Grappling with Invasive Species Management on a Colonized Land: Part I

For a few years now, I have invested time and energy into cultivating native plants and removing invasive, non-native ones – as a paid worker, an unpaid volunteer and a recreational gardener. My reason for this work is that native plants are beneficial to the local landscape but threatened by invasive plants, a notion well-supported by scientific research and further endorsed by many governmental initiatives. While I sense that the American public is becoming increasingly aware of the economic and ecological threats that some high-profile species pose, I’ve encountered various reactions to how such species are removed, especially when pesticides are involved. I want to better understand the complexities of invasion ecology so that I can advocate for smart natural resource management. But I must admit, I harbor a certain uneasiness about the dichotomy of “native vs. non-native” that is so prevalent in invasive species discourse, and believe some reflection is in order – Julia

Early autumn in Michigan is a time to enjoy the blooming of asters, the turning colors of broadleaves, the harvesting of apples, the migration of neotropical birds, and the cooling weather. It is also the most effective time to chemically control the invasive common reed, Phragmites australis, referred to often as Phragmites.

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Phragmites growing along a pond.

There are three lineages of Phragmites australis, one that has been in the U.S. long before Europeans came, one that is also likely native, and one that was transported from Europe by humans. Here in the U.S., this human-introduced lineage establishes dense monocultures, in part because it lacks significant herbivores or pathogens to curb its growth, outcompeting native vegetation (including its native cousin!) and altering hydrological cycles (Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative). Several governmental and non-profit agencies have partnered with volunteers and ecological restoration businesses to remove invasive Phragmites and other pernicious exotic weeds.  Even people who claim to love plants are spraying pesticides to kill it!

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The leaves of Phragmites remain green longer than most native vegetation.

Phragmites may trigger emotional reactions in some, but not all, people. I have met folks who feel stress or anger when they see it growing on a roadside or popping up in a wetland – “there goes the neighborhood.” Outside of conservation circles, I have encountered a neutral or disinterested attitude towards the reed. Further, I have also witnessed people admiring its tall stature, its cone-shaped tufts of seed, the thick privacy wall it builds, or its wild dances in the wind. Before we attempt to understand these three, generalized reactions, I’d like to define what makes a species native or non-native, and clarify some ambiguities.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) defines native plants as “part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds of thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem,” emphasizing the importance of biogeography. Anything else is non-native. If a plant has evolved to naturally occur and propagate in a Midwestern tallgrass prairie, but it is planted by a human in mesic flatwood forest in New England where it is not known to be found, then it is non-native to that mesic flatwood and, in fact, can be considered ‘translocated.’ If that tallgrass prairie species were transported by a human across a continent, it would be considered ‘exotic’ in its new home.

Non-native plants may struggle to establish in foreign ecosystems, not only because they may not be suited for local conditions, but they may be killed off by random events. So those that do establish populations would be considered ‘naturalized’ according to the NRCS – or, non-native plants that can reproduce and survive in new areas independent of human cultivation. Some of these non-native, naturalized plants can become ‘invasive,’ outcompeting native plants, upsetting ecosystems, and creating monocultures. If they are upsetting enough to damage human property or a pose a threat to the environment, they may legally be considered ‘noxious weeds.’

Both native and non-native plants can be labeled weeds. Certain native plants are known to be aggressive or opportunistic, quickly establishing after a disturbance, but ecological factors like plant competition, succession (and subsequent changes in light availability and microclimate), wildfire, herbivory will keep that plant in check. Not only are invasive plants less inhibited by competition from other plants, they lack herbivores in their new home. That is because, as Douglas Tallamy explains in the book Bringing Nature Home, most insects are highly specialized in which species of plants they eat. Furthermore, if invasive plants outcompete the native plants that local insects rely on, there will be less food for them, which means fewer insects, which means fewer birds, etc. Not only will this disrupt human pleasure of birdwatching, it should certainly spark thousands of unforeseen consequences throughout Earth’s intricately linked ecosystems.

Therefore, I will use the term ‘invasive’ for strictly non-native plants.  In fact, Executive Order 13112 (released by President Clinton in 1999 to establish the National Invasive Species Council) defines invasive species as “alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”  One word – alien – does not sit well with me in the current political context of xenophobia and wall-building. But remember how I said invasive species can trigger emotional reactions? Let’s revisit the three I most often encounter.

The first, an angry or stressful reaction to invasive species, may be due in part to knowledge of the its effects on local ecosystems. I think it may also be fueled by some of the discourse surrounding non-native plants – aliens, invaders, etc. – that are purposefully emotional in order to inspire action. Susanna Lidström and Simon West thought so, too, and write in a blog post “the concept of invasive alien species steers our thoughts towards countless science fiction films about space invaders – where characters are easily identified in terms of “good versus evil,” “native versus foreign,” “belonging and not-belonging.”

But why the dichotomy? Lidström and West draw parallels between the language used for invasive species control in South Africa and its post-apartheid xenophobia, or the discourse in Europe and its immigration booms and border insecurity. People who work in conservation see Phragmites choking out a wetland and feel loss – a place they know/love is literally being invaded. But ecology is too complex to be effectively managed by such dichotomous perspectives. Lidström and West argue, “the concept of invasive alien species simply does not help us understand how nature works, but instead promotes aggressive ways of relating to our environment, and siphons resources that might be better spent elsewhere,” suggesting that larger, more encompassing issues like climate change are making “little headway” and thus could benefit from time and energy of the natural resources community.

