Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary partners with water managers to restore wetlands
The Big Cypress Basin is working with Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to help restore wetland habitats by removing trees that have taken over swamplands.
The basin will provide Corkscrew $100,000 to help augment a multi-million-dollar effort to restore the ecologic function of the wetlands in the sanctuary, a Jan. 14 news release says.
The sanctuary is working to remove willows and other woody vegetation that have invaded about 1,800 acres of the 18,000-acre swamp, said Marshall Olson, Corkscrew’s director of conservation.
“What you see happening is a reduction in biodiversity and wildlife habitat,” Olson said. “From those standpoints alone, we really want to control this willow.”
Normally, wetlands are dominated by herbaceous, or non-woody, plants that ripen in different parts of the year providing food sources and cover for wildlife year-round as well as a corridor for the animals to move in.
“When you have an overabundance of woody vegetation, you really don’t have any of that,” he said.
The regional partnership project with the basin will help the sanctuary mechanically harvest about 200 acres of the invading vegetation. So far, it has removed about 670 acres on its own.
This shifting to willows and other woody vegetation is potentially one problem instigating a change in the hydrology, or water levels, within the sanctuary. Recent studies show water leaves the swamp much more quickly than normal and the hope is removing the willows will help alleviate some of those changes.
The basin and sanctuary have already partnered in a modeling effort to determine other potential causes. A modeling effort is underway and should conclude this year.
Lisa Koehler, administrator of the Big Cypress Basin, said decades of data show this decline in the sanctuary’s water.
“We went to explore options to see if we could pinpoint what was causing the decline so rapidly and obviously see if there is anything we can do about it,” she said.
One goal of this for the sanctuary, Olson said, was to get to a point where vegetation management could be done with a prescribed burn regimen.
This can reduce fuel on the ground to stop any potential wildfires and restore the wetlands to pyric, or fire-tolerant conditions.
“Once we’re able to put fire in there, we can maintain a biodiverse plant community,” he said. “Fire is really how our ecosystems and plant communities have formed. We’re trying to do what nature would do if we didn’t interfere.”
And so far, removing the woody vegetation in parts of the sanctuary has been successful. Olson said efforts began around 2013 and have continued steadily since.
He said it’s an easy partnership with the Big Cypress Basin since its core mission and priorities include protecting and restoring wetlands throughout the watershed.
For the past seven years or so, the basin has had around $1 million to help fund various regional projects, but that has increased under the basin board’s newest leadership.
“When Ms. (Charlette) Roman came on board, she saw the value of this program,” Koehler said. “This was something she was really interested in to make sure we had adequate funding to help with water quality issues, so we increased (the budget) to $1.5 million for partnerships.”
The basin has other regional partnerships with various entities in its boundary. Among them are expanding a filter marsh with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, rerouting stormwater with Collier County in Freedom Park and converting septic to sewer with the City of Naples.
“Whenever we are looking at the list of applications coming in, we balance those against our mission and strategic plan,” Koehler said.
If the willow is changing water levels at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary if can also affects areas downstream.
“If you start pushing out other native plants, you push out habitat for the animals in those areas,” she said. “So, it’s important to remove from those natural areas.”
Olson said this is a long-term project for the sanctuary where areas can take around five years to be restored. After mechanically harvesting the large vegetation, the areas are spot treated with herbicides to eventually allow the herbaceous plants to come back and a fire regimen can begin.
“We’re just capitalizing on what nature would do,” he said. “We’d love to share these results and processes and strategies with anyone.”
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk