah status. So far on his fifteen test plots with and without cattle, the results of grazing Scottish cattle are positive.


“It’s so wonderfully obvious what’s happening because here’s three strands of electric fence. On one side you can walk right through the woods…its no problem – you can see everything there. On the other side it’s dense, you don’t even want to think about walking through it. And this is only after 2 rotations.”


Rotating means moving groups of up to nine cattle around on once-acre test plots. The cattle spend two or three days on select plots each month throughout the summer. Martha Rosemeyer says researchers were interested in the breed of cattle because in Europe, they’re referred to as “eco-cows.” That’s because of their unique ability to eat plants that have inch-long thorns.


“They’ve got really tough tongues – they wrap them around these and pull – so they pull these things up like prickly ash leaves off and aren’t really bothered by thorns. They actually like thorns to rub and scratch…they’ll lean on things and scratch and they’ll break them and change the vegetation in that way too.”


Peter Rathbun says it didn’t take long for his cattle to tackle a patch of prickly ash after the gate into one test plot was opened.


“They ran over to it and started eating the actual bush. And I loved to see the reaction of some of the graduate students who’ve been working on this for a very long time. In their heart of hearts they really had some doubts whether the animals were really going to like to eat the junk.”


Once results are in by the summer of 2003, consultant Martha Rosemeyer says researchers may have a better idea of how effective the cattle will be at permanent eradication of unwanted plants.


“Certainly if you knock down a plant by taking off it’s above ground vegetation a number of times, it weakens the plant and it eventually will die. That’s what we’re hoping will happen but we’re not sure we need to test this and see the results…it’s speculation at this point.”


By comparison, Rosemeyer says on Department of Natural Resources land, a few test pilots were grazed and burned earlier this year to compare the weed control with the Highland cattle. It turned out that combination was too destructive and the burning was discontinued.


Meanwhile, not only do these animals eat through the bad stuff, but they also provide great hamburgers. Rathbun sells the meat as a low fat, very tasty source of protein.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Jo Wagner.

Alien Species Slips Across the Border

When it comes to keeping non-native plants and animals out of
the country, the first line of defense is inspection. But the United
States
Department of Agriculture recently got a scare, when a noxious weed
slipped through the cracks and ended up for sale at stores around the
country. But will the incident change the way the USDA operates? The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports:

Appreciating the Exotics

If you live in a city or a suburb, chances are that you see non-native
species every day. They might be birds originally from Europe, or a
tree imported from Asia. They’re almost always referred to as pests and
weeds. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator, Chuck Staresinic
, suggests that instead of despising these invaders,
perhaps we should admire them. At the very least, we should get used to
them:

Beetle Controls Purple Loosestife

A European plant called purple loosestrife is increasingly making
itself at home near lakes, wetlands, and meadows throughout the Great
Lakes region. That’s bad news for native plants that are pushed out by
the aggressive newcomer. But help could be on the way. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports on a program to
introduce a loosestrife-munching beetle: