Number 99 at last!!

HOME AT LAST, to the final visit in my tour of Iowa’s 99 counties: my home for 20-some years, Marion County! In fact, this wetland is right on the campus of my home institution, Central College, where I’ve worked since moving to Iowa.

It seemed fitting to profile a site in my own backyard, as a sort of homecoming. Better still, I can turn over the blog to my students for this one! They’ve worked hard at the site, an old farm pond on the west end of campus, and I will let them tell the story. Please visit the web page they created as part of a group project for my colleague’s class (link below). But first, let me add a little background for context…

The environs near the wetland/pond, part of the athletic complex. Service Day started with a rare October snow…melted off as the day warmed.

This pond has been used for years, by myself and other profs, for aquatic ecology activities. When we did bathymetry in Limnology class years ago, we found the bottom to be fairly uniform, with firm footing and water depth of about 60-70 cm throughout. Obviously siltation has occurred since then, and it is shallower and more “squishy.” However, the notched outflow on the berm (earthen dam) has eroded a bit, likely to decrease the maximum water depth as well.

As far as I know, runoff from surrounding grassy fields—combination golf practice area and cross-country course—provides the sole water input aside from direct precipitation falling on the surface. During dry weather, no water flows out; however I haven’t seen the pond actually dry.

The pond is visible in the right half of this photo. It is almost completely covered by the tiny duckweed plants. Extensive trees and brush surrounded the pond before the crew got to work

The pond has minimal emergent macrophytes (cattail, bulrush) around the edge. Filamentous algal blooms in early Spring are followed by a thick covering of Duckweed, so an impetus for the project was my observations that the duckweed diminished both the habitat quality and our ability to use the pond. I suspected that clearing the dense plant growth from the slopes around the pond might help reduce the duckweed, and facilitate access for visitors.

Link to the student web page:

Pretty great, isn’t it? They did an outstanding job with both organizing a Service Day project (and follow-up extra work day), and then all the additional analyses. The web page tells the story, although there’s yet another product of their labors (I’ll share THAT, next week).

This is the last of the 99 wetlands for my epic trek across Iowa…but this is certainly not the end of the story. This campus wetland will allow this coming semester’s classes, and many well into the future, to learn more about wetlands and their inhabitants and functioning. I’m looking forward to that. But beyond this, I believe we need to step back and review the journey, and consider what it all means. Come back next week for my musings on 99wetlands, and beyond. Thanks for visiting!!

TEAMWORK. I really do appreciate the student’s hard work and the willingness of my colleague to “loan” me her Environmental Studies class…

The Waters Linger…

DSC_0285De Soto National Wildlife Refuge sits in an oxbow of the Missouri River, along Iowa’s western border. I visited in late October of last year, so I could X-off Harrison County on the 99wetlands map. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. The migrating waterfowl were present in force, and I was enjoying myself, being right there and living in the moment.

Or, I was trying to. But memories of the previous spring’s flooding were ever-present. Trails closed, roads and culverts washed out, high water under the Visitor’s Center building. Perhaps the Redheads, Coots, and Ibis all benefited from the water sitting here and there on soggy fields. But I had heard all the trouble it caused to the Refuge personnel. Emergency conditions, and all-hands working to keep things safe and secure. Up and down western Iowa, areas along the river were inundated, and the effects will be felt for years to come.

But let’s be thankful for the good news. De Soto is a beautiful facility in the perfect spot: a major flyway for birds such as the iconic Blue Goose, symbol of the entire Refuge System. When I visited, they had (finally!) reopened most areas of the Refuge, including the terrific Visitor’s Center, complete with attractive and informative displays, helpful staff, and—as I was excited to discover—an excellent bookshop!! You should come visit.

The staff here, and all those living along the river, are inexorably tied to a mighty force of nature. It affords opportunities for recreation and trade. The waters are always changing as they flow; one day a lovely vista, the next a dangerous threat. But…we really shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders at the inevitability of flood risk. As regular readers of this blog have discovered, we humans have changed the very nature…of Nature. We have altered the drainage of Iowa’s surface, delivering more water, more quickly to streams—thereby increasing flood risk along this river. We are also changing our climate by dumping huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. Climate change is happening, and it includes alterations to the water cycle. Expect more flooding here at De Soto, and elsewhere across Iowa…and beyond.

