Students Get Muddy for Rhode Island Marsh Restoration

Zoe Clougher of Rogers High School  Credit: Scott Dickison

Zoe Clougher, of Rogers High School, lends a hand in strengthening Sachuest marsh through the spartina grass plug planting project. Credit: Scott Dickison

On a warm June day along the wetlands of the Maidford River, a small group of Rogers High School students knelt down onto exposed mud in a Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge marsh in Middletown, Rhode Island. Under the guidance of Rogers High School biology teacher Scott Dickison – students Elijah Swain, Zoe Clougher, Tomas Mendez and Matthew Sink dug holes before carefully planting 175 spartina grass plugs grown in their school greenhouse that spring. While digging in the mud, students observed marsh inhabitants including fiddler crabs that create burrows and birds such as willets and osprey that nest nearby.

Matt Sink pauses with a spartina grass plug in hand, before placing it into its new home on the Sachuest marsh. Credit: Scott Dickison

The goal for the grass planting is to expand, cover and recolonize an area on the western side of the Sachuest marsh that has been bare since restoration of the landfill in the mid 2000s says Wenley Ferguson, Director of Habitat Restoration for Save the Bay. The Service, in partnership with Save the Bay – an independent, not-for-profit organization working to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, identified the Sachuest site for planting and are also collaborating on the Narrow River salt marsh restoration project with student volunteers and college-aged interns. This restoration work is made possible by Hurricane Sandy resilience funds from the Department of the Interior through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.

Involving students in this hands on salt marsh restoration and adaptation project is a unique opportunity to provide young people with the tools to be active and engaged stewards of the region’s salt marshes.  They learn firsthand about salt marshes’ productivity and value to wildlife by literally being immersed in the marsh and surrounded by the crabs, fish, birds and insects that call the marsh their home.” – Wenley Ferguson, Director of Habitat Restoration for Save the Bay

Dickison and around 80 of his students collected the spartina seeds from Gooseneck Cove – a salt marsh restoration site within walking distance of the high school – in the fall of 2014. Ferguson says in years past, about 60 of Rogers’ students have planted grasses at the cove . This year the Service’s Sachuest marsh restoration project is in the planning and design stage. “We decided to have them (students) plant their salt marsh grasses at Sachuest so they would have an opportunity to learn about the proposed restoration project. We could begin to enhance vegetation in areas of the marsh not targeted for restoration,” said Ferguson.

Photo Credit: Save the Bay

Rogers High School students Zoe Clougher, Matt Sink, Elijah Swain and Tomas Mendez on site with biology teacher Scott Dickison at the Sachuest marsh. Credit: Save the Bay

In spring of 2016, Dickison and his students plan to be involved with the larger scale restoration project in the marsh. The group will grow more native grasses, and assist with plantings in the target area. Ferguson expects there to be at least another 20 to 30 student volunteers in next year’s planting project. This will include other area high schools participating in Save the Bay’s salt marsh nursery project. And the more volunteers who help steward the marshes now, the better these natural buffers will support animal and plant diversity, protect coastal communities and adapt to changing conditions in the future.

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