Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

The Inspirational American Dream

american dream costco

Figure 1: Advertisement on a shopping cataloge for Costco.

Figure 2: Composition of 2009 U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Source: Economic report of the President, 2011, Table B-1. Retrieved 12 January 2012 from <http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/uwe-e-reinhardt/page/3/&gt;

Figure 3: Political cartoon of US Consumer Happiness Graph Since 2000. Source: <http://thedailydose.com/2011/09/04/us-consumer-happiness-graph-since-2000/&gt;. Retrieved 12 January 2012.

Updated Employment Qualifications page coming soon

I am seeking career opportunities in natural history interpretation, watershed management, and conservation outreach. I will soon be updating my Employment Qualifications page, so please check back soon!

Thank you,
Alex Palmer

Notes and Thoughts: Battle Creek Nature Education Society

The opinions and commentary expressed in this blog post are my own.   Therefore, they do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the following organizations:

  • Battle Creek Nature Education Society
  • Calvert County Natural Resources Division
  • The Student Conservation Association
  • Americorps
  • National Park Service, Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network
Introduction
The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, and is something I am happy to have been a part of.  The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed is enormous and diverse.  A drop of water that lands on the ground high up in the mountains of New York, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia slides its way down through rushing rivers and hemlock gorges, past dense urban areas, and into a large bay filled with grabs, jellyfish, and shorebirds.  It also stands as one of America’s most successful environmental efforts.  The Bay, much like other large bodies of water across the United States, was nearly paralyzed by 20th century industrial blight and destruction.  In time, however, numerous different groups ranging from environmentalists, fisherman, recreational boaters, politicians, Native Americans, and ordinary citizens came together and began cleaning and restoring the Bay.  Prior to European Settlement, it was said by early writers that the Bay’s waters were crystal clear and that oyster reefs were so large they protruded out of the water and that boaters had to be careful not to crash into them (Lippson and Lippson, 2006).
As Bay restoration efforts and environmental awareness increased, the federal government became more involved.  One of those government actions was the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a system of local, state, and national parks, trails, historic sites, museums, and a plethora of other natural and cultural assets.  Coordinated by the renowned National Park Service, key places within the Chesapeake Bay watershed were given national significance (Photo G).
For the fall of 2011, I was a naturalist intern with the Battle Creek Nature Education Society in Calvert County, Maryland.   The parks that I worked in are joined in with the Gateways Network, and the quality of their nature education programs reflects the importance of their parks and facilities in telling the story of the Chesapeake Bay.  The nature parks are operated directly by the county though their natural resources division.
I had the opportunity to work in two of Calvert County, Maryland’s three main nature parks.
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary & Nature Center
During the early 1950s, the newly established Nature Conservancy began acquiring land.  One of their first land purchases for the state of Maryland was the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp (Photo A).  A cypress swamp is a forested wetland dominated by the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), an unusual tree on two accounts:  (1) it is in the same group of trees as pines and spruces (referred to as conifers, or cone-bearing plants) yet it looses its leaves in the fall much in the same way oaks and maples shed their foliage; (2) the horizontal roots produce “knees”, or upward projects of the roots that give the swamp area a primordial appearance (see Photos A and B).

Photo A: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp near Prince Frederick, MD. September 2011.

Photo B: The upward protrusions of the roots of the bald cypress, referred to as "knees."

The Nature Conservancy managed to protect 100 acres of this unique site, preventing future logging that nearly decimated the swamp during the first half of the 20th century.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Calvert County purchased about 20 acres of defunct tobacco farmland and constructed the region’s first nature center   As budget and programs increased in size and variety, the nature center expanded to include a classroom, interactive exhibits on the swamp, the Chesapeake Bay, and the cultural history of the Chesapeake bay tributary known as Battle Creek (named by early European settlers after the town of Battle, England) (Photo C).  The exhibits also feature live captive animals native to the region.

Photo C: The preserve's namesake, Battle Creek, named after the town of Battle, England.