DSC_0303In less than three weeks, I’ll head to my local caucus. We Iowans are the first Americans to express our opinion about those running for President. You can count on this: I’ll chat about climate change with my friends and neighbors who share my party affiliation, if an opportunity presents itself. I will urge those around me to step up to the challenge of climate, and call on our leaders to do the same. I hope that you’ll have that conversation in your caucus, or with a parishoner over coffee after church, with a friend at the pub, or through social media. Please…we need to talk about the future, about the climate, about our wetlands…and what we leave as a legacy. Let’s make sure our care and dedication are what lingers after us.

On the (wetland) Road Again

DSC_0286I’m glad to be exploring Iowa again after my hiatus, working my way through those 99 counties. To help pass the miles. I made a “mix tape” of road-worthy songs, and first on the list (naturally!) was On The Road Again by Willie Nelson. Little did I know that I’d find a wetland “on the road,” or perhaps a “road on the wetland,” during my travels. In Monona County, the Badger Lake WMA complex sprawls across, and is bisected by, Interstate 29. It’s a good spot to think about highways and wetlands, a topic we’ve considered a bit in past travels, such as at Heron Marsh in Henry County, Brush Creek in Jasper County, and Indian Slough in Louisa county.

Here at Badger Lake, we have a series of natural and human-made/modified wetlands, some being old meanders of the nearby Missouri River, and the whole site part of the Missouri River floodplain. Laid onto this low, wet land is a large divided highway, County Roads K-42/E-24, several smaller roads, and associated overpasses, ramps, ditches, and other road infrastructure.

DSC_0294I’m always amazed when plants and wildlife successfully adapt to our built environment. The traits to weather flooding and drying, to withstand assault from salt and oils and exhaust fumes, to navigate across huge mountains of roadbed and whizzing vehicles, the drone of road noise…I am a bit overwhelmed thinking about it! And yet I saw and heard plenty of life around the roads. Kingfishers perched on a tree branch over water tells the story of an aquatic food chain—the birds are eating fish which in turn eat other life. Calling Red-Winged Blackbirds and Common Yellowthroat advertise a vibrant marsh community. Raccoon scat and tracks in the mud tell about a variety of food sources and cover for that animal. Waterfowl on the water at least find a “rest area” along their travel routes, even if not sticking around to raise a family (although they might, at least in the large marsh east of the highway??).

DSC_0298On my travels, I’m looking for pretty sites to share with readers, and stories of the organisms living in the wetlands. But…I am also asking questions, and I hope you do, too. What changes in the landscape accompany our highways? What consequences of site selection, construction techniques, maintenance practices, and traffic patterns are important to nearby ecosystems and their organisms? Can we make changes to our highway infrastructure to provide the transportation services we require, while minimizing hazards to the non-human neighbors and visitors? If we create wildlife habitat near roads, can we assure they are nurturing environments for wildlife, rather than “traps” which kill the life we wish to encourage?

Let’s explore our roadsides and the wetlands nearby—but please be safe, obeying the law and using common sense. Happy motoring!

Flamingos Fly; Us, Not So Much.

DSC_0336Last week, we visited the Yucatecan coastal town of Celestun; the study-abroad students and I had a great time seeing birds, especially the iconic flamingos. Unsurprisingly, I chatted with the group about the landscape and ecology of the place—I believe appreciating the science and history of place only adds to the aesthetic enjoyment and fun of travel.

But let me add to that a bit. At Central College, we believe education (including study abroad) is about more than the individual student. Our mission is to be a force for good: the world should be a better place because of what we do. I hope that many travelers aspire to a similar mission: enjoyment and memories, of course…self-improvement, hopefully…but even more, our travels can make human connections, benefit the people we meet, and support preservation and enhancement of special places.

Celestun is surely such a “special place.” So, it’s great that we spent time and money there: we enjoyed the birds we saw, and our excursion fare financially supported the boat skipper and therefore, the local economy. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the beach, so the food-service staff earned income from our visit. We can all feel good about that!

DSC_0363Nevertheless, I look ahead to the future with some trepidation. Mangroves and other wooded areas of the Yucatan Peninsula are under threat. The loss of those mangrove forests, and the carbon added to the atmosphere as a result, exacerbates atmospheric warming…which in turn will accelerate sea-level rise. As the ocean surface creeps up, the shoreline will creep inland, submerging coastal areas. I’ve spent pleasant times in and near the coastal city of Progreso, and worry how it will fare—the whole town is barely above sea level today.

