by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer
Two years ago, Lee Frelich was sitting in a committee meeting when the idea came to him: the Ecological Society should plant a forest.
Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, served as the local host for this year’s (2013) Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Two years ago he was already embedded in meetings of the Meetings Committee, learning the ropes from hosts that had gone before him. So he knew that ESA had a small pot of money to spend each year for carbon offsets, awaiting a good application.
ESA sets aside $5 for every person attending the Annual Meeting to offset the environmental costs of travel to the meeting location. This year, on Frelich’s advice, the Society wrote a check for $16,615 to Great River Greening, a Minnesota non-profit devoted to restoration of local lands and waters.
“I thought, why don’t we plant a new forest? Then I thought, well, that’s what Great River Greening does,” said Frelich. He likes Great River Greening because it is dedicated to plant restoration, operates through community engagement, and employs ecologists. He called to ask if they had an old agricultural site that needed re-planting but lacked funds . They put together a proposal. Then he pitched it to ESA’s elected board. Approval came in about a month before the Annual Meeting this August.
“It took a two year trajectory to get to the point where they are going to go out and plant some of the trees this fall, in just a few weeks,” said Frelich.
This October and November, Great River Greening will muster its volunteer forces to the chosen site on the Rum River. It’s a little farther afield than they usually work, but it will plug one hole in an important north-south migratory corridor formed by the state designated “Wild and Scenic” Rum River, which runs 89 miles (as the warbler flies) from Mille Lacs Lake to converge with the Mississippi just north of the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area.
The old farm site along the river was left fallow many years ago, but a dense infestation of non-native and extremely adaptable reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) has held back the forest. Seedlings, shaded and crowded by the dense canary grass, just can’t get started.
“There’s a reason why the forest hasn’t come back,” said Wayne Ostlie, Director of Conservation Programs for Green River Greening. “We’ll have to control the canary grass first, then come in and plant the forest with natives.” Silver maple, cottonwood, and burr oak are among the dominant floodplain tree species they expect to plant.
Given a little help to establish themselves, within a few years young trees and shrubs will put the canary grass in the shade, turning the ecological tables on it. The growing forest will help stabilize the riverbank, and keep soil out of the river.
Projects that fill in habitat holes help migratory species like the warblers that fly up from the tropics to summer in Minnesota.
“Their issue is the fragmentation of the landscape,” said Frelich. Warblers that build their nests at forest edges do not flourish. The open spaces leave them vulnerable to predators and cowbirds that foist eggs on unwilling warbler foster parents. Continuous shade along the river also helps keep the water at the right temperature for fish.
Using data from Fissore et al.’s 2010 paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Frelich and Peter Reich calculated that in ten years, each hectare of trees would transubstantiate into wood the carbon dioxide emissions of 766,000 airline passenger kilometers – equal to about 170 round-trips to San Francisco, or 670 round-trips to Chicago.
Green River Greening expects to plant about two hectares. Monies left over after planting will be plowed back into other reforestation projects.