The dramatic language of alien invaders only works on some people. The second emotional reaction I’ve encountered – disinterest or a neutral attitude –may be due to what some authors have called “plant blindness.” As humans become increasingly disconnected with our natural environment, it’s no surprise few people have noticed its replacement of other species. The invasive subspecies of Phragmites was introduced in the East Coast in the early 19th century, so it’s been here long enough for folks to get used to it.

The third reaction – appreciation – is different than plant blindness, because here someone is actively appreciating a plant for its unique physical traits. And if it is true that Phragmites will be impossible to eradicate – that it is here to stay as part of a novel ecosystem – then it is only natural that humans may form an appreciation of it as part of a broader effort to connect with our environment (as pure or impure as it may be). Research suggests (see here and here, for example) that greenery and natural spaces can have positive impacts on human health, but it rarely distinguishes which species. Invasive plants are still better than no plants at all, right? To answer that requires a thorough cost-benefit analysis of all damages, benefits, and costs to control that are associated with a given invasive species. It will also be informed by time, as we watch the effects of European exploitation and stewardship play out and hopefully learn from our mistakes.

Because, like many environmental problems, invasive species can be understood as a product of settler colonialism and globalization. Europeans came to North America, stole land from the indigenous people, and exploited the landscape for its natural resources, causing significant ecological change and degradation (for example: logging in Michigan post-European settlement causing shifts in forest composition).Then, as more and more settlers came, and global trade expanded, non-native plants came too. Mack and Erneberg (2002) studied introductions before 1900s by Europeans through planting culinary and medicinal herbs like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), ornamentals like multi-flora rose (Rosa multiflora Thunb.) and buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.), and accidentally introducing them through seed contamination like Achillea millefolium, Chenopordium album, Cirsium arvense, etc. As the United States’ economy continued to globalize, these introductions increased. Mack and Erneberg (2002) mention one study of invasive plants in Illinois, with 163 species added between 1922 and 1955, and 209 additional introduced between 1956 and 1978. As the Europeans colonized, so did their plants. As a product of European settlers, I am part of a novel human ecosystem.

A critically important, but often overlooked, set of perspectives that Midwesterners of European descent (like me) can learn from is that of the Anishinaabe. Reo and Ogden (2018) interviewed the Sault Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community (which represents a wide range of values and perspectives) about their experience with invasive plants. From these discussions, the authors pulled the following three themes informed by Anishinaabe teachings. One: “recognizing all plants and animals as persons who assemble in ‘nations.’” Two: “it is the responsibility of humans to determine the reason why new plants or animals have arrived in their territories, and actively determine the nature of novel human-animal or human-plant relationships.” Three: indigenous folks “reframed problems of environmental change as related to the introduction of a Euro-American land ethic…culpability lies in “invasive” ideologies rather than the fault of specific animals or plants” (Reo and Ogden, 2018). Yeah, wow.

The Sault Ste Marie tribe members interviewed by Reo and Ogden (2018) expanded on invasive ideologies to include “Euro-American property ownership regimes, ‘command and control’ forms of environmental management, and a worldview predicated on the separation of people from nature.” Settler colonialism and globalization have promoted the invasive species problem, yes, but more importantly, they have significantly changed humanity’s relationship to land. Is there hope for shifting towards a more sustainable, holistic relationship?

Let’s revisit the second theme from Reo and Ogden (2018), in which the Anishinaabe teach that humans must find uses and purposes for newly arriving plants or animals. If an invasive plant is here to stay, can we use it? As Reo and Ogden (2018) point out, the Anishinaabe have traditionally used the native broad-leaved cattail (Typha latifolia) for food, so perhaps the introduced narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia) that is taking over wetlands and hybridizing with T. latifolia will prove nourishing, too. According to the NRCS, the endemic lineage of Phragmites has been used by Native  Americans for “arrow shafts, musical instruments, ceremonial objects, cigarettes, and woven mats,” while Europeans have used common reed for thatching, so why can’t the introduced lineage also be useful in Michigan?

Many folks are putting this Anishinaabe teaching into practice. The Strawbale Studio has been harvesting Phragmites in Oxford, Michigan to thatch roofs. Artist Megan Heeres has been using the pulp of Japanese knotweed, honeysuckle, and other invasive to make paper and build community through the Invasive Paper Project, while another group of artists called the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has been using the wood from Ailanthus altissima growing in alleys and vacant lots to build sculptures and furniture.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, in the book Braiding Sweetgrass, mentions one example of an immigrant that became a good neighbor – the common plantain (Plantago major). Plantain was brought to Turtle Island (North America) by Europeans and gradually embraced by Native people for its nourishing and healing properties. Kimmerer writes, “our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themsleves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so that native species will die….but Plantain is not like that. Its strategy is to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds.” Kimmerer expounds that people like me (descendants of immigrants/settlers in this colonized land) can learn from Plantain to become naturalized – “to know that your ancestors lie in the ground…to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it.”

I hope to learn from these teachings and continue to form a nuanced connection with my human-altered environment. For me, the delicate, popping purple blooms of European chicory (Cichorium intybus) in unmowed, vacant lots each July is a special indicator that it is mid-summer in Detroit. The introduced Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) blossoms in spring are aesthetically beautiful in places where few other trees exist, as are the native red maple (Acer rubrum) flowers that emerge in spring across many mesic forests of Michigan. I still plant asters, milkweeds, and goldenrods to attract native pollinators, and try to control the spread of mulberry and tree-of-heaven in the alleys. I resent that non-native buckthorn (Rhamnus spp.) and honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) now dominate the understories of many parks, and hope all the money spent on removing them actually restores biodiversity across the landscape.

