November 8, 2003 — If you plant them–sweetflag, swamp
hibiscus, milkweed, marsh rose, cardinal flower, prairie chordgrass,
beardtongue–they will come.
Long-absent great white egrets and blue herons, leopard frogs, dragonflies,
and spring peepers are now gracing three acres of newly restored
wetlands on the College's George Jones Farm a few miles east
Wood ducks, Canadian geese, killdeer, and a bevy of sandpipers also
have appeared among the tussock and oval sedges, rushes, and cattails
already growing in the site's six water basins.
"The sandpipers just showed up–overnight," says
Brad Masi, executive director of the nonprofit Ecological Design
Center (EDIC), which runs the farm for the College. Delighted that
much-missed native and migratory birds are rapidly repopulating the
site, Masi sees their return as a clear sign that the wetlands restored
this summer by EDIC are taking hold.
Why restore wetland ecosystems? At a time when the forests and fields
of Northeast Ohio are rapidly falling victim to suburban sprawl,
Masi says that converting less productive and abandoned farmland
back into wetland ecosystems is a way not only to fight the sprawl
but also to enhance habitat quality on the remaining farms and improve
water quality in downstream ecosystems.
"The work currently underway on the wetlands–together with
the organic crops, orchard, and managed forest–is integral to the
Jones Farm," says
John Petersen, associate professor of environmental studies. "We
want to showcase the breadth of approaches that are collectively
necessary to achieve sustainable land use in Northeast Ohio."
EDIC broke ground in early May after having spent three years studying,
planning, and securing funds. Earth-moving equipment excavated six
half-acre basins and established dikes around each to retain water.
Control boxes to alter water levels were installed, the grade determined,
and topsoil containing seeds for aquatic vegetation was spread in
the basins. The excavated areas also were sown with rye grass and
other plants carefully selected to stabilize the soil, build organic
matter, and revive the habitat.
The site, however, is much more than fallow land brought back to
vibrant life. It is also a laboratory without walls–a first-class
training and research facility for Oberlin science faculty and students
designed to significantly advance an emerging branch of environmental
science: restoration ecology.
The six basins or "cells" are a set of replicated systems
with nearly identical hydrology, soil, size, and material and water
flow. Key factors, such as initial seeding, fertilization, and pest
management, can be manipulated in the systems. EDIC's aim?
To test a broad range of hypotheses exploring the best way to restore
and manage wetlands for maximum habitat and function.
Oberlin students doing field studies in biology and environmental
studies courses play critical roles in the testing. Taking part in
the initial experiments are junior Stephen Merrett and seniors Rebecca
Brooke and Catherine Bodnar, students in Petersen's systems
Because plant establishment is a critical but often neglected component
of restoration, their initial research is focused on different approaches
to planting, seeding, and management.
"The EDIC study is really important and useful," says Brooke,
a biology and environmental studies major." Since the government's
No Net Loss Program, which aims to save wetland acreage and value,
was implemented under the first President Bush, the number of constructed
wetlands has grown. It is vital that we understand how to build
them so that the ecosystems function like natural wetlands. Past
have shown that isn't always the case. Research projects like ours
will do much to improve wetland construction."
The trio has made several trips to the Jones Farm wetlands to collect
cores from the six cells. By analyzing the samples, they will obtain
baseline data on current soil properties, such as organic matter,
content, and texture.
"The data will be useful in monitoring how the different
planting techniques are affecting the wetland dynamics," says Merrett,
a junior with a double major in environmental studies and biology. "The
information is a crucial factor in properly interpreting the three
different planting and management treatments being used.
"I really find this project exciting," he adds. "Not only
does it involve both field and lab work in a new area, but we also
are learning concepts and techniques that allow us to engage in primary
The future promises to be even more interesting. Next summer, at
least one Oberlin student will be hired to help manage the site and
begin developing an automated data collection system. Adding graduate-level
depth and expertise to the research are wetlands restoration specialists
Jay Martin and Martin Quigley, professors at Ohio State University.
They were also instrumental in developing experimental designs and
initial treatments for the wetlands.
"The partnership between Oberlin and Ohio State University
is a vital part
of restoring the Jones Farm wetlands," Masi says, and he takes pride in
the relationship, which he and Petersen initiated. "A predominately undergraduate
institution and a graduate institution working together like this is truly unique."
And mutually beneficial. An OSU graduate student mentored by Martin and Quigley
has chosen the Jones Farm wetlands restoration as the subject of his master's