Friday, May 19, 2023

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the PHS Ecolab Wetland

On Nov. 6 this past fall, I was returning from a California tour with a latin/jazz band, feeling celebratory. The tour had gone well, but then I received word that something in Princeton had happened that would spoil the return. This is what I found the next morning. The Princeton High School Ecolab wetland had been stripped of vegetation. 

For the past fifteen years, since being converted from turfgrass to native habitat, the wetland has looked like this, packed with more than 30 species of native wildflowers, sedges, rushes, and shrubs like silky dogwood, elderberry, buttonbush, and swamp rose. Though packed with native vegetation, the Ecolab has continued to perform its function of collecting runoff from surrounding roofs and then releasing that water into the town's system of storm drains. Long ago, I learned from experience that native plants thrive in wet, sunny places. The Ecolab is a stellar example. 

Over the years, the magic of this planting has resided not only in the periodic infusions of runoff from the school roof, but also in the sump pump, nicknamed "Old Faithful", which consistently delivered a gift of water from the school's footings into the Ecolab every 20 minutes or so, keeping the wetland wet even through droughts. 

That consistent moisture has sustained frogs and crayfish, and even a very rarely encountered native plant called the marsh marigold. Through those fifteen years, the PHS Ecolab had been Princeton's premier demonstration of how to use water in the landscape before sending it down a pipe to Carnegie Lake. As its name suggests, it has also been used as a teaching tool by the highschool's environmental science teachers.

The project was in-house from the beginning. In 2006, seeing how lawnmowers struggled to cut the grass in this very wet detention basin, I contacted environmental science teacher Tim Anderson and school board member Charlotte Bialek, and together we got permission from the school to create what became known as the Ecolab wetland. High school students designed a series of three ponds for water to flow through on its way through the basin. The grounds crew dug the ponds, and students, teachers, and I dug "littoral" shelves around the edges of the pond, for plants that like to grow near water but not in it. The received important help from a federal agency, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, in shifting from turf to native vegetation, but that help was brief and freely given. 

Over the years, students, teachers, and I have managed the vegetation, keeping out invasive species and discouraging the more aggressive natives like cattails.

In the fall of 2021, Jim Smirk and other environmental science teachers invited me to speak to their students about the wetland's functioning and history. Teachers were excited about expanding the use of the wetland in their curriculum, and converting another detention basin on school grounds to native habitat for study. 

So, what happened? 

How did we end up with a big machine and bare dirt where a wetland had flourished? 

The answer resides deep in the nature of institutions and how they tend to view nature. While the teachers, students, and I were viewing the ecolab wetland's native diversity as a richness and an opportunity, another part of the school--in central administrative offices distant from the high school--was viewing all that lush, complex native growth with a less friendly eye. 

Ask yourself why the lawn continues to dominate our suburban landscapes. For those of us who love nature in all its complexity, a lawn is boring. But for others, nature's complexity is disturbing, confusing, intimidating, and must be fought against. A grounds crew's job is to subdue and simplify nature, not to nurture and work with it. Thus, two very different and opposing narratives about the Ecolab have thrived for more than a decade in different "silos" of the school system.

What finally brought these two opposing views into direct conflict was trees. The Ecolab was originally planted without trees, so as not to pose a threat to surrounding buildings. But at some point, a few willows sprouted on their own and were allowed to grow, on the premise that they would benefit the birds by adding structure to the habitat. When the trees got too big for volunteers to cut down, we asked the facilities department to remove them. Those periodic requests over a number of years, by phone message or email, did not gain a response. It didn't make sense. Here we were maintaining a useful, attractive wetland on school grounds for free. Why couldn't the facilities department help out by removing the trees that had become too large? We grew discouraged.

Though all our work and the teachers' enthusiasm for utilizing the Ecolab for educational purposes were widely known and praised, the counter narrative gained momentum in the school system's distant administrative offices. There, the Ecolab was portrayed as degraded, overgrown, and overrun by invasive species--too much for mere volunteers to care for. Despite awareness that the Ecolab was used for educational purposes, no one invited the teachers and volunteers to participate in decision-making. 

This past summer, unbeknownst to us, a proposal was solicited from an outside landscape contractor who had come highly recommended. In late summer, I caught wind that actions were being considered for the Ecolab, and asked to see the proposal. I submitted a detailed critique, stating that the proposal to give the Ecolab a "reboot" was deeply flawed and lacked a basic understanding of the Ecolab and how it functions. Others gave input as well, about how important the Ecolab is for educating students.

But this last-minute input was not sufficient to break the institutional momentum. The outside contractor was hired, and proceeded to use a disastrous approach. Instead of taking time to learn about the Ecolab's native vegetation and unique functioning, the contractor decided to act first and assess later. Instead of selectively cutting the trees with a chain saw, they brought in a backhoe and other heavy equipment. 

They came on a Saturday, Nov. 5, and by the end of the day, every bit of vegetation had been removed except for two buttonbushes rising incongruously from the bare dirt. Reportedly, not even the high school principal had been given notice. The devastation caught everyone by surprise, even those who had paid the contractor $18,000 for their services. 