The preserve also features a boardwalk through the swamp.  The boardwalk is made almost entirely out of recycled milk bottles (Photo D).  On the tract of land owned by Calvert County, a somewhat longer trail winds around the old Tobacco Farm, an industry once common and mainstream in Southern Maryland (see Photo E).

Photo D: Boardwalk made of recycled milk bottles through the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp.

Photo E: The old tobacco farm tenant house, now owned and partially restored by the Calvert County Natural Resources Division.

Photo F: Wildflowers now bloom in what was once an old Tobacco farm.

Cypress swamps and the bald cypress tree itself are normally found further south, such as along the Southeast Atlantic Coast or in the lower Mississippi valley.  Cypress trees are closely related to the renowned Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia sp), commonly planted in Asian-style gardens.

Photo G: The Battle Creek Cypress Swamp and Flag Ponds Nature Park are both a part of the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, as indicated by this sign.

Flag Ponds Nature Park

The other park I worked in was Flag Ponds Nature Park, located right along the Chesapeake Bay.  As sand and mud eroded from the nearby ‘Calvert Cliffs’ and other areas of the county, accumulation began forming the  somewhat sinuous beach of Flag Ponds Nature Park (see photo H).  The actual cliffs are outside of the park boundaries, but can easily be seen from the beach (Photo I).

Photo H: The beach at Flag Ponds Nature Park on a sunny early October morning. Fall 2011.

Photo I: A small section of a sand-mud cliff that helps feed sediment into Flag Ponds Beach.

The park was named for the numerous ponds and shallow wetlands that were cut off from the Bay via the accumulation of sand and debris.  The name ‘Flag Ponds’ was coined for the presence of the colorful Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) that blooms bright blue along the fringes of the pond in the spring (unfortunately, I was there in the fall).

The dune areas near the beach had interesting vegetation.  Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) and the evergreen shrub known as wax myrtle (Myrica sp.) dominate the maritime forests of the park, while near the dunes, a plant most would not expect to see along the east coast of the United States grows the eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) (see Photo J).

Photo J: Prickly pear cactus near the beach at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

The park also has a fishing pier that is frequently used for education programs (Photo K), as well as a visitor center and an education building with classrooms (Photo I).

Photo K: Fishing pier on the Chesapeake Bay on a breezy October afternoon. 2011. Flag Ponds Nature Park beach.

Photo L: Education Building at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

Environmental Education

The Battle Creek Nature Education Society (BCNES) in cooperation with the county, partnered with the Student Conservation Association and Americorps to enhance their nature programs and to create a learning opportunity for conservation educators of the future.  The BCNES’s programs are kid-oriented at an extreme.  Programs geared towards toddlers all the way to middle school students and scout groups are abundant and affordable.  One program I helped to lead and coordinate was an environmental education workshop with local middle school students in Calvert County.  Calvert County Public Schools require students to participate in a series of hands-on outdoor workshops and science projects that explore the marine live of the Chesapeake Bay.  This allows local youth to develop an appreciation for the Bay and to learn valuable in-field technical skills. Photo M shows myself teaching the water quality portion of a workshop on the benefits of oysters in the Bay’s ecosystem (such as filtering pollution, creating habitat for other animals, a food source, etc.).  These outdoor programs, which take place at the county’s main nature parks, is coordinated by the natural resources division and the local school district via their CHESPAX office.

Photo M: Calvert County 5th graders learn about the Chesapeake Bay through hands-on outdoor fieldwork on a sunny October day in the Fall of 2011 along the boardwalk at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

The BCNES includes countless other programs on a year round basis.

Conclusion

The quality and level of resource protection in Calvert County’s nature parks is commensurate to the diversity of programs geared towards youth and students.  The opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art nature preserve system and the chance to earn Americorps education award dollars made this program, by far, the best internship that I have ever undertaken.  The Chesapeake Bay now hold more meaning for me, joining an elite category of North American natural resources that rivals places from the mountains and prairies to the sea.

References

Lippson, A. J., & Lippson, R. L. (2006). Life in the Chesapeake Bay.  Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hurricane Fungus: My Hurricane Irene Aftermath Hyopthesis

It has been said that when colonists settled the peaceful woodlands of the eastern United States, the overstory of the forests there was around 30-40% American Chestnut.  American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was an important food source for nearly every animal in forests across the eastern United States and Canada (see Figure 2).  It was also the  origin of the traditional “chestnuts on an open fire” cooed by so many holiday time singers (Asian varieties of chestnuts are used today).

