Run Noisy, Run Shallow

in_culvertBoth a recent wetland visit, and a recent news item about wetlands, made me think of the phrase “run silent, run deep” which of course is a famous novel and movie about submarine warfare. However, my experiences are quite the opposite—both hydrology, and news about wetlands, appear noisy and shallow.

In Worth County in far northern Iowa, I found a wetland complex (designated a Waterfowl Production Area or WPA) called Hanlontown Slough. It’s a miniature Everglades: broad, flat wetland with scattered higher and lower areas, but generally a “river of grass” (or cattail). The area has classic wetland conditions: most importantly, it’s plenty wet! As I drove around, I found a spot where the WPA boundary met a farm field and a culvert going under the adjacent gravel road. I stopped to snap a photo, and heard…hydrology! Specifically, I heard noisy, rushing water emerging from a pipe and entering the surface channel.

DSC_0507It reminded me of a demonstration I do with my Aquatic Ecology students at Iowa Lakeside Lab. We stop on a roadside along the north edge of Lakeside’s property, and look over an adjacent farm field. It’s dry on the surface and all is quiet. But a few steps onto the Lakeside property, and we encounter an old clay tile (buried pipe) containing a thunderous torrent! Seriously, the water rushing through is amazing…all the more so, since the nearby farm field gives no hint of all this water rushing just beneath the surface.

At Hanlontown Slough, that noisy torrent enters a large wetland complex, spreading out into a wide, shallow “sheet flow” with deeper ponds here and there, and backwaters where water just sits. Unless you identify an outflow under another road, you might not realize that a large volume of water is moving through the site.

DSC_0510So much for noisy, shallow water flow into a wetland. Out in the public sphere, we have lots of discussion about wetlands (and other environmental issues), and it can be a bit noisy and shallow, too! While this blog is based on the idea of a political campaign (traipsing through all of Iowa’s 99 counties), I actually prefer to stay away from politics. The most recent policy news about wetlands, however, deserves our attention: a Trump administration action eliminates key protection for wetlands. This is unfortunate (I’ve already written about my opposition), but sadly it is just another chapter in a checkered history of national wetland policy. For decades, we scientists have demonstrated the “ecological services” that wetlands provide to reduce flooding, improve water quality, and store climate-damaging atmospheric carbon (CO2). For decades before that, conservationists recognized and worked to preserve the value of wetlands to wildlife. The value of wetlands, and that they deserve protection, has been well-established.

And yet, we must once again argue about wetland protection and the “law of the land.” Truly, I believe we need to revisit policies when we have new information, and we need a thoughtful, honest discussion of how to best understand and interact with our environment. However, our current political climate doesn’t seem to lend itself to this approach. We have a more “noisy, shallow” approach it appears. Clearly this decision ignores all the science and other facts about the value of wetlands. Folks, we need to honestly accept the reality on the ground, and use a “conservative” approach (in the root sense, to conserve, as in conserving our environmental quality). We shouldn’t roll the clock back to the 1980’s and lose the progress we’ve made.

Soon, I’ll have visited all 99 counties, and my quest will be complete. But I hope the conversation continues. I’d love my kids, and future generations, to have a healthy environment…including my beloved wetlands. We need to continue to study, visit, enjoy, and advocate for wetlands. I hope you join me and together, work to protect these amazing ecosystems.DSC_0509

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!

Rollin’ on the River

DSC_0020Let’s talk about The Big Muddy, The Mother of Waters, The mighty Miss…in other words, the Mississippi River. Steeped in history, vital to our Nation’s commerce and defense, and the eastern border of the State of Iowa. We’ve visited the river before on our 99wetlands journey, such as when we thought about how the river threatens the remarkable burial mounds of Native American/First Peoples. We pondered the river’s role in The War of 1812 which indirectly led to Federal protection of wetlands. In this blog entry, we visit the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish refuge. It is nothing short of remarkable: a migratory bird flyway of global significance, a Ramsar site, a vast watery complex spread across four States (Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin…and of course, Iowa) and absolutely huge, encompassing nearly a quarter-million acres (100000 hectares).

Obviously, that’s way too much area to properly explore in this short post. I will provide a brief glimpse by way of my visit to a couple sites in Jackson County. However, if you ever have the time…a nice drive along the Great River Road, or even a cruise on the water itself, would be an amazing adventure!




