I was asked to speak at the public library this past Saturday after a showing of the inspiring documentary, The Story of STRAW. Contrary to the appearance of the title, the film does not describe how grass stalks are baled, but instead tells the story of how a classroom of kids and devoted teachers changed the fate of an endangered freshwater shrimp in a California watershed. The shrimp had fallen on hard times because their stream habitat had become degraded over time. Where once there were trees to hold the soil, shade the water, and offer exposed underwater roots for the shrimp to hide among, there were now cows tromping up and down eroded banks to graze on the grass.
Out of a young student's simple question, "What can we do?", was born Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed. Working with ranchers, they fenced off the stream and planted willows along some 20 miles. The willows grew into a wooded corridor to protect the stream, shrimp numbers rebounded, birds and other wildlife returned to the watershed, and the group won a prestigious prize. An effort, apparently successful, was made to incorporate the work into the school's curriculum, boding well for the program's longevity.
The film brought back memories of one my first formative environmental experiences. A few times as a kid, I talked my dad into driving me to various streams to fish. Each time, the vision in my mind was of a healthy stream packed with smallmouth bass. What we encountered instead were textbook cases of environmental degradation and the destructive impact of invasive species. A waterway called Turtle Creek, for instance, looked promising on the map, but when we arrived, we found a muddy stream flowing through a cow pasture. Carp had taken the place of smallmouth bass. That creek, and I'm sure many others in Wisconsin's dairyland at that time, were in need of the same restoration STRAW was able to bring about in their California watershed.
A compelling vision of healthy ecosystems drives most anyone who finds themselves cutting down invasive shrubs or hauling water down a path to newly planted trees. It's a challenge, however, to translate the movie's appealing message of reforestation to the realities of Princeton's open space. The work of reforesting Princeton's cow pastures was done decades ago by the trees themselves, when most of the farms were left to go fallow. Human effort has been channeled into saving the land from development--work that began at least 40 years ago and continues to this day.
The restoration needing to be done involves not the sort of reforestation that makes for dramatic before and after photos, but a more subtle reestablishment of non-woody plants--wildflowers, grasses and so forth--that were obliterated by the plow and have not made as successful a return as the trees.
The locations in Princeton most like the pastures in the movie are retention basins--those curious looking turfy hollows carved out to catch runoff from developments. They offer a nice clean slate into which can be planted the many native species that like wet, sunny locations. Two of these--one at the Princeton High School, the other below the soccer fields at Farmview Fields on the Great Road--we've successfully transformed from turf over to native habitat.
Another inspirational project of this sort, that like the movie includes a great deal of participation by children, is in Ann Arbor, MI, where a vast swath of unused turf in an urban park was recontoured to catch runoff and host a rich assortment of native wildflowers, grasses and sedges. Prescribed burns make for an elegant and safely executed means of cleaning the plantings up each spring.