One hundred years ago, people were draining swamps and other wetlands as quickly as possible. In many places, farmers wanted the land to grow crops. But biologists and others have come to realize the value of wetlands as habitat for wildlife and as a filter to clean the water. Now, one group is opening up a swamp to the public so that more people understand why wetlands are important. Julie Grant reports:
One hundred years ago people were draining swamps and other wetlands as quickly as possible. In many places, farmers wanted the land to grow crops. But biologists and others have come to realize the value of wetlands as habitat for wildlife and as a filter to clean the water. Now, one group is opening up a swamp to the public so that more people understand why wetlands are important. Julie Grant reports:
You really get the feeling you’re in rural America on these roads. The streets signs around here, if there are any, are often painted by hand. The land is flat as a pancake, and in many low-lying areas the ground is wet. But there used to be a lot more water.
More than half of the nation’s wetlands have been drained, much of that happened in the mid 1800s. These lowlands were no exception. Biological historians say the land around here was once a swampy forest. But people chopped down the trees, they drained swamps and marshes, and they started farming this river valley in Ohio.
Randy Edwards is spokesman for the Nature Conservancy. He says draining the wetlands back then changed the way the river flowed.
“We have made an effort to restore them and bring back the natural water flow to the area. We’ve had a lot of help from the beavers.”
That’s right, he said they’ve restored wetlands with the help of the beavers.
“I’m serious. They may not know it, but the beavers are an important partner of ours in the restoration of wetlands in Ohio.”
The Nature Conservancy has been buying and preserving wetlands in the lowlands of the Grand River Valley in northeast Ohio for more than twenty years. Now, it’s opening 1000 acres of this area, called Morgan Swamp, to the public.
It’s only a short walk from the new parking lot, through the forest, and onto a wood deck that overlooks the swamp, to see what all this beaver business is about.
“So from the overlook here, you can see what was at one point, a multi-tiered set of beaver dams. There’s the one that’s right in front of us, and you can see that the dam has been here a long time. There’s lots of vegetation growing on it.
If it weren’t for these beaver dams, Edwards says this wouldn’t be a life-giving pond and wetland area; it would just be a stream running through the woods. This past spring a flood burst through part of the dam. Edwards says the Nature Conservancy was worried the whole pond would drain.
“But instead, the beavers have been working at it little by little, and have blocked it up with small saplings and mud, whatever they could find to block up the whole. There’s still water running through there, but it’s not enough to drain the pond.”
And the beavers’ work benefits the entire area. A rare type of forest has come back to life. Hemlock conifers, with their flat, delicate needles grow here, and so do many rare species of wildflowers, such as the endangered painted trillium: a small white flower with a splash of red in the center.
Jim Bissell is the director of Conservation at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He says the swamp makes a home for spotted turtles, rare rattlesnakes, salamanders, and lots of birds. And he credits those busy beavers for creating the ponds at Morgan Swamp.
“Morgan Swamp, it was the biggest hemlock swamp in the state before it was drained, and then caught on fire, and the peats burned. But it started to recover when the beavers returned.”
Beavers disappeared because they were trapped for fur, and then their habitat was destroyed. Bissell says so much water had been drained and so many trees cut, that in the 1920s this area looked like a flat barren prairie, instead of a wetland forest.
But, people began to realize the lowlands really weren’t all that good for growing hay and other crops. Many just abandoned their farms. Within 20 years, the forests were regrowing and the beaver returned.
The Nature Conservancy normally doesn’t open its properties to the public because they’re too fragile, but Randy Edwards says the Conservancy made an exception with this swamp.
“We believe that the more you provide people with the opportunity to witness firsthand and experience firsthand the natural settings in Ohio, really especially the unusual natural settings, the more willing they’ll be to protect it.”
And instead of seeing swamps as something to be drained, Edwards hopes people will see wetlands as valuable habitat for all kinds of animals, and a necessary part of the environment that helps keep the water clean.
For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.