My first stop was the town of Sabula, Iowa’s only island-city; it was completely surrounded by the river when navigation and flood control improvements (lock-and-dam system) was installed in the first half of the 20th century. This short video by canoeists on a Mississippi River voyage is fun, and shows a bit of the town. It is small, and bordered by water and wetlands, including Refuge property. I chatted up a local resident who made the whole “island life” thing seem rather ordinary; perhaps because highway bridges connect to both Illinois and Iowa, it’s not really so isolated. She did confirm that many tourists come through, and that some are interested in the wildlife in the wetlands. Plenty of opportunities to fish, photograph, hunt, and just enjoy the water, including as docks, jetties, and picnic sites.

If you look at aerial imagery, or a map, you quickly understand that the wide floodplain is a mix of small islands representing sand or gravel bars forming the braided channel on the floodplain. Some islands are treed, others covered in marsh vegetation, others may be bare mud. The water levels and ecology of the system are dynamic, representing the combined action of the river flow (coming down from Minnesota, and the many tributaries feeding the river) as influenced…more or less regulated…by the series of Locks & Dams, each dam forming a pool. So, in fact, this is now less a river, and more a series of reservoirs.

It’s definitely a working system. The locks allow commercial traffic, most notably the barges joined together en masse and pushed along by tugs, mile after mile. House boats, speedboats, patrol craft, even replicas of old-time riverboats (see photo above). Along the river is a really busy rail line and numerous sidings and yards, and modes of rail/shipping combined facilities.

DSC_0011Among it all, fish swim, birds fly, and life goes on. The backwaters and island swamps and marshes in particular teem with wildlife. A great place to watch is just north of Sabula, at Green Island Wildlife Management Area. The drive up from Sabula offers twisting roads with elevation changes; at times you get a glimpse out over the floodplain. Driving down into Green Island WMA is like entering a major river delta, or vast glades. I saw birds like Common Gallinule among beautiful lush vegetation. Egrets and swans hid out in the Hibiscus, Lotus, Smartweeds, and Buttonbush. It’s a spectacular wetland wonderland.

These wetlands, and the organisms living there, are intimately connected to the river. This is true every day of course, but dramatically so during significant floods, most recently in 1993 or 2008 when this area would have been inundated: the peak flood stage was 22.5 feet and 21.5 feet, in those respective years. But these marshes are well-adapted to floods. Our cities? Not so much. Unfortunately, evidence suggests the floods are worse, and more frequent, with about 75% of the increase due to human alterations of the river. It’s worth remembering that wetlands help absorb floodwaters, and even help lessen downstream flooding, a fact I’ve discussed numerous times already in this blog.DSC_0007

But today, I drive along the roads in the floodplain, among the marshes, yet dry and passable. I climb the rise above the floodplain, looking back at striking views. It’s a treat to see the river and its wetlands from bridges and bluffs and twisting roads. It’s truly a journey through a unique landscape: a working industrial waterway with barges passing by and trains and docks and industry; wildlife flying and swimming all around; verdant islands and marshes; and of course, a wide, rolling river…one of the world’s greatest. Come visit some time.


Floodplain, Reclaimed

impassableMy recent 99wetlands forays, and other travels, have been hampered by the flooding in much of Iowa. For example, two approaches to a wetland in Keokuk County were impassable, causing me inconvenience as I rerouted, followed by uncertain road conditions near the site (thankfully, it turned out all right in the end). However my frustration or disappointment means little compared to what others face: as I write this (October 14), flood warnings are posted for major rivers all over Iowa, affecting counties across the State; the Iowa Flood Center has 72 active alerts from sensors. Large cities such as the capital and largest city, Des Moines, but also Quad Cities (Iowa/Illinois), Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, Muscatine, Burlington, and Spencer are among the areas threatened by this flood event. Many families and business will be disrupted.

Then, there are the farms. The timing is unfortunate, as many fields across the State are still not harvested, and now the weather has turned cold (including widespread freeze warnings). Most farmers really should bring in the crop now. The fields are so wet in many cases that it’s too soft to run machinery for harvest. But in extreme cases, it’s not mud in the fields…it’s standing water. I imagine when the water recedes, it will leave behind damage to the soil and plant that present problems. A quick on-line search suggests that floods so late in the season are unusual, and farmers will need to proceed with caution as the grain or silage may be spoiled.