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Aster growing out of sidewalk.

It is late autumn now and I am standing at the top of a small rise overlooking a wet field. There is a Phragmites patch in the distance, its leaves mostly yellow – it is too late in the growing season to chemically treat. Besides, I am mostly there to work on the seeding of native plants. This field was a farm that is being restored to a wetland and prairie. The land has been disturbed by humans many times over. I have a lot of questions and things to learn. I sense true restoration may not be possible…but a transformation to healthier relationship to land will require deep listening and inclusive, adaptive management.

 

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Sunset over a field in November.

Jack Pine, Mack Lake, and waxing poetic on CWD

This summer, I spent six weeks visiting the jack pine (Pinus banksitna Lamb.)  forests of the Highplains in northern Lower Michigan. My research goal is to quantify how the different jack pine-dominated ecosystems on the landscape continue to change following a 1980 wildfire.  Combined with last summer, this adventure has involved a lot of bushwacking, transect-rolling, tick-checking, second guessing, hunch confirming, tree measuring, note-taking, botanizing, and bonding with some awesome field assistants. It has been a ton of fun.

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Maybe you have heard of Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii Baird) or the Mack Lake burn on the podcast Radiolab (https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/91723-weighing-good-intentions/)? This story of a prescribed-fire-gone-wild is a dynamic one – bringing sadness for the family of a brave firefighter who lost his life, and fear of wildfire for the nearby homeowners, while creating opportunities for jack pine trees whose cones open after fire, abundance for the endangered songbird who relies on young jack pine trees for habitat, and challenges for land managers who want to mimic natural habitat without fire.  Because I work out of lab that classifies land into ecosystems based on vegetation, soil and physiography, I am focusing here on the fire-prone jack pine, the groundcover that accompanies it, the sandy soil it all persists in, and the moraines, kames, channels, and outwash plains that house the soil. Our lab also seems to employ a “spaces over species” attitude about conservation (see Barnes, 1993).  My take on that is: protecting one endangered bird, or a game bird, is cool, but if we can protect the spaces and systems they occupy, we can do a lot more.

Working on this project so far has given me 1) the chance to return to the jack pine as a graduate student, looking at things more closely than I did as an undergraduate on my first field job, and 2) the opportunity to analyze three time periods’ worth of data for multiple permanent plots! My predecessors from the 1980s had the good thought to mark their sampling plots for future study with rebar. They were interested in how young naturally-regenerated forests differed in their speed and quality of providing habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler (Zou et al., 1992). These study plots were revisited and expanded in 1996 to formalize their ecological classification (Walker et al., 2003), and again the next decade to marry the rebar with GPS coordinates for more reliable use in the future.

Even with a GPS unit and maps, re-locating these plots was harder than I thought. Rewarding at times, yes – to magically look in the right place and see a rebar standing amidst the brush after a long walk was cause for celebration. But frustrating or downright head-scratching at others – some plots revisited to no avail have had their paperwork cast to the back of my trapperkeeper, their hauntings cast to my bug-bitten stress dreams. But, last year, I managed to relocate thirty-nine of the plots before the bracken fern emerged, and discovered two more this spring.

Each rebar marks the northeast corner of a 200m^2 sampling plot. My field assistant helped me collect data at each plot on stand structure (density of live trees, other species besides jack pine present, how many are considered overstory or understory) and groundcover composition (how many species of groundcover, how do they vary in abundance, and are the ones we think have special site indicator powers present?).  This year, another field assistant*  has been helping me complete fuel surveys at each plot, using the rebar as the intersection of two perpendicular 50 m transects. For this, we quantified density of fine and coarse woody debris, as well as the amount of duff and litter atop the soil, and the abundance of live and dead vegetation.  Once analyzed (next adventure!), all this data should help managers better understand successional pathways and subtleties of the different jack pine ecosystems, as well as predict future fire behavior.

* Field assistants are awesome! I literally could not do it without them, and each fellow ecology researcher brought her own keen awareness to the project. *

 

 

The puzzle pieces of the bigger landscape picture are slowly coming together for me. I suppose it will continue to do so as I analyze, present, and write.  So this entry is one form of practicing my answer to the question: How is the forest changing? The most obvious answer to me is that there is probably more downed woody debris! I have spent a lot of time this summer counting twigs and measuring logs. It is interesting to shift perspective from the green vegetation around me to something most folks would consider dead. Franklin et al. (1987) point out that what is dead and what is living isn’t always so clear. They write, “In a live conifer, only about ten percent of the cells are actually alive: the leaves (three percent), inner bark (phloem and cambium, five percent), and ray cells in sapwood (two percent). Some processes associated with dead trees begin while the tree is still alive. For example, fungi are already at work rotting the woody material, and animals excavate the dead parts of living trees. In contrast, a dead tree or log in an advanced state of decay may include a considerable number of living cells, as much as 35% of the biomass may be live fungal cells alone (Swift 1973).”