We have committed the world to an altered climate, for decades to come. Will the flamingos survive the resulting changes? Actually, I imagine they’ll have an easier time of it than we will. They are migratory, moving east-west across the Peninsula during the various seasons; they follow food, find nest sites, and will naturally adjust their behavior “on the fly” as it were. When the environmenta changes, they’ll adapt.

But what about the locals I met during my visit? Of course, they’ll need to adjust, as well. I’m optimistic that tourists will still come, even if the flamingos don’t flock and migrate in the same way at the same times. Those fishing/crabbing this inlet or the nearby Gulf may need to change their equipment and techniques, but let’s hope the seafood is still there and plentiful. I’m cautiously optimistic about some aspects of climate change.

DSC_0298However, the change could be scary, and I hope we will wisely think ahead and make appropriate plans. Part of my work while in the Yucatan was teaching a seminar called Climate Change: North & South. Students wrote term papers, including some predicting and planning for the world they will inhabit. With ideas like how best to warn coastal residents about the hazards they face; helping communities make climate-disaster contingencies; anticipating and avoiding climate-related health risks…the students are smart and energetic. They give me hope! I hope you’re mindful and determined, too.

To finish up: may I humbly request your assistance? Please travel to wetlands and other natural features, near and far, and support those working in them or to preserve them. Talk to others about climate change, and encourage our leaders to acknowledge and respond to the threat. And share your joy and wonder about our beautiful planet…we all need that uplift, now more than ever! Leave a comment here, post to your own blog, work the social media…or perhaps take a young person for a little fun in the outdoors. Have fun!!DSC_0291

Strolling through the Mangroves

DSC_0159In my continuing adventures in the Yucatan Peninsula, I took a leisurely stroll in a mangrove swamp located just outside the coastal town of Puerto Progreso.

“But Paul,” you say. “Aren’t mangroves a tangled, impenetrable thicket growing in smelly, squishy, salty mud?”

Yes indeed! But THIS one has been adopted by the locals, and made into a popular tourist attraction (really!!). Let’s have a look.

DSC_0155We start at the visitors center, located on a busy road at the edge of Progreso. I took a taxi from the bus terminal downtown.

A couple of bucks and a five-minute boat ride gets you the easiest and most fun visit in mangroves you will ever have. The reserve has a channel cut into the swamp and a dock where your boat pulls up for your convenience. Step out onto a hard-packed, dry path through the swamp. You can walk right up to these amazing trees with their pyramid of trunks and roots…and never get your feet wet. Signs guide you around the site; benches and restrooms are available for your comfort. Heck, you can even buy bottled water or rent a hammock!

But most people come to visit the cenotes. These freshwater pools are formed by the unique geology of the Yucatan: the whole peninsula is a flat limestone shelf, with scattered holes revealing the water table below. Here, that fresh groundwater happens to spring forth in an otherwise salty mangrove swamp! These cenotes are all beautiful, and you may swim in three of the four (and perhaps birdwatch at the other).

The whole site is beautiful and comfortable. The local residents have created a fun, accessible attraction that is inexpensive and fun for the whole family. I heard about it in the local tourism magazine (Yucatan Today), and I hope it gains more notoriety and visitors. I want people to visit the swamp! I want folks here to benefit from these wetlands.

Regular readers of this blog know that wetlands are hard-working ecosystems, providing tangible benefits (cleaner water, reduced downstream flooding, a safer climate…) every day. The wetland’s neighbors may not receive as great a share of those benefits; how do we make sure they truly benefit, too? Those employed at this facility would obviously have something to say in that regard. But I also pondered other benefits as I dined on the beach at Progreso. These shrimp I enjoyed eating came from the water nearby; they were part of a food chain supported by…you guessed it, inputs from the highly-productive mangrove ecosystems. My delicious dinner (mariposas coco—butterfly shrimp with coconut breading) was a result of the work of the wetland. My purchase benefited the local restaurant workers and shrimpers…and I hope, encouraged everyone to protect the swamp. I look forward to visiting again in the future. I encourage you to do the same. Thanks for joining me!DSC_0197

Input on WOTUS rule…?

DSC_0195Americans are encouraged to provide feedback and guidance on a proposed change in how the Nation defines, and therefore protects, our wetlands. The comment period ends on Tax Day (April 15). I hope you’ll have your say!