But something happened beyond the power of our imagination.

During the 1800s and well into the 20th century, ornamental plants from Europe and Asia were regularly important into the “New” World.”  Never in its geological or cultural history had the North American continent seen so many new plant species being introduced onto its soils, and so many were planted at once across the landscape.  To compliment the beloved American Chestnut, a large variety of exotic Chestnuts were important – primarily though for ornamental purposes.  Accidentally imported in the cargo was a small, nearly microscopic fungus that became known as the Chestnut Blight.  

This disease ended up killing nearly every American Chestnut tree in the country.  In the “Old” World, the chestnut blight fungus had natural controls in place, but in the “wilderness” of the new land there was nothing ecologically adapted to stopping this voracious disease.   Today, any remaining chestnuts are reduced to mere shoots and sprouts that seldom survive more than a few years before giving way to the blight.

The fact that a dominant tree of the eastern forests quickly dropped out of sight left a void in the forest ecosystem.  In its place now stands the Tulip Tree (Lirodendron tulipifera), sometimes referred to as a ‘Tulip Poplar” although it is actually the northern most representative hardwood tree of the Magnolia Family (see Figure 1) (Sibley, 2009).

Figure 1: The showy flower of the Tulip Tree. Photo by P. Gibellini.

Figure 2: American Chestnuts were important for people, too. This cabin is made from the sturdy wood of the now defunct American Chestnut tree.

Although the tulip tree stands near or just above the  former abundance of the American Chestnut, there are nevertheless some serious consequences.  The tulip tree is a fast growing tree that can tolerate a moderate amount of disturbance in the soil.  In fact, I have even seen small tulip tree saplings growing out of a sidewalk crack!  Also, their root system sprawls out quite far horizontally, but  vertically its roots go down no more than a few feet.  The tops of these trees can reach heights in excess of 150 feet, which makes them rather top-heavy.  These factors combined with an erect profile make tulip-tree dominated forests and neighborhoods vulnerable to blow-downs from wind storms and heavy precipitation events (see Figure 4).  And that’s exactly what happened in the forests and rustic-style communities of Southern Maryland during Hurricane Irene of 2011 (see Figure 3 to give you an idea of the extent that the dominance of Tulip Trees has had in Southern Maryland).

Figure 3: Damage to a tulip-tree dominated forest as a result of microburst winds from Hurricane Irene.

Therefore, in this context, the chestnut blight could be labeled as a ‘hurricane fungus.’  If I’m right, the effects from Hurricane Irene in August of 2011 could have produced significantly lower damage if wooded areas were still dominated by the American Chestnut.  This would then perhaps reminds us that invasive species, whether introduced purposely or accidentally, can have a domino effect on the landscape…and on our wallets (for example, FEMA recently exhausted its budget).

Here is what you can do, now that our so-called hurricane fungus is among us:

  • Avoid planting Tulip Trees near your house.  Even if you do not live in a hurricane-prone region, high winds from any weather system could make this weedy and wobbly tree a hazard.
  • Cut down any tulip trees that may be growing close to your home or yard.
  • Use native plants in landscaping from local sources.
  • Support environmental initiatives to help control and reduce the occurrence of exotic plant and animal breakouts.
  • Educate yourself about the presence of non-native and invasive species by visiting a local nature center or  any natural resources education facility
  • Encourage neighbors and friends to use native plants in their yards.
  • Get active!  Contact your local politicians and state representatives and encourage them to pass legislation that would create improved regulations on plant and animal trades and imports.
References
 Sibley, D. A. (2009). The Sibley guide to trees. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Figure 4: A large tulip tree uprooted after Hurricane Irene.