 

 

Some of the woody debris I’ve measured was relatively fresh from wind throw, disease or rot.  Other downed wood is old, probably killed in the Mack Lake Burn but persisting as a dead snag until it was time to fall. And still other downed wood is even older, hidden in the soil, transformed, and decomposed. These coarse woody debris (CWD) and snags are important all throughout a tree stand’s life, from the time immediately after a fire to the development of a mature, closed canopy. Human tripping hazards? Sure. Aesthetic concerns? Depends on your definition of beauty. Ecosystem value? Definitely! Consider Yellowstone National Park (YNP) following the 1988 wildfire. CWD is very influential there, according to Tinker and Knight, who write:

“As the snags continue to fall in YNP and as new forests continue to develop, eventually removing from sight all of the CWD created in 1988, most park visitors will soon forget the forests of blackened trees. However, the dead wood on the forest floor persists for many decades, occupied by a plethora of living organisms and influencing numerous ecological processes. Some of the CWD will burn in the next fire, but much of it slowly contributes to the soil on which future generations of trees will depend – a process that has been underway for millennia, and one that depends on a rich array of forest organisms that most people never see.”

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Downed wood and snags are important for succession because they create habitat, shade, and nourish the soil when they decompose. I expect the amount of  CWD to vary by ecosystem type. As Franklin et al. (1987) suggest, “The variety in patterns of death among tree species reflects such factors as differences in life-spans, vulnerability to various agents, and distribution in the landscape.” Perhaps there will be more CWD where ecosystem characteristics favor shallow rooting or wind throw. Franklin et al. (1987) add, “Tree mortality has important implications for succession because the individuals it removes may not be replaced.” So what species replace the fallen trees with time and no fire  – oaks, aspen, maples – is a factor my research will consider, too. In the meantime, perhaps you the reader will be moved to take a closer look at the ground on your next ramble through a forest. Hopefully, too, you will carry a deeper appreciation for all the seen and unseen contributions of a mossy log.

Papers Cited:

Barnes, B. V. (1993). The landscape ecosystem approach and conservation of endangered spaces. Endangered Species Update, 10(3&4), 13-19.
Franklin, J. F., Shugart, H. H., & Harmon, M. E. (1987). Tree death as an ecological process. BioScience, 37(8), 550-556.
Tinker, D. B., & Knight, D. H. (2004). Snags and coarse woody debris: an important legacy of forests in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. After the fires: the ecology of change in Yellowstone National Park. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 279-98.
Walker, W. S., Barnes, B. V., & Kashian, D. M. (2003). Landscape Ecosystems of the Mack Lake Burn, Northern Lower Michigan, and the Occurrence of the Kirtland’s Warbler. Forest Science, 49(1), 119-139.
Zou, X., Theiss, C., & Barnes, B. V. (1992). Pattern of Kirtland’s warbler occurrence in relation to the landscape structure of its summer habitat in northern Lower Michigan. Landscape Ecology, 6(4), 221-231.

Dunes and Prairie Paths: Taking inspiration from May Theilgaard Watts

This world is complex, strange, and always changing. Some changes appear cyclical and stable to us – the orbit around the sun, the blooming of flowers, the dropping of leaves. Others appear more whimsical and dependent on quickly-changing factors, like how the behavior of a fire or the fate of a water molecule depends on weather. Some changes are big and vast, like climate change, while others are small, like the substitution of a base-pair in a strand of DNA. It helps to keep a range of perspectives when contemplating the world. Sometimes I will binge-read the news or soak up my community’s concerns about social injustices or feel lost in my own fears and anxieties, and then I will sit eye-level with some soil, or bush-whack through thick woods, or throw my head back to look at the stars, and ponder what it all means.  As I grapple with the implications of studying ecology in a time of too many urgent issues, I take inspiration from those that came before.  The  youth in me needs convincing sometimes that this is a good idea – I’m skeptical that folks before weren’t too clouded by colonial mentalities to speak truth, or I naively suspect their lives were too simple, their challenges too different, to be relevant today. . But experience reminds me that, prejudices aside, there has always been wisdom in this world, a great deal of which may now be buried under layers of new knowledge and distractions, and needs serious digging out for open, critical minds to digest.

I recently began a literary hike into the rich, dense and thoughtful ecology essays of May Theilgaard Watts, a twentieth century botanist and naturalist from Illinois. Back in 1914, Ms. Watts was a student in the new discipline of Ecology, learning about plant communities in bogs – six years before white women were allowed to vote in the United States, and almost a hundred years before my college classmates and I explored a bog in our Terrestrial Ecology class.  She worked as a teacher most of the year in a rural one-room schoolhouse so she could attend field courses at University of Chicago in the summer. She later spent several years working as a Naturalist at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. I started my journey with Watts’ book, Reading the Landscape of America, which details systems as diverse as a Midwestern prairie, a Southwestern desert, a Northeastern salt marsh, and an evergreen forests of the Pacific coast. Though only a few chapters in, I am pulled by her outstanding ability to interpret and communicate the land as a living story, in which all the individual ecological components are characters.  Pulling from published research and her own legacy of field work, and including many charming, hand-sketched diagrams, she weaves threads of botany, geology, evolution, geography and anthropology into stories of origin, adaptation, evolution, and disturbance – themes that are still very applicable to today’s landscape.

While visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore earlier this month, I geeked out to her chapter titled “Picnic in a Gritty Wind, or, the Sand Dunes of Indiana.”  Watts’ descriptions of how wind, water, sand, and pioneer plants all interact to sculpt the dunes lent substance and depth to the ephemeral, but tenacious, beauty that I observed while climbing Lake Michigan’s shoreline.