At issue is how to define “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which are the lakes, rivers, wetlands, and similar water bodies to be regulated by the Clean Water Act (CWA). President Trump ordered Federal agencies to look at the issue, and propose a new rule to define and regulate WOTUS. The proposed rule and related information, including how to comment on the proposed change, and the written public comments already received, may be found on-line at those links. Readers of this blog might very well wish to input on specifics of the proposal, or simply express support for a particular point of view regarding the issue. (All public input is solicited).

A consortium of nine different aquatic-related societies issued a statement in December about this proposed change. None other than Iowa State University Professor and past President of the Society of Wetland Scientists, Arnold van der Valk, is quoted in the statement:

“It will result in the loss of many of the nation’s wetlands. This decision is shortsighted and counterproductive. It will significantly reduce the multitude of ecosystem services that these wetlands currently provide us at no cost. As a result the taxpayers will have to pay to build elaborate and expensive infrastructure to replace these free ecosystem services, such as flood reduction
and cleaning up polluted water.”

…and he is 100% correct. This rule will result in the Nation losing many wetlands, and all the services they render.

I also recommend a New York Times article on the issue:

Regular readers of this blog have heard my thoughts on why wetlands should be protected, i.e. the various important work they do. New visitors (welcome!!) or those wishing a review might consider clicking on the “tags” in the sidebar for categories of “ecosystem services,” listed under Hydrology, Pollution, and so forth.

“But Paul,” you say. “How would a rewording of the definition of ‘Waters of the United States’ affect wetlands?” Because most of the wetlands in the USA will be protected (or not) through the Section 404 provision of the Clean Water Act. If wetlands are WOTUS, then the US Army Corps of Engineers must regulate their physical structure (“dredge and fill”) and the EPA must regulate their water quality. But if wetlands are not WOTUS, then…individual States may choose to protect them, or not.

DSC_0235Supposedly this new rule will “…increase predictability and consistency…” of wetlands regulations, and that certainly sounds appealing. But actually, since 1986 the Federal government has had a Rule about WOTUS that was, more or less, consistent and effective. In 1987, the Corps of Engineers published a Manual for determining what is/is not (i.e., delineating) a wetland based on that Rule. Although an Obama-era rule tweaked it slightly, the 1987 Manual, and the Rule it’s based on, has worked just fine. That’s over 30 years of practice—and this new Rule proposes to stick to it, with an important difference: adjacency.

The new Rule would require a wetland (as defined by the 1987 Manual) to be physically adjacent (“abut”), and connected to, a surface water body relating to other WOTUS (“jurisdictional waters”). In other words, a wetland must have a surface flow (in or out) connecting to a stream, river, lake, or other waterway already considered a WOTUS. That surface water flow or connection must exist in a “typical year,” not just a year with high water (i.e., flooding conditions).

I admire the honesty of frank statements in the Federal Register regarding what this rule is designed to do: eliminate protection for all wetlands not linked by a surface water flow to other WOTUS. Here are specific quotations:

(the proposed rule) would exclude isolated wetlands with only physically remote hydrologic connections to jurisdictional waters. Under the proposed definition, ecological connections alone would not provide a basis for including physically isolated wetlands within the phrase “The Waters of the United States.”

(the proposed definition) of “adjacent wetlands” and the categorical treatment of jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent to tributaries as proposed in informed by, though not dictated by, science.

Wetlands separated from other “waters of the United States” by upland or by dikes, barriers, or similar structures would not be adjacent and would not be jurisdictional wetlands under the proposed rule…

That last one is interesting. Several statements in the proposed Rule seem to suggest that even a wetland physically adjacent to a stream or lake will not be regulated, as long as you put up a barrier (like an earthen dam or berm) between the wetland and the adjacent WOTUS. You could even put in a pipe or culvert (because the wetland is so very wet…) and yet it’s no longer, legally, a wetland.

DSC_0119I encourage you to read the proposed Rule yourself, and/or those analyses linked above. And then, please consider weighing in with a comment on the proposed Rule. As you might expect, I plan to do so. This is a time we need to speak up. Our Government needs to know that we value wetlands (whether they do, or not). We must remind our public servants that whether a wetland is physically adjacent to a stream or not, it nevertheless DOES affect the hydrology of that stream. The wetland absorbs water that otherwise (even if by groundwater, rather than a surface connection) would contribute to downstream flooding. The wetland improves the water quality of the downstream WOTUS. So-called “isolated wetlands” simply aren’t isolated, and they do important work…but only if we allow them to exist!!