Litter bug or dork? The truth about littering

I used to get made fun off when someone would drop a soda can or a candy wrapper on the ground and I would harshly call them out on it.  “Don’t litter!”  I would say as I desperately tried to pick up all of the little plastic or Styrofoam scraps my peers would toss all over the ground.  I would either then be referred to as a tree hugger or dork, and I would attempt a half-assed ‘comeback’ by shouting “litter bugs!” at my capricious classmates and frienemies.

Was I just overreacting?  Are environmentalists being too mellow-dramatic about the whole littering thing?  I have thought about this for a long time now.  I see people litter everyday.  Along the road someone will toss a bottle out or dump a container of oil into the drain.  Illegal dumping is a real problem in lower income rural areas, such as as Southern Ohio where I spent several months in.

Maybe I should not be so vocal about my opposition to littering.   Besides, I don’t want to keep getting called a ‘treehugger’ and I don’t want to be a ‘save the whales’ hippie.

Yet the truth is, littering is a big problem.  But the concern goes well beyond the environment.  This is an issue that crosses well into the economic line.  Littering has and is contining to have effects on our quality of life.   It kills local wildlife, costing hundreds of dollars in trying to save wild animals that have’t choked or been poisoned.   It is clogging our storm drains and creating an visual eyesore causing thousands of dollars in damage to homes and business from flooding and debris as well as lowering land values in areas with high litter rates, respectively.   The affects of pollution from landfills and from illegal dumping sites are costing millions of dollars in infrastructural damage, not accounting for the loss of human life from toxic leaks and contaminated groundwater.  Finally, litter is costing billions of dollars on a national and international level, with countless numbers of bottles, candy wrappers, car parts, motor oil, and high-level toxins clogging our marine fisheries and accumulating in stagnant ocean currents.

So I really don’t think that when I whine and scream and moan and groan after you throw your Coca-Cola bottle outside on the ground that I am overreacting.   But perhaps I can leave you with something more than fear mongering.  Below is a list of things you can do to help prevent and reduce (and hopefully eliminate) littering wherever you go.

  • Teach your kids from the earliest age that you can not to litter.  Repeat this message several times throughout the child’s life.
  • Pick up 3-5 pieces of litter everyday.  If 10 people did this every day of the year in a given area, 10, 950-18,250 pieces of litter could be removed in your neighborhood alone!
  • Ensure that lawn furniture and any loose objects you have in your backyard are secured or are brought inside.  For example, beer cans could get blown away in a sudden wind event after you have gone inside for the night.  Bringing in those beer cans and party ornaments could prevent new sources of litter.
  • Purchase products that have less bulky packaging or less packaging overall.
  • When heading out for a picnic or a walk in the park, pack in it pack it out.  This means that any trash that you create you should bring back with you and dispose of at your house, apartment, hotel, etc.  As budgets across the country are reduced, city park managers have less staff and time to empty out public trash cans.  Parks and recreation facilities in remote areas may not have trash cans at all.
  • Clean up after your dog, even in your own backyard.  Doggie doo does breakdown, but as it does it leaves a variety of bacteria and parasites into the soil, which can have adverse affects on  the health of local wildlife populations, as well as polluting sources of drinking water for people.
  • Support local community service groups both politically and financially that help clean up illegal dump sites.  Volunteer with one of them if you have the time.
Even something as ‘small’ as littering can have a huge impact on the environment, and yes even our economy.  It is not going to be people like me that are going to go out and save the world from all of the trash.
It is going to be you.  

A natural history thought: box turtles and paw-paw trees

I had this thought the other week.  I was looking through a field guide on trees of North America.  I was looking at the range of where paw-paw trees grow (Asimina triloba).  Paw-paws are medium-sized understory trees that are common throughout most of the eastern United States.   They have large banana-like leaves and a mango-sized fruit with a sweet, custard-like flavor and texture.  The genus Asimina is a group of trees much more common in tropical forests.  However, there are a few species of this edible fruited tree that is native to temperate forests of the eastern United States.  It’s western range extends from Southwest Michigan down to about a few hours North of the Gulf; its northern range extends from Southwest Michigan down through central Ohio and central Pennsylvania, and on its eastern range down to Northeast Georgia.  They are well prized for their non-so-coincidentally tropical tasting fruits that come in early fall.