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Watts writes, “The dunes are certainly a good place for travelers to visit, to revive old friendships with plants met in diverse and distant places.” She gives many examples, including the unlikely appearance of a jack pine and cactus, two drought-tolerant plants from vastly different temperature ranges, in the same dune ecosystem. Musing on this coexistence, she asks, “Where else in America could one sit amid dark green that is wont to hobnob with ptarmigan and Eskimo and midnight sun, and look down upon the pale green that is familiar of horned toads and Joshua trees and Navajos?” She suggests that both the pine and the cactus are “relicts” from a glacially-influenced past (the pine having traveled south as the glacier advanced, the cactus possibly appearing in the dry and hot period after the glacier retreated). Though no jack pine trees were present at SBDNL, I delighted in recognizing plants I first met while studying the jack pine forests of northern Lower Michigan, such as sand cherry (Prunus pumila) and bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), two waxy-leaved low-growing perennials. I met new plants, too, shaking hands with the natives like Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). I saw two especially common plants, baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) and spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), which I later learned were accidentally introduced to the ecosystem by humans and outcompeting the native plants.

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Watts was keen to recognize that human development is an important and threatening character in our landscape’s story, one that cannot be stopped but may be bargained with. In the revised and expanded edition of Reading the Landscape of America, she elaborates on the troubling transformation of the dunes by industry. The story line might sound familiar.

 

 “People came, at first, to live there because of the dunes , and came to terms with them, shaping their roads and homes to fit the contours. They respected the natives, especially the grasses, sand cherry, and cottonwoods, if they lived near the beach…

As roads grew harder (they were just sand at first) and wider and faster, people began to come because this was reputed to be a good place to live, offering swimming at a private beach, and coasting and skiing in blowouts and slopes. Some came in spite of the dunes with their restless blowing sand.  The acreage of pavement and lawn was expanded…

Gradually there came residents who were less and less interested in preserving the natural aspects of the dunes, and more and more interested in getting help with their taxes, even if that help was dependent on replacing neighboring dunes with steel mills.”

                I interpret this process as that weird tendency of western society to push out and crush the beloved things that got us hooked there in the first place. Like the white pine forests of northern Michigan, their stately, awe-inspiring trunks so intensely logged. Or Michigan’s rivers, which sparked the development of many cities but often become too polluted to drink from. Or Plymouth Rock, where the pilgrims massacred the Native Americans who helped them survive winter. Or urban neighborhoods, where artist collectives and community centers are replaced by high rise condos and fancy restaurants. Can you feel the cynicism seeping in?

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But Ms. Watts had hope. After describing how the Indiana dunes were destabilized by industry, she mentions how parts of the dunes were conserved, with the establishment of a State Park and, later, a National Shoreline.  Industry may be spreading, but humans can still strategically plan to conserve remnant ecosystems. This applies not only to large-scale preservation projects, but smaller, patchier restoration projects. In 1963, Watts co-founded the Illinois Prairie Path (IPP), an original rails-to-trails project to connect the public with prairie plant communities. Anne Keller, Ph.D., writes on May Theilgaard Watts and the IPP, “The move away from a focus on wilderness areas to local sites that were abandoned or neglected, even though they offered unique ecological features such as prairie remnants, represented an innovative shift in environmental thinking. According to Watts, conservation included reimagining, reusing, and restoring the landscape—a cutting-edge approach in environmental activism at the time” (Keller, 2016). These prairie remnants still exist today, along a 61 mile path, and are enjoyed by many walkers, joggers, bikers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Though I have yet to visit the IPP, I relate it to my favorite trails, open spaces, public parks, native gardens and urban forests of Michigan that offer benefits both ecological and social.

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So here I pull a few important lessons from reading May Theilgaard Watts, aside from the many plant ecology lessons she offers in her book. Lesson #1: Recall the importance of good story telling to relate scientific information to the public. Lesson #2: Learning how systems naturally behave may help us monitor and understand how they change.  Lesson #3: Creative thinking is necessary to maintain green space in today’s world. And Lesson #4, I guess: It’s important to keep hope, to organize and activate community. Because, although habitat corridors, parks, and restoration projects will never replace wilderness lost, restoring more of them within our footprint may prove an important conservation strategy.  There is so much to learn, I think. Slow down a bit to soak it in, but hurry, keep up, keep up!

 

Sources:

“About the Trail.” Illinois Prairie Path, www.ipp.org/about-the-trail/.

Keller, Anne M., “”One Narrow Thread of Green”: The Vision of May Theilgaard Watts, the Creation of the Illinois Prairie Path, and a Community’s Crusade for Open Space in Chicago’s Suburbs” (2016). Dissertations & Theses. 281.

“May Theilgaard Watts.” May Theilgaard Watts – Illinois Authors, Illinois Center for the Book, www.illinoisauthors.org/authors/May_Theilgaard_Watts.

Watts, May Theilgaard. Reading the landscape of America. Collier Books, 1975.

 

What does real inclusion look like in parks?

One day, I was checking out at the supermarket after working at the nature center, and asked the cashier if I could pack my items in a reusable bag instead of plastic, lightening the inconvenient request with a joke, “you know, I still think I can save the planet and all,” and she smiled and said seriously, “you know you can’t save the planet without first saving the people on it.” TRUTH! I was humbled and inspired by her words.