DSC_0251“But Paul,” you say. “This blog is about wetlands—what does any of that stuff have to do with wetlands?” Three things come to mind, actually.

First, much of the low-lying areas at danger of flooding, whether town or farm or other land-use, are located on an important wetland type: floodplains. In several past posts, I have taken you to floodplain wetlands. In Van Buren county, we made the hydrologic connection, seeing the surface connections between a floodplain wetland and the nearby river. In Wright County, we understood past flooding by observing snarled drift hung up in tree branches above the stream channel at Snarl Street wetlands. Not far from Des Moines in Polk County, we saw oxbows and other river-related wetlands at Chichaqua Bottoms.

DSC_0194But one of the very first wetlands I visited on this project, I revisited last week: Maskunky Marsh in Mahaska County. In my earlier visit, I explained that the marsh is in the floodplain of the South Skunk River, and is inundated through a horizontal pipe set at an appropriate elevation—a so-called “French Drain.” When the river is high, river water backs up through that pipe, and into the marsh…and therefore, areas downstream will experience less flooding.

On this quite recent visit, I saw that we were way, way past that type of flood stage. Indeed, the river was exceedingly high, and was completely reclaiming its floodplain. Roads, buildings, farm fields…all under water. The whole floodplain was a broad river channel. In such extreme flood events, the river will not be denied its floodplain.


This brings me to my second point: wetlands reduce flooding. Despite the extreme situation I just described, please remember: it can be worse. When I give talks about wetlands and flooding, I start by reminding listeners of their science lessons from childhood school days. Remember the famous hydrologic cycle (a.k.a. Water Cycle)? Yeah, that’s still a thing! Think of it this way: every drop of rain or snow falling within the borders of the State of Iowa must go somewhere. That water can basically go up, down, or sideways. Some portion of water falling from the sky, returns to the sky, through plants pumping it up (transpiration) or air lifting it up (evaporation). Only a very small amount travels down to deep groundwater (aquifers tend to recharge slowly). So, a lot of the water will flow sideways (laterally), across the land’s surface to ditches or streams or lakes or rivers; or, infiltrate only shallowly into the soil, and then emerge into a streambed or other surface water. And too much of that lateral flow means flooding.

Wetlands help reduce flooding, because water is held in soil and vegetation, and ponds up in the basin (standing water). Then, the accumulated water will slowly re-enter the air, or be more slowly released into streams and rivers.

The other big role of wetlands in flooding is indirect, through the process of climate change. This is a rather complex interaction, and I intend to discuss it in more detail in later posts. Suffice it to say, climate change can, among other things, make more extreme weather—and that will include flooding. Meanwhile, wetlands may—generally will—reduce a major driver of climate change, atmospheric carbon. For example, the carbon stored in peat—such as at Becky’s fen—is carbon NOT floating around the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. So, there’s a connection: wetlands reduce our risk from climate change. Add that to the flood reduction effects, and it’s clear that wetlands are here to help…and we need that help.

Everyone, please stay safe. Be careful with our current flood threats. And let’s work on measures to prepare for future risks. May I humbly suggest: wetlands will help us face our challenges…let’s protect, restore, and enjoy our wetlands…and help them, help us.DSC_0204

Isn’t it Ironic? (Wetland Remix)

DSC_0029My Better Half has been amused by the occasional interruption in my 99wetlands quest: sometimes I am unable to visit a wetland…because of flooding. Seems awfully funny to her. Honestly though, it’s to be expected—I mean, floods are part and parcel of the wetland ecosystem, so it’ll be a factor for us who like to visit wetlands. But sure, if it amuses you, or inspires you to song, then enjoy the irony.

This week’s wetland is an example of the challenge; at first I couldn’t even get to my site because of flooding! Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area, located in southwest Delaware County, was difficult to access because the creek was running high. I snapped a photo from the north approach, went the long way around, and entered a parcel from the south, after driving along the county line. (It all gets a bit confusing: some of the area is County land, other parts are State land.)

This might be a good time to put in a plug for road safety regarding flooding. At one point, I admit I looked at the thin layer of moving water flowing across the road surface, and thought…”that doesn’t seem so bad. I could probably drive across it OK.”