Earlier that day, I was also looking at the range map for the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina).  If I had remembered correctly, the range map for the eastern box turtle was nearly the same as it was for the paw-paw tree.  I immediately flipped open my field guide on North American reptiles and amphibians and glanced at the range map for the eastern species of the box turtle.  It ends up I was right!

My next question was:  Is there a relationship with eastern box turtles and paw-paw trees.  Looking at the two maps, and knowing a bit about the box turtle’s habitat, I thought that it may be possible that there is a relationship among these two forms of life.  Paw-paw trees are common in eastern mesophytic forests.   The word mesophytic refers to the moisture and acidity of the soil (the dirt) in these types of forests.  Mesophyic forests are middle ground in terms of how wet the soil is and how acidic or basic the soil is.  The range of these types of forests matches the range with the paw-paw tree and for the most part, the range of the eastern box turtle.   In Michigan, paw-paw trees and eastern box turtles are most common in the Southwest portion of the state – this is where the northernmost area of eastern mesophytic forests are.

 

So what then, brings paw-paw trees and eastern box turtles together?  Well, I’m not sure.  To be honest, I am not even really sure there is a close relationship between these two things.  One of the characteristics about natural history versus laboratory biology is that you sometimes have to develop hypotheses without having all of the formalized data and observations you would need.  This sort of science is neither perfect nor precise.  Rather it keeps the mind thinking and it deepens the connection one has with the natural world.  Even if my hypothesis that there is an ecological relationship between paw-paw trees and eastern box turtles ends up being a meaningless statement, then at least I can say it was worth the thought.

Paw-paw trees form a canopy over a trail through a forest in Southern Maryland.

A new kind of park: The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

Parks are great.  They offer is peace and relaxation, and they help us protect and study our natural resources.  But parks, like any sort of cultural boundary, become limited when examined on a larger scale.  For example, people know that Paris is the capital of France, and that France is its own country defined by the boundaries given to it by people.  Yet, in its natural and cultural history, France’s boundaries, like many places, become less defined.  In fact, those boundaries can stifle efforts to preserve natural and historical resources that, politics aside, are directly connected with one another.

So let’s head to a new kind of park.  A park where the boundaries are set based on the idea of an ecoregion.  An ecoregion is a land or water area that has similar traits in its topography and life.  For example, the Rocky Mountains, or the forests of the northeastern United States, are all somewhat similar despite unique political boundaries.

By the  middle of the 1980s, people were beginning to become concerned about the rapidly declining state of the Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary (the interface of smaller bodies of water, such as a river, meet with a larger body of water that has a different water chemistry such as an ocean) in the United States, and is perhaps one of our most ecologically diverse ecoregions.  The bay and its watershed encompasses over 64,000 square miles of forest, mountains, cities, and industrial lands across parts of  Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and all of Washington, D.C. (see Figures 1 and 2) (US EPA, 2010).  Please note that the watershed includes parts of the region that are a great deal of distance from the actual bay itself, as shown in Figure 2A.  That means both natural and human forces directly affect the bay anywhere within the watershed.

Figure 1: The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. Image retrieved 21 September 2011 from <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9b/Chesapeakewatershedmap.png&gt;

Figure 2: The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed cover a wide range of landscapes. (A) Even in places way up in the mountains, natural and human activities directly affect the bay. (B) The watershed also has many urban areas (photo by Andrii Cherniak) but also includes (C) forests, (D) tidal marshes and basins (Photo by Robert Palmer), (D) industrial lands, and (F) meadows and agricultural fields.

Because this one ecosystem encompasses so many boundaries, the only way to restore the bay from all of the pollution and development it had been enduring was to connect people and give access to the Bay’s resources.  One single park with a nature trail or a museum could not do that for an area that has millions of people living in it.  They needed to go beyond the classic idea of a park.  Today, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network links up dozens upon dozens of parks, nature preserves, recreational areas, museums, historical sites, and business districts.  These parks and and historical areas are owned and managed by various government and non-government agencies in a network administered by the National Park Service.

