Restoration with Native Plants

(music playing) The cleanup is complete and any threat to the environment has been eliminated or lowered to acceptable levels. So now what? Essentially, what remains is a large tract of barren land with little ecological memory. Land managers are now realizing that revegetating these sites with native plants can accelerate the time needed to restore a rich, selfsustainable ecosystem. (music playing) Although it seems like a logical choice, the concept of revegetating hazardous waste sites with native plants is relatively new. In the past, hyroseeding or laying sod was the accepted practice. Well, the EPA along with a number of other federal agencies have realized that the use of native species makes a lot more sense. They’re realizing that some of the erosion control mixes have a shorter lifetime, whereas a native species will accomplish the same thing in terms of holding the soil in place and having a much longer life and will thrive under drought conditions. Behind you as you walk down there is another fenced area, Recently, EPA.s Environmental Response Team hosted a workshop on native habitat restoration at Superfund sites. Classroom work was supplemented by field visits to cleanup sites where revegetation with native species is planned. It’s not a full community because the soil is really not so great. One of the leaders of the field tour was Steve Handel, a researcher for rutgers university (Department of Ecology and Evolution) We’re really interested in restoration of native communities. Native plants give us enormous ecological functions, they tend to be self-sustainable, and they require very little maintenance. If you contrast this with just putting in grasses to stop soil erosion, you have a really rather dull habitat, which doesn.t develop through time. In the continental United States, European settlement is considered a benchmark for native plant species. With the immigration of people from around the globe came a multitude of plant species new to North America. Unfortunately, many of these exotic, or alien, species of plants, if given the right conditions, became invasive, spreading rapidly without the controls that were present in their native habitats. In fact, some invasives become so persistent that monocultures develop, disrupting complete ecosysytems. Soils at hazardous waste cleanup sites are often disturbed and devoid of established native vegetation, allowing invasives to gain an easy foothold on the fragile ecology. This liability can be used as an advantage however, if native plants are introduced to a site as soon as possible. Through teaming agreements with agencies already experienced in native species revegetation, EPA is now embracing the practice fullscale. At an oil clean up site that threatened Newark, New Jersey’s water supply, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, assisted EPA with the selection and planting of over 900 trees and shrubs. We want to keep it as natural as possible. Unlike some of the other projects where they kind of make a park land out of a destroyed area, we are actually going back and putting in the original species of plants that were in there. So by doing that we are actually bringing it back to its native condition, and we are also keeping the evasives out. The site lies on a flood plain a bank of the Pequenock River. The intra-agency partnership made choosing plants and materials best suited to prevent erosion while providing biodiversity easy. We were looking at it from a stabilization standpoint, choosing plants that would help hold the bank together, in addition to providing some habitat, some wildlife habitat, and incorporating plant species that would allow more diversity and that were well adapted for this site. Basically what we’re doing is jump-starting the natural succession that would have occurred here, allowing species to kind of get a home quicker than they might normally. Well, the site that we’re at here today is a good indication of what you can get if you remove the contamination and sort of encourage nature with the introduction and planting of appropriate native species. The vegetation that you see here today represents above-ground material, but keep in mind that there is an equal amount of material that is in the soil itself.So that when this area floods in the spring, all the root systems are intact. So this vegetation serves a great purpose in erosion control and protecting the quality of the water for the reservoir system for the City of Newark. Native plant communities also attract a more diverse and larger mix of animals. Encouraging wildlife to nest in newly established native plant communities can even stimulate additional native plant growth. We’ve also learned from some of our other experiments, that once native plants and shrubs get started, they bring in animals which themselves can bring in seeds of other species. For example in one engineered site, within one year we had birds bringing in seeds of over 20 native species. Year after year, the habitat gets richer and richer and a mix of species which is self-sustainable.This self sustainability also has a positive impact on costs. Although it’s more labor-intensive to plant native communities, in the long term the ecosystem becomes virtually maintenance-free. They may take a little bit longer to establish themselves, but obviously since they’re adapted to the particular environment and climate that you’re using them in, there’s a better chance that they will thrive. Aesthetically, colonies of native plants just look better too. With the encroachment of suburbia and dwindling rural vistas, the opportunity to restore any area to a native habitat has great community appeal. We have a chance at Superfund sites of helping restore the traditional landscape of different parts of America. Many of our native habitats are very, very diverse. So in terms of just the beauty of our American landscape as well as ecological services, a mixed, rich community is really very appealing to our citizens. An Executive Order on invasive species was also signed on February 3, 1999. One of the key points of the order calls for more research on invasive and native plant species. Scientists like myself in ecology and in related disciplines are doing a whole series of experiments to try to advise people, contractors, municipalities, federal agencies, in how to bring back the historic American landscape. We have to know more about how plants spread from place to place? What limits their reproduction? Is it just soil properties or the availability of native bees or dispersers? But we have made great progress and I think we know what we have to do in the years ahead. The Executive Order also mandates increased public education and awareness. For managers at hazardous waste sites, this means teaming with agencies already knowledgeable onnative plant ecology. Well, the OSCs have many options if they really are interested in, the use of native species. They can contact people within the EPA like the ERT, or they can go directly to the members of the, of the Regional Response Teams, where they can access talent from the NRCS and the Fish and Wildlife Service to help them out because both those agencies have planting lists of native species that are appropriate for their particular area. This distinct regional expertise, coupled with advances in research and a positive public perception, is making native plants the new standard for revegetation at former hazardous waste sites. (music playing)

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