DSC_0024That’s dangerous thinking, right there. And I know better! I have slipped (violently) when walking in a stream as the current sweeps you off your feet (not in a fun, romantic way—more of a “now you’re gonna drown, you big dummy” way). And remember, your tires are essentially just big balloons. Tires won’t do well on water—they glide, or float. So, don’t drive on flowing water, please. Leave the river-on-road exploration to the experts…herons, for example, have skills you and I lack.

DSC_0026So, I drove around, and near a pasture I found a pretty little wetland pond just south of the creek itself. I’d expect the wetland to be flooded by the river itself, when water is a bit higher than I was seeing. At this moment, flood stage wasn’t quite there. I easily walked around, and I admired pretty dragonflies. These insects have become a favorite feature of my wetland travels. Whether thrilling to their elaborate mating flights, watching them gracefully depositing eggs, or catching their larvae (nymphs) with a net for a close-up look, dragonflies are beautiful and fascinating. Oh…and they eat mosquitoes! Gotta love these animals. I have several blurry photos of these insects flying around…at least I think that’s what they are? Um…they were actively moving, and hard to photograph. Instead, here I include some beautiful plants, Arrowhead (Sagittaria) and Spike Rush (Eleocharis) for your enjoyment.

Back to the question of flooding. In other posts, I’ve described how a wetland will absorb waters from swollen rivers, reducing flood hazard downstream. We’ve considered the removal of potential pollutants like excess nutrients. And that heron in the photo, surely likes the movement of animals in the high water (presumably it is hunting as it works that water over the road). So, inconvenient or not, the wetlands and the floods are a linked system. I will make my adjustments, and celebrate Iowa’s wetlands…”come Hell or High Water.” Come back next week, and see where I head next! Thanks.

Production Junction

DSC_0319At the Floyd River Wildlife Complex A in Sioux County, at the junction of highway and river, I found signs of Ecological (Trophic) Production. I’ll use this wetland to encourage professional networking; we’ll ponder this solar-powered planet of ours; and I’ll talk about highway projects. And away we go!

I heard about this wetland from my friend and colleague Todd who lives not far from the site. Also, I know a bit about projects such as this from other colleagues, including several who studied a bunch of them (more on that later). As I have suggested in other posts about my journey around Iowa, personal recommendations—and hearing the stories behind the wetlands—is really helpful. Please join the conversation!

This wetland is located along the Floyd River, but is also adjacent to State Route 60. In fact, the wetland was built by the state highway department as mitigation for impacts to existing wetlands during highway construction projects. As I described in posts about Brush Creek and Indian Slough, the Federal law protecting wetlands (Section 404 of the Clean Water Act) allows for permission to “mitigate” impacts through a legal contract. In this case, the state highway department was required by law to build this wetland. Would you like to build a wetland, too? Here’s a piece of advice: make sure to provide water. One possible source of water is an adjacent river, if available. A notch in the riverbank provides a hydrologic connection to the Floyd River.


In Iowa, your river water will almost certainly contain nutrients like nitrates, and they will act as a fertilizer for the plants and algae in your wetland. (They will also contribute to microbial processes like denitrification, but that’s another story). Generally, plant growth is slow and steady, imperceptible and relentless. We might find it difficult to visualize the photosynthesis and resulting production of plant biomass; we might even forget about this most basic energy conversion process. That’s unfortunate, because essentially all life on Earth is powered by the Sun, as plants and algae convert radiant energy (light) to biological energy (food) by photosynthesis.

One way to estimate this energy conversion of photosynthesis is to cut down plants, burn them, and measure the heat energy given off during combustion. It is however an indirect measure, since you can’t harvest and measure lost energy, such as is used in the plant’s own metabolism. Think of overall photosynthesis as Gross pay in a worker’s earnings, compared to the Net (“take-home”) pay of standing crop (biomass harvested). Ecologists estimate gross primary production (GPP) and net primary production (NPP) in ecosystem studies such as “trophic-dynamics.” Wouldn’t it be nice to directly observe the photosynthesis itself?