This new sort of take on a park, in the form of a network, has helped to increase the environmental quality of the bay, as well as sustaining the economic vitality of the region.  From historic site-seeing, marine fisheries protection, bird habitat, and sustainable economics, this diverse ecosystem offers us a chance to learn from the past, live peacefully in the present, and feel confident about the future.

References

US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). (2010). Chesapeake bay compliance and enforcement strategy.  Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/compliance/civil/../chesapeake-strategy-enforcement.pdf

Natural History Notes: an ecological glance at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Please take note:  The views and commentary expressed in this blog post are my own, and they do not necessarily represent the opinions or viewpoints of the National Park Service, The Student Conservation Association, or any of its staff members or affiliated organizations.  

This past summer (2011), I served the National Park Service as a Student Conservation Association natural resources intern at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (NHP) in Chillicothe, OH.  This ~1,500 acre park is separated into five different sites across Ross County, Ohio.     The park preserves some of the 1,000+ year old earthworks of a late prehistoric Native American culture known for building ceremonial and burial mounds and earthworks (Photo A).  My job, however, was focused on conserving the natural resources of the park.

Photo A: Hopewell Mounds and Earthworks at the Mound City park unit.

The park generally has three main habitat types:  (1) Semi-mature woods (Photos B and C), (2) fallowed (left to grow wild) fields (see photos D and E), and riparian woods and fields (naturalized areas along rivers and streams as shown in Photo F).

Photo B: Woodland area at the High Banks Earthworks unit.

Photo C: Woodland area at Hopewell Mound Group with spring wildflowers.

Photo D: Fallowed (weedy fields) at the Hopeton Earthworks.

Photo E: Fallowed field at the Hopeton Earthworks unit. Some of the former agricultural fields have been partially reseeded with native prairie flowers, such as these Purple Coneflowers.

Photo F: Riparian habitat along Paint Creek at the Seip Mound unit.

The park also contains one permanent body of water within park boundaries.  An old farm pond now filled with a diverse amount of aquatic plants and animals is present at the Hopewell Mound Group unit of the park.

The park in general lies at an interesting ecotone (an ecological transition zone).  During the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago), the glaciers extended all the way down to the base of what is now the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  Therefore, everything north of the glaciers was flattened like a pancake (making for some rather bland scenery now that these lands have all been converted to cornfields and farms) and everything south remained hilly and rugged.  Chillicothe, Ohio and Hopewell Culture NHP lie right at this transition zone.  Prior to European settlement and during the Hopewell people’s time, this region was likely a mosaic of wetlands, oak-savannas, and mixed mesophytic temperate forests.  Wetlands are areas that have saturated soils most of the year, oak savannas are prairies dotted with occasional clumps of fire and drought resistant oak trees, and mixed mesophytic forests are a mix of hardwood trees in soil that has moderated amounts of moisture and acidity.

Unfortunately, most of the area has seen the hard hand of farmers, developers, and industry over the last 200 years.  The wetlands are now gone.  The oak savannas remain as tiny parcels of land in someone’s backyard, and the forests have been chopped into smaller and weedier woodlots.  All of these adverse affects of European settlement and 20th century industrial development are evident in the park.

In addition, there are still some differences in land management practices because of the presence of rare archaeological remains of the Hopewell people.  In many of the fallowed fields, park administrators have blocked most proposals to seed the fields in the park into native grassland or forest in order to prevent further disruption of cultural resources of the park (although you do have to wonder, isn’t a plow more damaging that native trees or grasses?).  This has left many areas of the park dominated by mostly non-native weeds (see photo G).

Photo G: Many of the former agricultural fields have been left to fallow and grow with weeds in order to supposedly protect archaeological resources. This field at Hopetown earthworks is dominated mainly by non-native grasses and forbes.

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) is a highly aggressive exotic plant that quickly overtakes many open field areas and can thrive even in the most degraded soils (even areas such as gravel mounds or decaying trash piles!).   Another non-native old field plant is Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) even poses threats to corn and soybean fields.  And if that’s not enough for you, the wooded areas of the park units are “under attack”  from garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata), Asian Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica),   and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera (japonica).  In some of the more mature fields, we also have an invasion of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

Okay, so what do we do about these invasive plants that threaten the ecological diversity of the park?