And beyond reacting to this specific government action, I hope we can think about the long-term future of our wetlands. Personally, I would like our Nation and its government to provide effective and uniform legal protection for all of our aquatic resources, including wetlands. I certainly believe in making that task as straightforward as possible for everyone  involved: landowners, regulators, and environmental professionals. How do we serve our citizens best? Protecting wetlands is surely part of that…so how do we get it done??

The Wetland as Traffic Cop

entrance near the south end of the marsh, along Hwy 110. Note the wood duck housing complex.

Last week, we visited the Twin Lakes in Calhoun County. We saw how a wetland adjacent to South Twin Lake sits at the base of a slope, catching silt, sediments, nutrients, and other substances in runoff. Wetlands naturally “clean the water,” as we have discussed many times. This week, let’s expand that idea a bit.

Little Storm Lake in Buena Vista county is not really a lake at all: it is a wetland adjacent to the northwest edge of Storm Lake, an actual (shallow glacial) lake. It’s a great place to think about a wetland “cleaning the water.”

In my Limnology class, I sometimes ask students to think of a lake as a giant container of water in which chemical reactions happen. Much like the glassware holding aqueous (watery) solutions in their chemistry classes, a lake will be affected by light and heat energy, circulation (that is, mixing), atmospheric pressure, and other inputs to the system from outside. Reactions in the water will depend on pH, dissolved gasses, and the activity of organisms. Particular chemical reactions all occur (or not) in that context. This “lake as a big glass beaker” mental image is then kept in mind as we discuss specific chemical parameters and reactions.

access road leads in to water control structures, and forms a berm or dike

Then again, a wetland (like Little Storm Lake) is perhaps like a chemist, adjusting the characteristics of water entering the lake. It’s often said that a wetland “cleans the water,” but truly a wetland transforms chemicals in the water in ways we categorize as “cleansing.” For example, silts and sediments settle out of the muddy water, depositing (and slowly filling) the wetland; the water leaves the wetland “cleaner.” Phosphorus sorbs (adheres to) the silts and sediments, and so are removed from the water as well. Nitrogen is transferred from water to air, by an entirely different process—denitrification—and we’ll consider that next week. These are all examples of the “wetland as chemist.”

Little Storm Lake is a natural marsh, but it was recently extensively modified to move beyond that role as “chemist,” into a role as “Traffic Cop.” Much like a public safety officer directing vehicles safely and efficiently on roadways, this wetland is now equipped to direct the flow of water safely and efficiently. Let’s have a look!

dueling water control gates

About eight years ago, the DNR partnered with the local lake association, non-profit groups, university staff and others to undertake a large wetland restoration (more correctly, engineering enhancement) and lake protection project. This Storm Lake page describes the project, and a DNR lake restoration white paper has more details (starting on page 17). The basic idea is this: construct walls (dikes), and channels or culverts (plumbing) store and move water as desired; they prohibit fish movement (ideally, keeping nuisance species like carp under control); and workers periodically dredge out the accumulating silts and sediments.

If a wetland like Little Storm Lake exemplifies the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” by the transformations cleaning the water, then this project now adds “Better Living Through Plumbing.” Water in this wetland can be adjusted to appropriately process high flows, normal flows, or even to drain the system of water. Drying out a wetland seems counterproductive, but an occasional decrease in water depth and even emptying (“drawdown”) encourages seed germination, facilitates maintenance, and kills off undesirable aquatic species. If the wetland (and adjacent lake) function is determined mainly through water dynamics, then this project provides a powerful tool.

Probably a pumping station, although it also reminds me of a nuclear reactor. Cordoned off, so I couldn’t examine it well enough to know which.

Furthermore…let’s be honest: Iowa’s streams and rivers, such as the one flowing into this wetland (Powell Creek), carry a heavy load of runoff…and everything runoff brings. Wetlands are helpful—perhaps critical—in protecting our water quality. It’s a theme we’re considering in these weeks, with wetlands from three counties and an upcoming essay considering the challenge we face regarding Nitrogen in particular. I wish to address the news reports and controversy, and ask if wetlands might just help us solve the problem. Please come back in the coming weeks for that discussion.

