Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Ohio restorings its lands

State's wildlife, green space making a comeback against generations of abuse, natural invaders

By John Seewer / The Associated Press

OAK HARBOR - A white-tail deer forages for food under a snow-covered dike separating the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area from Lake Erie. Brown grass and tree stumps poke above the icy waters.

Even on a cold, bleak afternoon, the strip of protected land along Ohio's north coast teems with life - interrupted only by the distant hum of highway traffic and the looming shadows of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant.

  As Ohio prepares to celebrate its 200th year of statehood, pieces of its heritage have been lost or are in danger of vanishing. The Ohio Associated Press has profiled some of the most notable:
• Saturday: History lost to time, neglect.
• Monday: Hidden cemeteries are a link to Ohio's settlers. Also, American Indian mounds have been lost with growth.
• Today: Lands are being restored after generations of use, abuse.
• Wednesday: Ohio's black history fading from landscape.
• Thursday: A quiz that takes a fun look at Ohio history
The wildlife area looks much like Ohio in its infancy - before settlers cleared its forests and drained its swamps, before farmers plowed its fertile soil, before entrepreneurs built factories and mined its hills for coal.

"There's been enormous change over the past 200 years," said Ohio Natural Resources Director Sam Speck. "We've used and sometimes abused these resources in building a world-class economy."

Much has been lost. Nearly 90 percent of the state's wetlands have been destroyed. The state's eagle population was wiped out but is slowly returning.

Pollutants also turned Lake Erie into an environmental disaster. Its fish were dying and even one of its tributaries, the Cuyahoga River, caught fire in 1969.

"We reached a point where Lake Erie was declared dead," Mr. Speck said.

Prairies, forests and grasslands succumbed to development too.

"The state has changed in character," said Ralph Ramey, who has written three books on hiking in Ohio. "But that's civilization."

Change also has come naturally, as aquatic invaders in Lake Erie and Ohio's rivers reshaped fish populations.

There is renewed interest in restoring and preserving Ohio's natural history. Laws protect wetlands and guard against dumping pollutants in lakes and rivers.

The blaze on the Cuyahoga became a rallying point for the environmental movement.

Three years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, restricting industrial dumping in the nation's waterways. The law has helped clean the Cuyahoga and led to more than $1.5 billion spent on wastewater treatment plants and a decline in industries that polluted the river.

  There are more than 130 species on Ohio's endangered list. Most are listed because their habitat is being destroyed. This is a sampling:
• Allegheny wood rat
• Bobcat
• Barn owl
• Trumpeter swan
• Snowy egret
• Timber rattlesnake
• Cave salamander
• Lake sturgeon
• Karner blue butterfly
• Kramer's cave beetle
• Ohio cave beetle
Across the state, the amount of wildlife areas has grown by 60 percent in the last decade - from 108,751 acres to 173,882 acres, according to the natural resources department.

The agency over the last two years has spent $172,000 trying to eradicate foreign plants in its 123 nature preserves. Among the most targeted are purple loosestrife, reed grass and garlic mustard.

These plants have altered the food chain in natural areas and pushed out native plants and animals.

Over the last five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has used money from Congress to buy land around western Lake Erie.

There are almost 9,000 acres within the federally controlled Ottawa Wildlife National Refuge, which was established in 1961.

The entire refuge and nearby Magee Marsh once were part of the Great Black Swamp that covered 1,500 square miles in northwest Ohio. Thick with trees, mud and brush, the swamp was a sanctuary for fox, elk, bobcats, beavers and ducks.

But during the late 1800s, settlers began draining the swamp by digging ditches that exist today. Now, the land is some of the most fertile farm fields in Ohio.

One of the goals at the Ottawa refuge includes trying to reclaim former cropland and turn it into grasslands, said Doug Brewer, assistant manager at the refuge.

"This whole area was at one time almost all wetlands," he said. "What we're trying to do here is preserve that. We have to do quite a bit to keep the lake from reclaiming the wetlands."

  The non-native plants that are some of the most invasive in natural areas and targeted by the state's Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.
•Autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, European buckthorn, garlic mustard, amur honeysuckle, Japanese honeysuckle, morrow honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife, multiflora rose, reed grass and reed canary grass.
• Sea lamprey, round goby, zebra mussel, quagga mussel.
  Sources: Ohio Division of Wildlife, Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves
A barrier dike keeps the lake at bay. Refuge managers can control how much water flows into the marsh, which is a rest stop for migratory birds flying across the lake.

"By manipulating water levels you can manage the vegetation types," Mr. Brewer said. "We can induce certain plants to grow."

But keeping out unwanted plants and marine life is even a bigger challenge.

Sea lampreys - sometimes called "fish vampires" because they attach to the body of a fish and suck its blood - destroyed the lake trout population during the 1940s and '50s.

Lake trout have returned in the last two decades as chemicals were used to kill sea lamprey larvae in rivers that feed into the lake.

It took years of research and millions of dollars to gain control of the sea lampreys.

But without constant attention, they could quickly take back the lake, said Gary Isbell, fish management and research administrator for the state's wildlife division.

"Unlike an oil spill, these things are largely irreversible," Mr. Isbell said. "Once they're out there, it becomes almost impossible to get rid of them.

"We can restore habitat and we reintroduce species, but it's very hard to get rid of aquatic nuisances."

And new aquatic invaders show up nearly every year. Zebra mussels, the round goby and the Asian carp are among the most worrisome threats.

"Each new aquatic nuisance species brings a different way they can disrupt the ecosystem," Isbell said. "No two of them have the same effect."

Just as hardy are the non-native plants.

There are as many as 3,000 species of plants in Ohio and about one-third are not native to the state. Many are brought in by nurseries.

Although just a handful cause problems, nuisance plants have been one of the biggest factors in the reduction of Ohio's biodiversity, said Jim McCormac, a botanist with the state's division of natural areas and preserves.

"They're that bad," he said. "There's no two ways about it."

Bush honeysuckles, as an example, have come on just in the last decade and pushed out natural nesting bushes for robins, cardinals and yellow warblers, he said.

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