Just 200 years ago, northwest Ohio was one big swamp. Locals called it the Great Black Swamp and its 900,000 acres of rich wetlands stretched from the area close to what is now known as the Sandusky Bay, through western Ohio and into the neighboring state of Indiana. Interspersed with vast stretches of ash, elm, maple and oak forest cover, the area provided a fertile habitat for birds, mammals, fish and insects.
Needless to say, EcoSummit 2012 attendees who sign up for the Lake Erie Coastal Wetlands and Birding Tour will see just a portion of Ohio’s original wetlands, which have been pushed back by farming and development. Heather Elmer, who is helping to organize the tour, says only a fraction of the original wetlands still exist. She added, “Ohio has lost a greater percentage of its historical wetland acreage than any other state except California. We’ve lost over 90 percent.”
Elmer is coordinator of the Ohio Coastal Training Program at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife’s Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve. Old Woman Creek is one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERRS) that support resilient communities and ecosystems through integrated research and education. The federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funds NERRS.
Elmer designs science-based training for professionals and decision-makers, and manages collaborative research-bridging science and policy to improve Lake Erie.
Elmer said it is important for EcoSummit delegates to see what Ohio is doing to make its coastal region sustainable because wetland issues here are much the same as they are in other parts of the world.
“Wetlands can retain up to 80 percent of the nitrates and 92 percent of phosphorus in surface water,” according to Elmer. “Excess nutrients can lead to harmful algal blooms, which degrade the ecological system and threaten human health. These valuable ecosystems can also degrade organic contaminants like pharmaceuticals and pesticides and act as carbon sinks.”
Today it is realized that the sustainability of ecological systems is directly linked to the sustainability of a region’s economic system. Elmer said, “We have a vibrant tourism sector along Lake Erie with more than $10.7 billion spent annually by lake visitors to the counties along Ohio’s coast. So, keeping Lake Erie clean is important to our regional economy and wetlands are an important asset for keeping the water clean.”
Along with vacation visitors and the region’s year-round residents, 11 million people use Lake Erie as their daily source of drinking water, which includes three million Ohioans. Elmer said, “Coastal wetlands are really Lake Erie’s last line of defense for runoff into our watershed, and protect us from erosion and act like a sponge for runoff that can come from parking lots and other hard surfaces. The services wetlands provide have been valued at $300,000 per acre.”
Elmer said participants in the wetlands field trip will see five different wetland sites along Lake Erie, including a visit to Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve. She added, “The barrier beach at Old Woman Creek in Huron, Ohio, is the southernmost point along the shore in the entire Great Lakes. It’s a very dynamic system, but the estuary is protected in perpetuity for integrated coastal research and education.”
The tour also includes a stop at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which is bordered on the west by Metzger Marsh State Wildlife Area and on the east by Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area, with Lake Erie forming all three areas’ northern boundary. Tour participants will see first hand how the surrounding wetlands and ecosystem restoration efforts have made the area one of the top 10 birding spots in North America.
Elmer said field trip participants will meet a broad range of scientists who are conducting research into such topics as how wetlands breakdown pollutants and impact global warming.
“We would like them to walk away with an understanding of the lessons learned in the Great Lakes,” said Elmer. “People know that the lakes were in bad shape a few decades ago. I hope we can share our story of our progress and learn from our visitors. They have stories to share about their efforts to revive coastal wetlands in their native countries.”
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