To some the answer may seem obvious:  remove them.  However, given the large expanses of invasive species in the park and a skeleton crew natural resources staff, it is unrealistic to remove ALL of the exotic vegetation in the park.  Rather, we can attempt to reduce the overall cover of invasive species and create some “breathing room” for native plants, referred to as invasive species management or invasive species control.  See photo H.

Photo H: Myself mowing a near monoculture of Canada Thistle in preparation for herbicide application. Photo by Dafna Reiner.

The park also has some minor problems with erosion and vandalism.  But why am I give you all of this doom and gloom?  Why am I not talking about all of the great birds seen in the park or about the nice hiking trails and picnic areas this place offers?  The answer is that this internship marks a new direction for my career in the environmental field.

While I hope to include natural resources management as an element of my career, it cannot and will not be my full-time duty.  This sort of work, despite what people may think from watching the Discovery Channel or seeing “wildlife” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, is difficult work that often goes unrecognized by others even within the environmental field, both financially and politically.  It also involves a tremendous amount of mechanical skills and flexibility.  It is for these reasons that I believe I could best service the conservation movement working as an environmental educator and conservation outreach coordinator.

While environmental outreach is not necessarily easier or better paying than natural resource management, it IS something I am much better at it is something that is rewarding and sometimes quite fun.  I also feel I can make a difference for the better, and yes, feel rewarded for it, too.  Also, because I have those grueling natural resource management experiences, I can now reach out to people inside and outside of the environmental profession in order to increase their knowledge of an empathy of the work that is needed.

We must become stewards of the land.  Nature is no longer wild and free.  It needs our help and it depends on us for better or for worse.  It is my hope that I can help keep things on the “better” side.

The nature trail at the Mound City Group unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio as it winds through a floodplain forest in early spring.

Just ditch it: The fate of Plyleys Run

A large ditch runs past my apartment complex in Chillicothe, Ohio.  It’s a long ditch, extending from some ponds at a housing complex near US 50 and traveling all the way down Plyleys Lane into Paint Creek.  In fact, the more I gaze at this ditch, the more I realize that it isn’t a ditch.  Why?  Many sections of the ditch have trees and plants growing in and along it.  The ditch also consistently has some water flow in it.  Also, the ditch meanders somewhat away from Plyleys Lane, an otherwise linear two-lane road.  Most importantly, the ditch lies at the bottom of a valley, a sure sign that this ditch was once a naturally flowing stream that has now been modified in order to allow for all of the housing developments, including the one I am in.  However, since I am the only one that seems to notice this stream (or even care), I will have to give this unnamed tribuarty of Paint Creek (a large creek near my apartment complex) a name.  Since it runs along Plyleys lane, I will call it Plyleys Run (see Map 1 for where this stream is located and see Photos A and B for what this stream currently looks like).

Map A: Approximate course of "Plyley's Run." Paint creek is just south of the range of this map and is not shown.

Photo A: "Plyley's Run" as it passes my apartment complex off of Plyley's Lane in Chillicothe, Ohio. Notice how the channel of the stream has been straightened and lined with cobbles, and how there is little vegetation along its banks. It looks more like a man made ditch than a natural creek.

Photo B: Another shot of "Plyley's Run" looking upstream.

This sort of modification of a natural stream into a narrow ditch is nothing unique to Plyles Run.   It has happened to dozens of small streams and tributaries across the United States.  Rivers and creeks that we don’t find glorious and scenic are often destroyed or manipulated in ways that we see as fit.  Based upon my observations of other small valleys like the one I live in, Plyleys Run may have looked something like the small stream shown in Photo C.

Photo C: "Plyley's Run" may have at one time looked something like this stream. This picture is of Stoney Creek in the Scioto Trail State Park and Forest in southern Ross County, Ohio.

We must become advocates of “underdog” streams and creeks.  We must modify not the waterway itself but rather the way we do development in the valleys of these small runs.  Filling in our landscape’s nooks and crannies damages wildlife habitat, increases erosion, and can degrade our drinking water.  It also weakens the aesthetics of our towns and communities.  Let’s not bear  any longer the fate of Plyley’s Run.