So many leaders in the sustainability movement have long acknowledged the interdependence of social and environmental justice. It is not enough to protect forests, oceans, soil, and other natural resources from destruction and degradation, if in the process we neglect relevant social issues, like indigenous rights, migrant labor, economic opportunities, disability justice and accessibility to resources. Organizations like Green For All (nationally), We Want Green, too! (locally), and many, many others, are founded on the intersection of social and environmental uplift. At the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference in Detroit last week, we were called to action by a water access warrior, and engaged in an emotional discussion on the importance of including human rights in the fight for nature’s rights. As a lover of both nature and people, I challenge myself and my network to research, learn, listen, reflect more on how social justice informs environmental quality, and vice versa, so that we can be better advocates for both.

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At the core of all movements is the question, how to engage people in the struggle? On the conservation side of things, nature interpretation, environmental education and outdoor recreation all serve as useful tools for connecting people to nature. The idea is that when we have positive experiences in nature, it can not only benefit our mental and physical health, but deepen our affection for and desire to protect natural spaces.

The National Parks Service and other federal agencies are utilizing environmental education and outreach to better engage underrepresented demographics with the aim that more of these communities will take ownership in federal lands. As part of its centennial celebration, NPS and its federal partners have launched several projects, like Every Kid In A Park, the Parks Exchange, and New Century Vision, to connect with next generation of stakeholders, with a particular focus on urban and ethnic minority populations.

I was fortunate enough to participate in one such initiative called Mountains to Main Street – check out the M2M video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E59BsUvuJ5c and Ashley Perez’ blog https://mountainstomainstreet-aip.exposure.co/mountains-to-main-streetOrganized by a partnership between Groundwork USA, The Student Conservation Association, and Teton Science Schools with generous support from Grand Teton National Park Foundation and Grand Teton Association. I attended a week-long training at Grand Teton National Park last January, where I recreated, attended workshops, and met an amazing and diverse group of young conservation leaders from all over the U.S.  We met the Superintendent of Grand Teton, David Vela, and the first African American director of NPS, Robert Stanton. I learned about a Detroit hero, Shelton Johnson, a black ranger currently working at Yosemite. These parks employees all share a passion for the parks, but all had to overcome various cultural and systematic barriers to get to where they were. Notably, all of them are active advocates for increasing diversity and inclusion in the parks.

At the end of the training, all of the participants were tasked that spring to apply our reignited passion to connecting our communities to the parks. For me, my official project involved collaborating with Greening of Detroit’s  Our LAND program and the River Raisin National Battlefield Park to organize a field trip in May. Though a valuable learning experience, I hope it is only the beginning of something more sustained. I am inspired by the beauty of the various parks systems here in metro Detroit, as well as our dynamic community of environmental justice warriors, and our unique opportunities for outdoor recreation, environmental education, and cultivating green space. But to be a real ally in equitable access to nature requires deep reflection and anti-racism work.

There are several reasons why communities of color are particularly underrepresented in parks tourism – segregation, systematic racism, and intimidation are significant forces, in addition to economic and geographic considerations. These obstacles have been well documented – as seen in a literature review put out by NPS, as well as books like Carolyn Finney’s “Black Faces, White Spaces,” to name a few. Reversing these obstacles  and reframing participation will be a long, hard process. For white folks, it starts with acknowledging systematic racism. As a white person who has visited parks since childhood, it is hard for me to immediately understand some of the intangible yet very real barriers that African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities face in accessing the parks systems. Only through reading, trainings, workshops, witnessing, and conversation, am I beginning to understand this important perspective.

“Engaging underrepresented communities is as difficult and necessary as protecting our watersheds, restoring habitat, and managing wildlife……Yet, that assumes people are not already connected in their own way.” Nina Roberts, a professor and environmental educator at San Francisco State University, warns in an article for the Journal of Interpretation Research. She continues, “That is, nature inspires people for very different reasons that are often unknown or misunderstood. Nature, with all its intricacies, does not know the difference between cultures; people are stewards of their own experience.”
With that, I am reminded that the big challenge for nature interpreters and adventure leaders of privilege is to simultaneously acknowledge past and potential barriers of a certain minority group, while withholding stereotypes and recognizing that every individual within the group may connect to nature in a unique and personal way. I am eager to hear from different folks, how do you connect with nature? What pulls you in? What would you like to protect and nourish in your environment? Eager to celebrate the diverse ways that one can enjoy nature.

It is autumn now, so I will share a passage on one person’s connection to autumn that really moved me. The following was written by wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham in his book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, and expresses the way autumn nature touches him. I hope it moves you to go outside and enjoy the season, as well.

“The season has always drawn a sort of restlessness from me. In the wanderlust I want to go somewhere far away, to fly to some place I think I need to be. Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying. Everything is either accelerating or slowing down. Some things are rushing about to put in seed for the next generation. A monarch butterfly in a field full of goldenrod is urgent on tissue-thin wings of black and orange to gather the surging sweetness before the frost locks it away. Apple trees and tangles of muscadines hang heavy. The fruit-dense orchards offer a final call to the wildlings. Foxes, deer, coons, possum, and wild turkeys fatten in the feasting. The air is spiced with the scent of dying leaves. The perfume of decay gathers as berries ripen into wild wine. Even the sun sits differently in an autumnal sky, sending a mellower light in somber slants that foretell the coming change.

The droning katydids, tired from the their months-long work of filling the hot wet nights with song, hang on into October. But soon choirs of thousands dwindle to hundreds, and then just one or two. A persistent cricket tries hard to fiddle in time but the first freeze throws a wrench into his rhythm. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places makes my heart race. It is all so beautiful that it hurts. Almost overnight eastern red cedars suffer the savagery of hormonal surges and a ravaged stand of sapling pines point the way to a pawed-up and piss-soaked patches of ground that whitetail bucks leave as calling cards. When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.”

