Saving Nature at Ives Road Fen

Cutleaf Toothwort Dentaria laciniata (Chuck Pearson)

Can we save nature? This question has vexed humans for some time.  Several generations ago, we wanted to be saved from nature: from the wild animals beyond the campfire, floods and droughts, storms at sea. Then, with our increased technological prowess, the question became seemingly irrelevant.  For the last four decades, since the first Earth Day, as we became more fully aware that we depend on nature to sustain us, some people have worked, even fought, to save nature.  And thanks to efforts by people organized through groups like The Nature Conservancy, much of nature has been saved.

Now, as we confront the complexities of the relationship between humans and nature, we seem more conflicted.  Perhaps we have saved enough of nature, and some people believe it’s not worth the additional effort to save any more.  Others are discouraged about how much of nature keeps slipping away and are angered about our slow progress in saving it.  And some, looking hard at the foundations of nature–the chemistry and physics of our world–are alarmed.

Why, and for whom, and how are we saving nature?  All tough questions that are rightly being asked.  The answers are not always easy, and the implications behind the questions, not to mention the answers, challenge how we live and what we believe.  All of it can tax my energy, or startle me awake  in the night.  But on a beautiful Saturday in May, I found a curative for the discomfort from, if not a full answer to, the question, “Can we save nature?”

Garlic Mustard, a pungent plant introduced by European settlers, threatens the Nature of the Great Lakes. It grows in our northern woods and crowds out the cutleaf toothwort, the trillium, the trout lily, and all the other signature wildflowers that make being out in May in Michigan so special.  Like many others who care for a special place in the woods, I have spent many a Saturday gently pulling out garlic mustard in the Spring before it goes to seed.  While I usually donate my time in a woodlot along the Shiawassee River, recently I spent a day at The Nature Conservancy’s Ives Road Fen Preserve which straddles the River Raisin south of Tecumseh.

Every Saturday from April through November, volunteers work somewhere on the 700 acres Ives Road Fen Preserve.  In the Spring, the primary task is removal of garlic mustard from the floodplain forest; its health is important to the quality of the watershed and the River.  In Fall, volunteer efforts are directed to removing woody plants from another part of the Preserve: a rare fen that stretches out below the bluff of a glacial moraine, but above the River.  A fen is a wetland fed by the underground flow of water, rather than collected surface water (see my earlier post “Marsh, Fen, or Swamp?”).  The water is highly alkaline and whole communities of special plants live only in this ecosystem. The fen at Ives Road is particularly diverse in the flora and fauna found there: the white flowers of of prairie Indian plantain and the song of Blanchard’s cricket frog are two of the highly valued rare species that live in the fen.

Preservation Depends on Restoration at Ives Road Fen and for many other parts of nature.  When the site was acquired in 1987, many unique plants were identified, but they were in danger of disappearing because of several invasive plants, most notably glossy buckthorn, an ornamental plant that spreads quickly into open areas like a fen.  In addition, drainage tiles and ditches had been installed on the property in an unsuccessful attempt to make it productive for agricultural uses.  Nearby, gravel pits had been dug and suburban development encroached on the site.  Saving this piece of nature would require more than buying it.

The Nature Conservancy has made a significant investment in Ives Road Fen.  Not only buying the original fen and acquiring surrounding lands, but in re-engineering hydrology to restore the natural flow of water, carefully burning parts of the sites to encourage the growth of native plants, and attacking the invasive species that had degraded original environment.  Scientists have closely studied the site, and restoration professionals have guided the work, to ensure that the right actions were taken at the right time in the right places, but it has been volunteer labor that has made possible the restoration of Ives Road Fen.

Just a few seasons ago, The Nature Conservancy declared victory with the removal of the last adult glossy buckthorn, a milestone achieved after thousands of hours of volunteer work.  An estimated 2.5 million buckthorn stems have been cut, and more than 400 piles of debris have been burned; in addition, thousands of purple loosestrife and other invasive plants have been eliminated.  The end result is the expansion of a damaged six acre wetland to a functioning fen of 100 acres.

Why Bother? is a question some may ask.  Countless individuals have dedicated large parts of their professional and volunteer lives to this restoration project.  School groups, employees from Ford and Delta, Americorps workers, and Saturday warriors have battled muck, bugs, thorns, heat, cold, poison sumac and other discomforts to save a wetlands that to the untrained eye may not seem that special.  And the work must continue, with prescribed burns, removal of new invasive species, and other maintenance projects.  A stand of rare oaks, remnants of the oak openings that used to define this part of the Great Lakes till plain, survives and, with attention, could once again thrive.  Fields are being restored as prairies, gravel pits returned to nature, and woodland wildflowers are being uncovered from smelly weeds.

My first visit to the Preserve came after several days of struggling with big issues like the threats to the Great Lakes and the changing climate of the Earth. For me, I found the task of pulling out individual garlic mustard plants a simple task, that was profound in its meaning and its effect.  I was humbled to be in a woods I could not see beyond, and humbled to know that my one morning’s effort paled in comparison to the work of the regular and frequent volunteers working with me. But I thought of all the damage done to this place, and all the harm done to nature elsewhere, and my singular action became not just a tiny offering of help to this Preserve; rather, it helped restore me as well.  Call it a romantic idyll, or karma, or atonement, but I came away from the day inspired to do more, to act on the opportunities–large and small– before me.

How can we save nature? One plant and one person at a time, in one place that matters to us.   Chuck Pearson, the volunteer who has directed his retirement years to restoring Ives Road Fen Preserve, answers the question of “Why?” most directly: “I like the plants; I like the animals.  I feel like it’s something I can save.”

TNC’s Roldofo Zuniga-Villegas and volunteer Chuck Pearson, two of the many people dedicated to restoration

How to Visit – How to Help — Ives Road Fen Preserve is not generally open to the public, but special tours are possible:  click here to learn more about the Preserve.

The best way to visit the Preserve is on a Saturday morning as a volunteer.  Click here to learn more about how you can help restore and preserve this special area.  The Preserve also has a Facebook page.

Volunteers on a recent workday (Chuck Pearson)                                             

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