In the meantime, if you’re near Storm Lake, check out the marsh. On the north side, near the intersection of state highways 7 and 110, you’ll find the Little Lake Discovery Boardwalk. Informational signs adorn a floating walkway among the cattail, and a tall tower provides a stunning view (complete with free telescope!). Admire the flora and fauna and another hard-working wetland…”at your service.”



Little Sioux, Big Beauty

Ice floes on the Little Sioux

In recent weeks, I’ve been considering engineering and thermodynamics of wetland plants, nest structure design and success, ice safety, and the global carbon cycle. Seems  time to pause and simply enjoy the beauty of wetlands! This past weekend I strolled along the banks of the Little Sioux River at Washta Access in Ida County. I’ve described the dynamics of rivers and floodplains in previous posts, such as the snarled drift at Snarl Street or a Tale of the Swale here in western Iowa. So today, I’m mostly enjoying a nice walk in the woods!

It was a lovely day: sunny and unseasonably warm. There was no wind to speak of, so the woods were quiet. I found myself in a contemplative mood, and lingering here and there, enjoying the colors and textures of the ice and snow and vegetation.

Just upslope from a natural levee, I noted a tree growing straight and true, despite a long, twisting wound along its trunk. Scar tissue bordered the rotting wood, the tree adjusting to this injury and carrying on. Trees contend with such challenges, as they must, but why is this such a perfect, gradual spiral?


Spiral scar on a tree trunk

Trees have such beautiful forms and endless variety! Deciduous (hardwood) trees in winter are especially striking, with the leafless crown revealing the graceful spreading branches, the crevices and coverings on the skin, and the life incorporated on the tree’s body.

It’s easy to think of plants as “dead” in winter, but winter dormancy is more like “hitting the pause button.” A dramatic example is a twining vine caught reaching out into space, frozen (literally) from its journey growing up a little Ash (Fraxinus)  tree sapling. I’d love to come back in 2019 to see what it finally touches. It can stretch out only so far, and then its slender stem will fail to support its own weight…where will it go?

The river nearby has ice encrusted on the banks, and forms a surface on those portions of the channel separated from the current. Crystals grow on top of the ice in elaborate patterns. The black ice and dark water below show them off in high contrast. Floating pieces of ice slid past silently, gracefully. I watched for a few minutes, thinking about those pieces of frozen water heading south. When and where will they melt? I imagine this is all liquid water leaving Iowa, yet the water itself flows inexorably to the sea.

I hope you enjoy the wetlands in winter—the experience is quite different in this season, and a delight…at least when properly dressed, and walking on solid surfaces with good traction  (please be careful!!). Do you have a favorite winter walk? Why not share it in the comments!

Our Carbon, Our Wetlands, Our Future

Carbon cycles around the biosphere. It may be stored as fossil fuel, then burned and released to the atmosphere, incorporated into plants or soil, dissolved in water, etc.

A couple weeks back, the United States Government issued a report on the threat posed by Global Climate Change. It made a lot of important points, but unfortunately much of the message was drowned out by reporting on President Trump’s unwillingness to fight, prepare for, or even acknowledge the threat of climate change. Lest you imagine the report as ramblings of tree-hugging, granola-munching, nature freaks…rest assured, the report is interdisciplinary and a collaboration, and focused on the threat to the health and well-being of the American people. And that threat is considerable.

Why think about a threat to the American people and society when contemplating climate? A little historical perspective might be useful, before we head to the swamp…

We’ve had climate change before, and it was incredibly disruptive. For example, a major immigrant group in the USA are those of Irish descent. A major factor in Irish emigration to North America was The Great Hunger (so-called potato famine) of the mid-1800’s. That event was the result of a fungal pathogen (blight), as is widely-known. Less-known is the contribution of climate: cool, wet conditions—and flooding—aiding the spread of the disease. This great human disruption, and all the historical ramifications, is due at least partly because of meteorological conditions.

More recently, an All-American diaspora happened with the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. As the name implies, great clouds of dust (wind-blown soil) blackened the skies and blanketed the cities of the East. This resulted from poor agricultural practices, but was triggered by an intense drought. It was mainly residents of the Great Plains affected, but also Iowa. And our nation was forever changed by this event—socially, economically, politically.

All in all, it’s obvious that climate disruption leads to disruptions of human society, too. Those examples are two of many around the world, localized or regional, demonstrating the danger of climate change; we would be wise to take heed.