Actually, you may have observed, and even quantified, photosynthesis yourself…as a child in school. A common (and fun) way to study photosynthesis is using an aquatic plant like Waterweed (Elodea) in a tank or test tube, watching bubbles formed by the plant as it photosynthesizes; those bubbles are oxygen, a byproduct of photosynthesis. Want to know the effects of fertilizer, temperature, light color or intensity, or some other variable on photosynthesis? Count bubbles!DSC_0327

At Floyd River, I observed floating filamentous algae with trapped bubbles forming in the bright sun. Photosynthesis! Primary Production! A wetland with a green, active solar-energy-conversion system! Actually, certain wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems. Plenty of water, nutrients, and off we go. And that serves as the base of a food chain, with plant-eating grazers, herbivore-eating carnivores, and sometimes additional levels beyond. I observed snails, backswimmers, tadpoles, small fish, and waterfowl. The wetland teemed with life, and the water spread around a bend along the river. A productive wetland.

The time frame required for wetland development, the criteria we should use to measure mitigation success, and who will be keeping score of those parameters are important considerations. A decade ago, a team of Iowa scientists compared highway mitigation wetlands with natural reference wetlands, and found similar ecological performance in both types of wetlands. I suggest caution in generalizing beyond that one study. In particular, I worry that wetlands built by others, for other purposes, may not have as high quality of design nor construction, as those built by the Highway Department. I strongly suspect that the highway wetlands had at least some monitoring and active management, while I worry that many mitigation wetlands are built and abandoned to their own devices..which seldom ends well.

Floyd River appears productive and functional. Can all of our wetland projects achieve this status? Perhaps we can, and should, inspect our constructed wetlands, and expect them to perform to “engineering standards.” What would you like in a constructed or restored wetland? Consider leaving a comment. Thanks for reading…DSC_0326

Wetland Smörgåsbord

What a vista! Timber in the distance, emergent plants (“reeds”) on the water’s edge, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) mound, and plenty of waterfowl—how many species can you find?

Big Marsh in Butler County is aptly named: it is indeed large. This site is an Iowa DNR holding, and in total the property contains 6700 acres (2700 hectares) with 25% being covered in wetland, so perhaps 1700 ac (700 ha) as wetland. Surely, one of the biggest wetlands in the State! It has been pieced together over decades, with significant changes in attitude of the landowners over this time. The neighbors seem to see the project differently now, in part due to a growing realization that the Cedar River presents an ever-increasing flood threat to adjacent low lands. A recent “growth spurt” with sizable land acquisition has therefore presented challenges for the conservation professionals involved. You can read more about the history and management of the site at the DNR web page.

In any case, with all that space, you’d expect a variety of habitats and landscape features…and you would be correct! The property is associated with the West Fork of the Cedar River, and I saw plenty of floodplain habitat. Some of the low areas (lowest or closest to streams) were floodplain forest, and other areas were recently farmed—with a few still farmed (crops grown in so-called food plots for wildlife). I found ponds of various areas and depths, prairies and old fields, and of course, marsh.

The most obvious feature I noticed on my recent visit was waterfowl, and lots of it. A large area of open water near the east end of the site (running parallel to State Highway 14) is formed by a sizable dam, presumably creating permanent deep(ish) open water. A boat ramp off the parking area gives easy access, and videos on-line show the site being explored by canoeists. They’re likely to get closer to the birds than I could, although I still saw many, and not just in the “lake,” but in the outflow swale, nearby ponds, and even roadside ditches. I was delighted to watch the coots and ducks churn the water as they took flight and landed again.

In addition to a home for all the wildlife, this site serves important other functions. It ameliorates flooding in downstream areas, something we should all keep in mind in Iowa and elsewhere. I’ve written about it already, for example at sites such as Maskunky Marsh in Mahaska County, or Mount Sterling Marsh in Van Buren County. And let’s keep in mind, Big Marsh provides recreation opportunities: the canoeists mentioned previously, birders, hunters, and others. During my visit I watched a man exercising his bird dog, practicing the techniques they’ll use during hunting. And just off-site is a bird dog kennel—this must be a popular spot.