Great Blue Hero in an Urban Wetland

Pond Life - UM Dearborn's EIC, Late May

Pond Life – UM Dearborn’s EIC, Late May

Now it is June. Daylight stretches further into each night. The gradual peeping and greening of early spring has flushed into an intoxicating lushness. I want to just BE outside, wander, see WHO is out. Find some green and maybe even some water.

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Invasive Shrubs leafing out – Palmer Park, April

Siberian Squill carpet - April

Siberian Squill carpet – UM Dearborn’s Environmental Interpretive Center, April

Native Trees leafing out - Booth Park, Early May

Native Trees leafing out – Booth Park, Early May

Groundcover, Shrubs and Fallen Tree - Tenhave Woods, June

Groundcover, Shrubs and Fallen Tree – Tenhave Woods, June

There are several dynamic green spaces in Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs. Some are old favorites and well attended, like Belle Isle and Palmer Park. Others are hidden gems, like a drainage ditch that widens downstream into a creek and flows through under a highway, or the fenced woodlot behind the high school that’s actually a forest. I’ve had the chance this spring to explore a few of these spaces, attune the senses, and exercise some amateur naturalist skills.

Wetland - Valley Woods, Late May

Valley Woods, Late May

One recent morning at Valley Woods preserve in Southfield, I spotted a Great Blue Heron fly across the pond and perch on an extended tree branch. Only a few hundred feet away from the traffic of Telegraph Road, I stood snug in a Rouge River floodplain newly legitimized by the striking, authoritative presence of a heron. (Apologies for the low-quality bird photos)

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

That same week at Palmer Park, among the hordes of Canada Geese eating grass and the bustle of people tailgating, I came across a Black Crowned Night-Heron sitting calm and self-assured at the pond.

Black Crowned Night-Heron

Black Crowned Night-Heron

The presence of wild animals indicates to us humans that an urban green space or waterway is a healthy place for wildlife to live and forage in. Both the Great Blue Heron and the Black Crowned Night-Heron are considered Species of Least Concern (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), because they are fairly common and their populations stable. But, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out that these birds are still susceptible to habitat loss and pollution. Herons are secondary predators, and thus may be exposed to higher levels of toxins that have accumulated up the food chain. The other forms of life that make up the ecosystem in which the heron resides – plant, bacteria, fungi and other animals – are important, too, and also threatened by environmental degradation. It seems that megafauna are accessible catalysts for increasing public interest in conservation (like the American Eagle and the DDT-ban). Herons are not only majestic, but could be a mascot for improving the quality of urban green spaces.

Mallard

I am still delighted when I see the bright green of the (common) male Mallard duck, which I encountered in the above pic at the pond in Tenhave Woods. Nice to see the species in a more historically natural setting (as opposed to flooded backyards and swimming pools), floating among a park rich with sugar maple trees and prickly ash shrubs, Downy Woodpeckers and Grackles.

And, some photos in celebration of all the foliage and flowers about:

Blue Phlox

Blue Phlox

Wild Geranium

Wild Geranium

Horse Chestnut

Horse Chestnut

Such strange elegance and personality among the flowers.

Stewardship in the lakeplain prairie & change of seasons

It’s not enough to visit a place once a year in order to know it – its fullness, its capacity for change. Recently, I spent a lot of time studying the nature of Algonac State Park. Located upstream of the Detroit River, just beyond Lake St. Clair, on the banks of the St. Clair River, Algonac SP has an amazing collection of remnant and restored lakeplain plant communities.

I became a member of the Stewardship Crew at Algonac State Park in September – just in time to catch the late summer flowers, just before fall dormancy – and transitioned out this April, after the great melting of spring. The crew functions to maintain and restore the lakeplain prairies and lakeplain oak openings. Throughout my time there, I came to add more and more angles and shades to my mental picture of prairies and savannas, and respected them ever more as places to protect.

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Blazing Star Prairie at Algonac State Park – August

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View of St. Clair River from park – late autumn

Lakeplain prairies and savannas mostly exist near the coasts of Lake Erie, Lake Huron and their connecting rivers. According to the folks at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, a lakeplain prairie is a wet-mesic community of wildflowers, grasses and sedges growing in former beds laid by glacial lakes. A lakeplain oak opening is a wet type of savanna, meaning there are more mature trees, like Oaks and Hawthorn, and often occurs at slightly higher, drier ground. They are recognized as home for several endangered plant and animal species. As a whole, both communities are rare, as much of the historic coverage has been developed by humans, or the natural hydrology and fire rotation disturbed (thus promoting invasion by non-native plants or other native plant communities). They occur alongside wet-mesic flatwoods and Great Lakes marsh. [O’Connor, Kost and Cohen, 2009].

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Ernie’s Prairie – September

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Mesic Forest – September

Outpost Prairie/Savanna - October

Outpost Prairie/Savanna – October

The DNR Stewardship Unit works to restore these communities by promoting native flora (collecting and sowing local seeds) and by reducing competition from invasive species (applying herbicides, cutting or pulling). The crew also aims to mimic the effects of fire by mowing the prairie with a tractor, thus slowing the transition from prairie/savanna to mesic forest, and to reintroduce fire through controlled burns.