A trickle of water flows down a small tributary of Baker's Fork on a wet spring day at Fort Hill State Memorial in Highland County, Ohio.

Come take a hike! A Photo-hike of an Ohio Appalachian nature preserve

Has it been a busy week for you?  Has the news and all the recent politics got you down?  Is the dog barking too loud?  Well rather than joining a church or eating excessive amounts of chocolate, I would like to invite you on a short but rejuvenating journey through the mixed hardwood forests of the Appalachian Foothills in southern Ohio.  Our “virtual hike” will take us through the Earl H. Barnhart Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve, owned and operated by the Ross County Park District and located near Chillicothe, OH (see Map 1).

Map 1: Location of the Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve, indicated by the red circle with the green arrow on this satellite map. Please click on the map to enlarge.

Map 2: Glacial Map of Ohio. Published by ODNR Division of Geological Survey and retrieved 17 August 2011 from <http://www.ohiodnr.com/Portals/10/pdf/glacial.pdf&gt; Please click to enlarge.

This nature preserve is located on a geological interface of unglaciated Allegheny Plateau, an area of hilly land that comes off of the Appalachian Mountains, and the glaciated Allegheny Plateau, hilly land that has been impacted by the last glacial period (about 10,000 years ago).  To the northwest of this preserve (as in only a few miles!) starts the outwash plains of the Midwest (you know, all of those flat cornfields?), and Map 2 shows how South-Central Ohio is where many of these regions meet.

As you enter the preserve, you are greeted by a large White Oak (Quercus alba) standing somewhat awkwardly in a mixed mesophytic Allegheny forest (See Photo A for the white oak and Photo B for the forest.  Mixed implies various different over-story trees, such as Tulip Trees (Liriodendron tulipiefera), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), red oak (Quercus ribra), and Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) to name just a few.  That fancy word’mesophytic’ means that the soil is intermediate in terms of how much water it has and how acidic it is.  And I’m saying that these woods are ‘Allegheny’ in that, despite being located at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, are more typical of regions just to the north with respect to what plants are present there.

Photo A: White oak sprawled out in a shaded area of woods at the Earl H. Barnhart Buzzard's Roost Nature Preserve on a warm summer day in June, 2011.

Photo B: Mixed mesophytic forest at Earl H. Barnhart Buzzard's Roost Nature Preserve as seen from the South Point Lookout Trail in August 2011.

Let’s head down the trail a bit now.  We’ll start off on the South Point Lookout Trail and head deeper into the park.  The trail starts off fairly easy as it utilized a service drive (see photos C and D below).

Photo C

Photo D

I then came to an open field where the Ross County Park District is working on developing a nature education building from a farm house that was recently restored (Photo E).  Also, next door is a beautiufl picnic shelter that can be reserved for groups and however else (Photo F).  This shelter also has restrooms with flush toilets when on reserve!

Photo E: Nature Education building at Buzzard's Roost.

Photo F: Reservable picnic shelter at the Buzzard Roost Nature Preserve.

The trail then turns off of the service road and begins heading into the woods.  As walked into the forest canopy, the air temperature became cooler.  I noticed off in the woods was another opening…only this time it wasn’t another grassy field.  Instead, it was the breathtaking Paint Creek Gorge (see Photo G), a 300 foot deep ravine with nearly vertical cliffs of the Berea sandstone (see Photo H) that winds through the Appalachian Foothills:

Photo G: Paint Creek Gorge.

Photo H: A Berea sandstone cliff overlooking the Paint Creek Gorge.

Photo I

After taking in the rather unexpected view,  I walked back to the nature education building via a field of bright yellow goldenrod (Salidago spp.) (see photo I) and made one last final stop.  It was a memorial plaque to the folks who donated the land to the park district, and it gave me a reason to come here that goes beyond just any old afternoon hike in the park:

Photo J: Plaque commemorating Earl H. Barnhart and his wife, who donated the land to the Ross County Park District.

Thank you for joining me.

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