We have transformed the Iowa landscape (such as at the abandoned town of Owego, seen here). We have also transformed the carbon cycle with our land use and technology…but the change to the atmosphere is not visible.

Our science has improved steadily over decades, helping us understand the contribution of human activity to a changing climate. In short, we ARE changing the chemistry of the atmosphere (by adding carbon to it), and we know the increased carbon concentration changes the climate—to become warmer overall, but with many variations in effects, especially locally severe events. I have added my name to a series of statements about climate change, the most recent (2018) calling for buildings and other infrastructure to be designed with climate change in mind; we need to prepare for what climate change will do…or rather, is doing. (It’s no coincidence that the press conference was held in downtown Cedar Rapids, site of devastating flooding).

Now to the wetlands! Swamps, marshes, fens, and the rest—they affect, and are affected by, climate.

  • Wetlands store carbon, especially in soil or undecomposed organic material (peat), such as the spongy layer in a fen. Preserving intact, functional wetlands keeps that carbon locked up, and continuing growth adds more stored carbon.
  • Wetlands store water, a valuable service to lessen downstream flooding. (Climate change will mean more severe weather events, and worse consequences).
  • Climate change will impact biodiversity, so preserving the few remaining Iowa wetlands—in good condition—is even more important. Rare, threatened and endangered species of animals and plants are found more frequently in these wet habitats than might be expected by the area wetlands cover.
Will climate change increase the risk of fire in ecosystems? It is a likely scenario.

What will climate change do to Iowa wetlands (or those in other places)? And what will our wetlands do to the climate? I’d like to explore those questions further. One important consideration might be decomposition processes: the decay of organic matter (such as tissues of dead plants) and the subsequent return of carbon to the air. I recently did a little trial run using the Tea Bag Index and shared with my Ecology class. It might be fun and useful to follow up on this in the future, including “tea bags” of a more traditional design: plant tissues from local sources placed in mesh bags (fashioned from window screen). Understanding wetland decomposition could provide useful insights into global carbon dynamics.

Two other recent episodes in my Ecology class also come to mind. This week, we are talking about chemical cycles in ecosystems—including the carbon cycle—and as we look at a box-and-arrow diagram in the textbook, I like to remind students that real ecosystems don’t exist in boxes—they are connected to the rest of the biosphere. Energy, water, chemicals, and even organisms move in, out, and through ecosystems, all the time. And we would be wise to remember our connections with the Earth’s ecosystems.

Also, we had a special visitor in class last week. Derek, a former student now employed by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, came to recruit summer interns. Even better, as he described that worthy organization, he made a point of distinguishing what they do—stewardship—with the more typical idea of land or natural resource “management.” Indeed, we really should recognize that our predecessors bequeathed us a beautiful, life-filled planet to enjoy and be nurtured by. And we should care for, then pass along, a healthy Earth to those that follow us.

The Society of Wetland Scientists has asked us, the membership, to reach out beyond our group, reminding everyone of the significance of wetlands in climate change. We are asked to encourage you to take measures to address our shared carbon problem. Consider this blog post an invitation. What can we, together, do to raise awareness, and to help us work towards solutions?

Our actions now, will shape the environment for centuries. Let’s work to make a brighter future!

What Ding Taught Me…

Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A giant of Iowa wetlands, Jay N. “Ding” Darling, came to Pella’s public library last week…sort of! Actually, the actor Tom Milligan performed a one-man play (The Art of Conservation: A Visit with Ding Darling) in character as Ding, followed by Q & A about this noted artist and conservationist, as well as Tom reflecting on his acting craft. This is part of a Humanities Iowa series of performances bringing historical figures to life. It was a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed learning about this Iowan who did so much for wetlands and for conservation overall. In some ways, Ding is a predecessor to this blog, and frankly many of the Iowa wetlands I visit wouldn’t exist today without his efforts. You can learn more details about Ding by reading an Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation blog entry here. Suffice it to say, he was more than an amazing (Pulitzer-Prize-Winning) political cartoonist. Ding did ground-breaking work for wetlands, and showed us how to do the same. Let me describe some valuable lessons I learned from Ding Darling.

Look Honestly At The Situation

I see hints of sentiment in Ding’s work, and he certainly had a streak of idealism. But he was a keen observer of the people around him, and the conditions of the land and the body politic, and he was ready to paint an honest picture of what he saw. In his cartoons, he called out Iowa’s terrible roads and poor government agricultural policies and other challenges of rural life. And no politician, great or small, was beyond his criticism or ridicule. He faced all the challenging issues of the day.