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Robert’s Road Prairie at sunset – Autumn

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Brush pile – Late Autumn

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Robert’s Road Prairie at sunrise – Late Autumn

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Robert’s Road Prairie – January

In the late summer and through the fall, we applied herbicide to phragmites, mowed, and collected seeds from milkweeds, coneflower, cordgrass, big bluestem, ironweed, and mountain-mint, to name a few. As the colder weather came in, we cut dead ash trees, treated buckthorn stumps, and removed brush from the firelines that are critical to prescribed burns. When there was snow on the ground, we burned brush. In spring, we devoted more time to maintaining the firelines in preparation for the burn season.

Sullivant's Milkweed - Autumn

Sullivant’s Milkweed – Autumn

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Brush pile burning (Lake Hudson Rec Area) – February

While performing these tasks, I observed small seasonal changes: the freezes and thaws, the flooding and draining, the movement of clouds, the passing of weather, the sounds of insects, the falling of leaves, the presence of fungi, the tracks in the snow, the flight of birds, the calls of frogs. The place even appeared so different from day to day depending on the cloud cover, the clarity of the air, and whether the ground was covered in grasses or snow. Even the moisture levels in the soil changed slightly day to day, and sometimes dramatically inch to inch. Spring in particular revealed the great wetness of the park, drawing attention to its different soil types, erosion and the movement of water. I’m curious how the park will continue to unfold, bloom and develop during the upcoming seasons.

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Great Lakes Marsh/Wet Meadow – April

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Outpost Prairie/Savanna – April

Citation:

O’Connor, Ryan P., Michael A. Kost, and Joshua G. Cohen. Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering Our Natural Heritage. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2009. Print.

Drinking Water reconsidered

What’s going on with drinking water in Detroit?

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has announced that they will shut off water to thousands of residential customers who are late in paying their bills (http://www.freep.com/article/20140322/NEWS01/303220010/Detroit-resume-water-shutoffs-delinquent-customers ). Simultaneously, Emergency Manager Kevin Orr is investigating a potential privatization of DWSD (http://www.freep.com/article/20140313/NEWS01/303130036/Kevyn-Orr-Detroit-water ).

Several distinguished water activists warned against these decisions at a public lecture sponsored by the Food and Water Watch and Wayne State’s Office of Sustainability on May 22nd. Charity Hicks of the People’s Water Board, Will See of East Michigan Environmental Action Coalition, Detroit City Councilwoman Joanne Watson, James Olson of Olson, Bzdok & Howard Law firm, Ann Rall of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians all spoke about the devastating impacts that privatization and restricted access to water supplies have caused before in places as far reaching as Bolivia, Botswana, Philadelphia – and Michigan’s very own Highland Park.

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate: “Doesn’t it make sense that people who don’t pay their water bills should have their services cut? And isn’t privatization in the city’s best interest, as it is the only way to fund a financially-strapped DWSD?”

There is a growing movement that dismisses such allegations. We argue that the right to water is critical enough to warrant negotiations against water shut-offs, and that privatization of the water system will not guarantee a water-secure city and region.

When water is run by a public department, as it is in Detroit, it is treated as a utility and its price should reflect the cost of service. In recent years, DWSD’s service rates have increased, due to declining customer base and rising infrastructure costs (http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Southeast-Michigan-Water.pdf). Such increases are damaging to a city that is majority low-income or fixed-income, and to a region still hit hard by economic recession. Many customers struggle to pay their bills in completion and on time – the Free Press article cites nearly half of the accounts in Detroit proper have outstanding bills. Sadly, there is minimal infrastructure available to assist low-income customers in paying their bills.

The United Nations now officially considers water access a human right – “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” (http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=a/res/64/292 ). Maude Barlow stressed that countries which support this resolution (U.S. included here) are responsible for providing water sanitation for its inhabitants, protecting water from pollution and preventing against removal of water from a given system.

Shutting off the water supply to low-income customers, with no alternatives, deprives them of their right to clean drinking water, defying the United Nations’ August 2010 resolution. Water shut-offs further destabilize low-income families, as it is illegal for children to reside in homes without water, and puts those of poor health at greater risk. Substantial customer outreach and lower payment plans should be provided by DWSD to ensure that all of Metro Detroit’s inhabitants have drinking water access.

Repairing and maintaining infrastructure is critical to water access, too. Though privatization has been suggested as an option to clear a City in the midst of bankruptcy from the financial burden, it would change drinking water from a utility to a commodity, where its price would fluctuate with its market value. Many studies have shown that privatization of drinking water services are NOT financially conservative, nor more efficient, and can lead to higher service rates (Food and Water Watch, 2011). Instead, organizations like the Food and Water Watch propose public-public partnerships as a way to save and restore expensive and aging drinking water system departments. More information on these types of partnership can be found at http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/BorrowingTrouble.pdf .

An alarming aspect of DWSD’s financial crisis is the void of water shutoffs to corporate and governmental customers with delinquent bills. As an example, the People’s Water Board cites Joe Louis Arena and Ford Field as each owing over $50,000 in water fees. This suggests that the city holds the right to water in lesser regard than the right to profit.

Jim Olson reminded the panel that the water of the Great Lakes System is held in trust by the states within its basin, according to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources compact. However, it seems that further legislation is needed to strengthen the public trust. The organization FLOW is advocating for this, you can read about it here http://flowforwater.org/public-trust-solutions/what-is-public-trust/ .

Barlow left the audience with three proposals “Water is a human right; water is not a commodity; water and its associated ecosystems have rights, too.”

It’s important for residents of Southeast Michigan to think about if they want their home to be a place where generations of the near and distant future have access to safe and clean drinking water.

–          Julia, from the Clinton River and Detroit River watersheds