So, we have a smorgasbord of functions and activities laid out before us. Big Marsh is so very large, both human and other organisms are likely to find something worth a visit, any time of year, year after year. Frankly, this is not what I’m used to! Most of Iowa’s wetlands are small and isolated. I wander Iowa looking at tiny, sometimes quite ephemeral systems. Such wetlands are important, but it’s fun to think about what a super-sized system like this one does ecologically. Is bigger, better? What are the ecological functions of this wetland as a 1000-area-piece, as opposed to creating 1000 individual 1-unit-area smaller pieces, spread around Iowa (something like 10 per County)? Would the total waterfowl production, or turtle population, or flood prevention, or Nitrogen removal, or any other “ecosystem service” of interest be diminished by splitting up a wetland and spreading it around? Is there a synergism in a large system, with it doing something that the same wetland area could not, when split up into small pieces? This is a basic question in landscape ecology (not just wetlands ecology), and we should consider it further in future posts. Let’s “bank” that for now. In the meantime, let me take a lesson from these old Coots, and take off! See you next week…

American Coots (Fulica americana) running on water, preparing for takeoff…

An Ounce of Mitigation

Benjamin Franklin famously suggested “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I’ll update that for the wetland business: A gram of avoidance is worth a kilo of mitigation. (Note the update to Metric units. You’re welcome!!)


DSC_0668Case in point: the Wapsi-Great Western Line Trail. This is one of those “rail-to-trail” projects using a former railroad bed, and it goes from Riceville all the way up into Minnesota, where it connects to another trail system. Although our trail runs on the old railroad line in many places, it must find other routes here and there. A section crossing the Wapsi (Wapsipinicon) River just south of McIntire in Mitchell County presented a special challenge: wetlands along the river, and a long distance to span across the valley.

Some thoughtful planning and hard work addressed both challenges. Let me quote the engineering firm:

WHKS performed a certified wetland delineation for a 3.1 mile long bike trail planned for construction along the bank of Wapsipinicon River. The delineation was required by the U.S. Corp. of Army Engineers (USACE) as part of the permitting process…

Using information gathered in the delineation, WHKS recommended several changes to the alignment and proposed bridge structures to avoid wetland impacts. A permit was issued without the need for further wetland mitigation.

That’s putting old Ben’s advice to good use. By identifying and mapping the edge of the wetlands (delineation), understanding the particulars of the design criteria (a recreation trail designed to allow users to enjoy the natural beauty), and good planning…they used an ounce of prevention. In fact, it is much better to avoid impacts to the wetlands, than to do expensive and difficult mitigation of those impacts after the fact. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this happen more often…?


And so I (and other visitors) can enjoy the wetlands in their original beauty. Even better, the Conservation Corps built an amazing boardwalk so you can go right over the wetlands, enjoying an up-close and personal view. I really enjoyed the bird’s-eye view, although (perhaps unsurprisingly) I did crawl down and tromp around a bit, and was rewarded with a few treasures of Nature in Winter.


Tracks of a small mammal tell a story about their activity. Nice weather today, looks like my little friend has been out foraging? I wonder what’s around here. Movement out of the corner of my eye revealed a Vole (Microtus) scurrying near the boardwalk. Well, hello there!

And how about some winter plant observations? Poking out of the snow I observed various grass-like plants (sedges), tough to identify precisely. Then I saw the bright red standing remnant of a dock (Rumex), as tall as me. Impressive!


On to the woody plants. A couple young Ash trees (probably White ash, Fraxinus americana) on slightly higher spots. Nearby I observed a thicket of our native (Speckled) Alder. I learned it as Alnus rugosa although in the PLANTS database they call it Alnus incana, and who am I to argue? The Alder is unusual—it is a northern species, and a quintessential wetland plant. Probably found in Iowa in only a few locations in the far northern counties—this spot is one of the best examples I’d imagine.

So, let’s all stomp our muddy boots in salute to the folks who made this possible: engineers and planners, civic boosters, conservation interns, and outdoor enthusiasts. Your efforts are appreciated, and I hope to come back another time and stroll or hike your lovely trail. Cheers!!

Working with the River, Road, and Land

Steve Archer has a working farm outside Moulton, Iowa, (Appanoose County) very near the Missouri border. He has had a variety of careers, but now he is a man raising cattle, managing wildlife, and sharing practical knowledge about wetland conservation practices. I am nominating him as another Wetlands Hero. And he has been recognized by others for his successful practices, too. Let’s take a look at his work.

