Smitely Wet Prairie Restoration Site — Saving Our Great Lakes through Collaboration
Do you enjoy boating and fishing around the Great Lakes? Or eating fresh produce from the farmers’ market? How about bird-watching? Or do you value hands-on, science-based learning experiences for Toledo area students? Or even having a glass of ice cold water after your morning run? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I encourage you to read on and learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s newest restoration project—the Smitely Wet Prairie Restoration located at Kitty Todd Nature Preserve in western Lucas County.
Smitely is a novel land conversion project that utilized soil scraping to transform previous row crop agricultural lands into Lake Plain Wet Prairie, which are some of the rarest, most diverse, and highest quality wetlands found in the state. This project is funded throgh the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative(GLRI) Maumee River Sediment and Nutrient Reduction Grant Program. At this point, you may be asking, what does moving soil and converting a piece of farmland to wetlands have to do with any of the activities listed above. Well, it is simple: they all are dependent on the availability of fresh, clean water of the Great Lakes watershed. The Smitely site is a novel example of how local agencies, non-profits, and school groups have come together to provide increased capacity for the Maumee River watershed–Lake Erie’s largest tributary–to capture, store, and purify our region’s integral freshwater resources.
Water is our greatest regional resource. The Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario—along with the rivers, channels, and lesser lakes feeding or draining them, constitute the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. They support many multi-billion-dollar fishing, shipping, farming, and recreational industries. The Great Lakes and their associated watersheds hold one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. To give you an idea of the volume of fresh water, John Mitchell of National Geographic, put it simply “if only the Earth were flat and the Great Lakes were dumped out, there’d be enough water here to flood all the land of the Western Hemisphere under two feet of water”
That is a lot of water! That water needs to remain reliably clean to sustain the cities, rural areas, and industries in the Midwest that depend on it. But who is responsible for safeguarding this resource? Many state and federal agencies work on this issue as part of their work, but The Nature Conservancy’s mission is solely to protect and preserve the land and waters that all life depend on. So, we saw Smitely as an opportunity to complete our mission and engage local stakeholders in the research, design, and maintenance of this site.
While this project is taking place on property that is owned by The Nature Conservancy in Ohio it is truly a collaborative effort with the University of Toledo. In 2010 The Nature Conservancy acquired a modest-sized farm off Garden Rd. with a ditch running straight through it. This ditch drained water off the farm into the nearby Ai Creek, which flows into the Maumee River. However, it decreased the site’s ability to function as a wetland. Furthermore, this location had potential to be high-quality wet prairie habitat based on historic maps and due to its connectivity to high-quality habitat found at Kitty Todd Nature Preserve. After a year of not farming this site, state-listed species were already recolonizing this parcel and it was beginning to capture and retain water.
It was obvious this piece of land was already acting as a wetland, and needed a small push to reach its full potential. Typically, with these previous farm lands, local agencies will restore it to habitat through removing invasive species and seeding it with local genotype species or planting buffers of shrubs and trees. However, using novel management techniques not typically used in the Oak Openings Region, TNC and University of Toledo professors believed that the Smitley site could provide more benefit to our community. Since the protection of fresh water through the reduction sediments and nutrients running off into the Maumee River influences everyone in our community, they believed by pursuing the EPA’s funding, it would open the door for large-scale collaboration.
Soil scientists, geographers, naturalists, and students provided their input and came up with a novel approach. Collectively, they decided to try a new technique. Five separate areas within the field were to be “scraped” of 1-2 feet of organic material and form roughly 4 acres of pothole wetland areas that will capture and retain open water into early summer, thereby providing important breeding and nursery habitat for the state endangered blue-spotted salamander, flood storage capacity, and locations to store salt and fertilizers that run-off from nearby roads and agricultural lands. Furthermore, by removing this higher nutrient topsoil, it will provide an opportunity for the seed bank, seeds that were deposited in the soil and stored during a time before agriculture, to germinate. The Oak Openings soil is typically low-nutrient and sandy, so native species that are adapted for those conditions often cannot compete in high nutrient conditions.
The EPA grant provided the funds to complete the restoration actions and share the results with stakeholders through establishing a trail system with informational signs, sending out press releases and providing workshops. However, there were no funds for research or biological monitoring to help learn from and track the success of the project. So, the University of Toledo graciously agreed to lend a hand and handle the monitoring of plants, nutrients. This collaboration not only helps us better learn from this project, but also provides an outdoor learning lab for students and teachers to use.
In the summer of 2016, Dr. Todd Crail sought out volunteers to assist with the pre-restoration monitoring. Eighteen high school teachers working on their Masters of Science Education degree, and seven other Univ. Of Toledo students and staff surveyed the site for plants to gather baseline data. Overall they found 113 plant species! Furthermore, small resin strips were deployed in the soil to track the starting nutrient level conditions and water quality. Once they had completed their surveys, The Nature Conservancy started the restoration.
By September, the mowing, herbicide, and soil moving work had been completed. Within weeks, the success of the project was obvious because the scrapes were holding rain water. Over the next few months, species like Western Chorus Frogs and marsh birds began visiting Smitely to use the space for breeding and foraging.
Photo: Aerial photo taken by drone of Smitely site, weeks after completion. Sparse tree line is location of previous ditch.
Even though the EPA grant ends summer of 2017, University of Toledo, The Nature Conservancy, and local volunteers have committed to continual monitoring and maintenance of the site. This summer UT students and staff will come back out again to survey the site to see what has changed. Snakes, salamanders, birds, lichens, plants, and water quality will continue to be tracked through these volunteer efforts. This site will be accessible in June by trails for visitors to the preserve to learn about the success of this restoration project, as well as local flora and fauna.
We invite you to come out this summer and visit the Smitley site and see one approach to protecting the Great Lakes’ watershed yourself!
Article by Julia Gehring and Ryan Gauger, The Nature Conservancy