For years, the Ecolab has generated a variety of reactions. For those of us who are comfortable with managing a complex planting with more than 30 native species, the Ecolab has been a treasured oasis of natural splendor for students to appreciate and study. For others who prefer the simplicity and clean look of turfgrass, it has been a disturbing presence on an otherwise neatly manicured school grounds. 

Perhaps growing out of that discomfort, attempts were made in the past to falsely blame the Ecolab's vegetation for school flooding. This misdiagnosis proved very costly to the school system. The high school suffered catastrophic flooding twice, causing extensive damage in the basement and requiring replacement on both occasions of the performing arts stage, after flooding warped the wood flooring. The environmental science teacher at the time, Tim Anderson, and I assembled compelling evidence to show that flooding was caused not by foliage in the detention basin but by water surging in towards the school from Walnut Street. So when an outside contractor came in this past November, claiming the Ecolab was full of invasive species and in need of a "reboot," it was just one more misrepresentation of this unique planting. 

Ideally, a traumatic event like this can become a teachable moment. In the months since, the reaching across silos has finally taken place. Apologies have been made to those of us--teachers and volunteers--whose work and knowledge had not been appreciated. 

I and others have been meeting with members of the Operations Committee, teachers, and schoolboard to get the Ecolab back on track. One day, discussing the Ecolab with other volunteers and the school's Public Information Officer, Elizabeth Collier, looking for a positive way forward, an idea came to mind. Why not use the clearing of the wetland as an experiment in regeneration? Though the contractor did some digging, most of the soil is still intact. Much of the diverse native vegetation would likely resprout come spring. Teachers and their students could then witness the rebound of a wetland from dramatic disturbance, and take part in actively managing the vegetation as it rebounds, removing any tree sprouts and other aggressive species, and adding additional natives in bare areas. 

The central administrators seem now to be listening to the environmental science teachers and others of us who are the most knowledgeable about the Ecolab's functioning and have been the most invested in its ongoing care. 

Update - May 2023

The latest I've heard is that the outside contractor will no longer be involved in the Ecolab. Presumably, this means that management of the vegetation will once again be done by the teachers, students, and knowledgeable volunteers. The school's operations department continues work to repair the sump pump that had been supplying the Ecolab for more than a decade with water even during droughts. "Old Faithful" apparently got old, and stopped working a year or two ago.

As hoped, the native vegetation has begun to rebound. First to reemerge were the marsh marigolds, one of which bloomed, surrounded by what still appeared to be lifeless dirt. The poignancy of this bloom brought back memories of James Thurber's The Last Flower, a story about how, after terrible destruction, the last flower on earth became the first of many. Plants play a similar role in the movie Wall-E.

I compiled a list of lessons learned. 

Institutional Silos -- This tale certainly speaks to how conflicting narratives can spring up in different parts of a large institution like a school system.

The Invisibility of Volunteers -- Our work as volunteers over fifteen years to maintain the Ecolab remained essentially invisible to the powers that be. Emails and phone calls were not enough. Until we began showing up at official committee meetings--essentially reaching beyond our silo--we did not exist. 

Devaluing that which is freely given -- In a lifetime of working with nature, I've seen how nature gives freely, and how all that generosity can be taken for granted, and be undervalued in a society that often judges value in monetary terms. Expertise and stewardship, too, can be undervalued if it's local and freely given, without any formal written agreement. 

The false security of hiring professionals -- It is astonishing just how incompetent the professional landscape company proved to be, despite being highly recommended by a highly regarded area environmental nonprofit. I've seen less extreme examples before, in which an outside contractor is brought in with disappointing results. Regardless of professional reputation, they lack the time to gain an intimate understanding of a local site, particularly one with unique qualities like the Ecolab. Unlike local volunteers who care about the school and the community, an outside firm has no "skin in the game" beyond fulfilling a contract. Spending money on professionals brings no guarantee of desired results. 

Managing nature's complexity -- There is an initiative to add additional complex plantings such as food forests to Princeton's highschool and middle school grounds. Having educational plantings on school grounds is convenient for teachers who would otherwise face the logistical challenge and expense of transporting classes to distant locales. A good model for growing complex botanical plantings on school grounds is the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative, which hires quarter time educators/stewards to oversee care of five school vegetable gardens. For this next initiative, it will be important to acknowledge that a grounds crew is typically focused on maintaining simplified landscapes of trees and turf, and that a separate caretaker who understands and cares about nature's complexity is needed for educational plantings. The grounds crew could, however, play a valuable role,  but only in a collaborative way with a skilled caretaker. 


  1. Callie Hancock5/22/2023 5:25 PM

    Hi Steve, thank you very much for clearing up this mystery for me-- I was stunned to see the PHS wetlands suddenly gone, and nobody around me knew anything about this. And now I also know that this lovely ecosystem was due to your inspiration & leadership of the team of teachers and students doing the hard work. Thanks again! What a relief that recovery seems possible, something to look forward to.

    1. Thanks, Callie. I wanted to wait until there was a positive turn before telling the story.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this story, Steve. It is disheartening that central office administrators could not see the value and importance of preserving this natural area for our students as well as our wildlife. We as parents and educators need to teach these things now more than ever! Spending $18,000(!) of our money to turn it into "scorched earth" is mind-boggling. I am sorry for the loss and thank you for your efforts to return and restore it the best we can! It is greatly appreciated by us in the school community.