Steve drove me around, showing the wetlands and other features of his operation. Here, he discusses weed control and one of the numerous ponds he manages

Two important characteristics of his land must be reckoned with. First, an old railroad embankment went through the property (actually one of the rail lines running through the nearby Sedan Bottoms site). Second, much of the property was bottomland, with the Chariton River running through it; flooding is to be expected. Steve has adopted a strategy of working with, rather than against, these aspects of the land.


The old railroad bed provides good passage for his vehicle, even when surrounding ground is muddy or flooded. Being slightly higher, it also can support trees that might not grow in wet ground nearby. Steve has successfully grown a variety of wetland and upland tree species, and even provided tree stock for use in conservation projects elsewhere.

Hydrology drives this wetland, as is true in any wetland. Steve has cleverly set a culvert pipe with a control structure at one wetland, at an appropriate height to receive water when the adjacent river runs high. Other areas on the property have been excavated, islands formed, or berms set at great effort and expense, all to allow water to strategically connect the land and river. The result is a series of wetlands,  with varying hydrology, all functioning as part of the floodplain ecosystem. This is important because when the river runs high, his wetlands absorb excess water—a fact downstream residents/landowners should appreciate. His wetlands will also receive nutrients, sediments, plants, fish, amphibians…the river will benefit, and be benefited by, his wetlands. And all the wildlife in the food chain will likewise benefit.

And so we get to the star of the show: wildlife. Steve has actively managed the land and water to provide an excellent home for wildlife. He provides animals with a variety of structure (cover, like tall vegetation or brush piles). He feeds them with special crops like millet and with mineral licks. He provides nesting structures. And he really enjoys observing and interacting with them, gleefully sharing fun stories with me about the various game, and non-game, wildlife. We paused to admire a couple of swans, complete with numbered collars, but they never did honk.

Hey Trumpeter Swans, aren’t you supposed to be at Coffey Marsh…?

In addition to success building and managing wetlands, and all his work promoting wildlife populations, Steve does something else, something really heroic: he shares with others. He was happy to show me around, and I’m just one of many interested individuals to learn from Steve. He has hosted visitors from government, academia, non-profits and private landowners. His detailed observations, care in making decisions and completing work, ongoing adaptation and improvement serves as a model—we should all be such good land stewards. Better still, Steve is both a smart and down-to-Earth guy, knowledgeable about farming practices, government programs, local environmental conditions, and human nature.

More of us need to follow Steve’s lead, and I hope his story inspires others. He inspires me!


Equal-opportunity hunting

heron marsh
No, you don’t hunt herons. Or marshes. Or…youth.

At Heron Marsh in Henry County, children are welcome to hunt, but adults are not. This site is set aside exclusively for youth hunting—adults are there only to supervise. It wasn’t hunting season when I toured the site, but I could see the potential as a place for children to enjoy recreation, bond with friends and family, and perhaps learn a little about wetlands.

The property has a three-acre wetland situated in something of a bowl, bordered by the embankment for US highway 218. In fact, the wetland is a Department Of Transportation mitigation site for that road; the Highways people approached the County Conservation board for a partnership. I suppose the thinking is, if DOT is legally required to build a wetland, why not build one that will have other benefits as well? On the shore of the wetland is a blind, perfect for unobtrusive waiting on the waterfowl (another blind is located in an upland area, as well).

What blind? I don’t see any blind…

Wetland construction was unusual. A County Conservation Board official told me that 40 or 50 semi-truck loads (!!) of peat were brought in from Minnesota to raise the surface elevation of the substrate—a deep “borrow pit” had to be made shallow enough to function as a wetland, rather than a deepwater aquatic habitat (i.e., a pond). Apparently it worked, as a number of wetland plants (hydrophytes) are known to successfully grow there.

Classic bowl-shaped wetland…but not some kettlehole, it’s a borrow pit!

I didn’t see any amazing plants or animals on my visit, but the wetland—and large surrounding upland—are a fun walk nevertheless. Even better, I like the idea of this place: kids and their guardians enjoying spending time together. Parts of the site are even wheelchair-accessible, so kids who may be unable to enjoy other sports or outdoor activities could participate in this. Hunters bond over their experiences, and (hopefully) practice good observation and conservation skills, as well as harvesting game. I hope you agree that building a functional wetland, and encouraging the public to enjoy it, is something to admire. Have you hunted there, or know of other wetlands with unusual use? Please comment and share! Thanks for reading.