And he was in the right place at the right time to see a breathtaking transformation: a landscape converted, before his eyes, from a diverse native grassland to an intensely-cultivated, citied “breadbasket of the world.” In particular, he personally witnessed the squeezing out of the last pockets of native ecosystems—the lower, wetter spots—being accomplished with haste and fervor. Ding recognized the alarming disappearance of waterfowl associated with this activity, and took up the cause of saving and restoring the wetlands, and protecting their feathered life.

I hope that we, today, can be similarly clear-eyed and honest about the problems we face, and what it will take to meet our own challenges.

DSC_0250Partner Up

Ding was also realistic enough to understand that saving the waterfowl and wetlands would take a group effort. Attending conferences, meeting wildlife biologists, approaching VIPs, and lending his name to worthy efforts was a start. Helping found or foster new groups like More Game Birds in America Foundation (later called Ducks Unlimited) or the National Wildlife Federation, was important to aid communication, coordinate the work  and to built enthusiasm.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded folk was a good start, but Ding reached out to government agencies and their leadership. Frankly, it was difficult: the Federal government had a Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey within the workings of the Agriculture bureaucracy, whose philosophy and procedures were misguided at best; and an office too small and disorganized to accomplish the work. So Ding, against his better judgment I imagine, took on a reorganization into what we now know as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), with much success. He led the agency, reporting to an ultra-liberal Democrat (FDR) while Ding himself was a conservative Republican (and good friend to Herbert Hoover). So, it appears that Ding found a way to work with government, and political adversaries, in a productive partnership.

Saving the wetlands will require trained workers, and a system for identifying and cultivating the talent. So Ding worked with a preeminent wildlife biologist and educator, Aldo Leopold, in his efforts. Ding also looked in his own back-yard, reaching out to the leadership at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) to create a program for educating our future environmental professionals.

I’ll give myself a mixed review on the task of partnership—I surely enjoy teaching our students, and take pride in their subsequent successes. But today more than ever, it’s important to find productive ways to work with government, private landowners, conservation organizations, the media, educators…we must team up to complete the work Ding started, to write the next chapter in Iowa’s wetland story (and give it a happy ending!). I’ll try harder to make that happen…and I hope you’ll join me.


You’ll Need Money!

Let’s be honest: useful knowledge, willing partners and good intentions will only take you so far. We need to invest funds in these efforts. Ding realized that, of course, and donated his own money to worthy conservation causes, and encouraged others to do the same. Beyond that we also need to reach for the public purse.

Even though his political instincts worked against it, Ding nevertheless realized that taxes raised and spent on worthy public programs was necessary. He believed studying and protecting our wetlands was one of those worthy endeavors. Ding worked the political machinery to get funding for the new USFWS so that it could accomplish its work—because an agency existing on paper alone was useless.

Challenging stakeholders to financially support the cause was also key. Several ideas for taxes (such as on ammunition) to fund wetlands conservation were proposed; Ding instead supported a more direct appeal: hunters would simply pay a fee to fund work providing for their sport. Thus, the Duck Stamp was born. And the very first stamp featured artwork by none other than…Ding Darling. It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?

1stDuckStamp (1)
The first ever Duck Stamp was designed by Ding Darling!

Art Makes Things Better…

The Duck Stamp is a fine example of Ding’s artistry. Famous for his political cartoons in newspapers, Ding’s political and social commentary is regarded highly. But his cartoons also included environmental themes, encouraging us to notice and protect our natural resources…including, of course, wetlands.

Art can also be richly symbolic, and Ding understood this power, using it to support the cause. He personally designed one of America’s great conservation icons, the Blue Goose logo for the USFWS. Its clean lines and sense of movement are modern and evocative; the subject matter says “we care for wildlife.” The logo looks great on letterhead, or a shoulder patch, or a sign along a refuge boundary. It’s just really, really good design.

OK, here’s the thing: I’m no Ding Darling! But I, and you, should enjoy art too. We all need art in our life! So take some creative photos at the fen. Sketch the cattails and red-winged blackbirds at the marsh. Write a poem about your walk through the floodplain forest. I’ll keep loving these Iowa wetlands, and encourage you to love the wetlands wherever you are. And while you’re there, take a moment to think of Ding Darling and his legacy. You’ll be honoring that legacy.