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    Laboratory without Walls
    by Betty Gabrielli
     
Photo: Laboratory without Walls

Photo: Laboratory without Walls

Photo: Laboratory without Walls

Photo: Laboratory without Walls

Photo: Laboratory without Walls

(Courtesy of the Environmental Studies Program)
 Photo: Laboratory without Walls
 Courtesy of the Environmental Studies Program
November 8, 2003 — If you plant them–sweetflag, swamp hibiscus, milkweed, marsh rose, cardinal flower, prairie chordgrass, foxglove, 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 of Oberlin.

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 Initiative 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 ecology class.

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 studies 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 research."

The future promises to be even more interesting. Next summer, at least one Oberlin student will be hired to help manage the site and to 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 thesis.
    
   
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