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Scientists, students work to restore bayfront vegetation

Posted on Sep 21, 2010
Scientists and students at UW-Superior's Lake Superior Research Institute are restoring vegetation in a waterfront area dogged by pollution.
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See photos from the restoration project. (Photos by Kelsey Beck, University Relations student photographer)

By Brittany Berrens
University Relations student reporter

On a cool and dreary September day, David Major makes his way through a bed of dead cattails. He navigates through water-logged trees, poison ivy and a plant he says is "more carcinogenic than a carton of cigarettes." He spots a tiny green sprout and rips it from the soggy bed. It isn't the first cattail he's torn out of the marshy spot.

Major is working with Research Botanist Paul Hlina and his group from the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Lake Superior Research Institute. They are restoring areas along the shores of Superior Bay that are infested with invasive plant species. Not only is the project aimed at helping local wildlife, but it's giving UW-Superior students a chance to learn outside of the lab.

Restoring bayfront areas

The Hog Island and Newton Creek Ecological Restoration project Hlina is working on is one of many LSRI projects that are giving UW-Superior students real-world experience.

Hog Island Inlet, located just off U.S. Highway 2 near 30th Street East, is part of the Newton Creek watershed. Years of pollution attributed to an industry upstream that dumped pollutants and toxins into the Hog Island area over several years. In 2005 crews removed 60,000 cubic tons of polluted sediment from the area.

But there was still work to be done. Cattails growing in the watershed were pulling toxins out of the water and absorbing them into their plant tissue. To correct these problems, the Environmental Protection Agency put together a restoration plan and handed that over to LSRI. Hlina took it from there.

Originally, the EPA wanted to continue removing toxins from the area, but the high levels of pollutants made it unsafe for student workers to do so. Pulling up toxin-infected cattails would release the pollutants into the air, which can make anyone working nearby nauseous and sick. So the project took on a new meaning.

Invasive plants were harming area

Invasive plant species had slowly taken over near the area where Newton Creek empties into Superior Bay, which feeds into Lake Superior. While they may not look harmful, the non-native plants can crowd out native plants. In time, the invasive plants will harm waterfowl and insects. In addition, the homogenized plant life doesn't create a pleasant-looking landscape.

"Some people say well, 'They're just cattails' but those cattails are actually kind of harmful," said Major, a research technician and former UW-Superior student.

Plan includes plants and fish

The current project, which started in June, covers Hog Island and extends to Loon's Foot Landing and Allouez Bay. It has several goals, including controlling invasive plants, creating vegetative buffers and creating habitats for fish. All have to be done without using chemicals.

For instance, the invasive cattails have to be hand-cut and pulled out from their roots one by one. In some parts, the plants were covered with black tarp to try to get the warmth from the sun to kill them.

Other plants, such as purple loosestrife, are being battled with a beetle that only likes to feast on that particular plant.

"That idea actually came from a student's paper," Hlina said. The student's plan was to grow hundreds of the insects in a lab and release them from pots into the loosestrife-infested areas.

Not only is the labor-intensive project helping the local wildlife, but the city of Superior is benefitting from a landscape face-lift. The new variety of shrubs and trees being planted will mix up the bland plant life along the island, which can be seen from the popular Osaugie Trial. Major hopes this will help the city aesthetically.

"You want to have a nice city people will come to," he said. "People will stay in the city if they like the city."

Anglers also may benefit from the removal of the invasive plants. Cattails were growing so thickly near Loon's Foot Landing that it made it hard for fish to swim through the area, let alone a fisherman navigate a boat. The removal of the pesky plants should make the area much more accessible.

Students getting hands-on experience

Above all, students working on the project are getting down and dirty with real-world experience. The project gives them a chance to see what a career in their field might be like.

"Projects like this give you good insight into what you're getting into," said Alex Reynolds, a UW-Superior graduate who is working on the project.

Hlina said getting students out of the lab and into nature can also get them to appreciate the amount of work that goes into projects such as Hog Island.

"I would hope that they understand what's really involved in habitat restoration. It's a hands-on experience," he said.

"Hands-on is an understatement," added Major.

Project could take moer than a decade

The Hog Island and Newton Creek Restoration will likely take more than 10 years to complete, although funding for the project is only secure through next year. The project is paid for by a series of grants from organizations such as the State of Wisconsin, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Douglas County Land and Water Conservation Department oversees the grant and subcontracts the work to LSRI. The Great Lakes Commission from Michigan serves as an advisor to the project.


News Contact: Al Miller | 715-394-8260 | amiller{atuws}
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