Secretary Jewell joins biologist Vinny Turner in data collection using the surface elevation table. Credit: Keith Shannon/USFWS

Sedimentary, My Dear Watson: Saving Salt Marsh after Hurricane Sandy

Ask longtime coastal ecologist Marci Cole Ekberg what the biggest challenge is for the future of coastal marshes in Rhode Island, and she’ll tell you it’s the lack of sediment, a condition that became considerably more pronounced after the impact of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

“The Maidford Marsh region is accreting between 1 and 1.7 millimeters per year,” says the coastal ecologist for long-time Newport area environmental group and FWS partner Save the Bay. “So… not enough to keep up with sea-level rise.”

Nick Ernst and Marci Cole Eckberg discuss marsh elevation at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Tom Sturm/USFWS

Nick Ernst and Marci Cole Eckberg discuss marsh elevation at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Tom Sturm/USFWS

A lack of sediment can be a huge problem for coastal marshes that are facing rising seas and increasingly frequent and intense tropical storms fueled by climate change. Maidford Marsh is a relatively small area that shares an isthmus with Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, but the challenge is a state-wide and even a global one. Ocean-borne storm and wave erosion combined with the lack of replenishment from estuaries whose rivers have been dammed or choked off by centuries of industrial development has left once-hardy tidal marsh ecosystems at a precipitous juncture where elevations cannot keep up with predicted sea level rise.

“You’ve heard it said in the world of real estate that it’s all about ‘location, location, location,’” says Susan Adamowicz, Ph. D., Land Management Research & Demonstration Biologist at Maine’s Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.  “In these coastal ecosystems, it’s all about ‘elevation, elevation, elevation.’”

Adamowicz acknowledges that the pace at which a salt marsh system might be able to naturally adapt to changing conditions as been far outstripped by human development, increased storm activity and climate change-fueled sea-level rise. As someone who’s been witnessing the ongoing struggle for decades, she’s excited by the possibilities afforded by Hurricane Sandy resiliency funding to pursue solutions that can help return larger amounts of sediment to the coast and boost marsh elevation. Exactly what solutions?

“We can try to figure out what human alterations have been made to these sites, and undo them,” she suggests for starters. “Have we restricted tidal flows by a road crossing or railroad crossing so tidal waters don’t come in with the force that they used to, so they’re not able to bring in sediments from the coastal waters? Have we dammed up some of our rivers and not only prevented fish passage upstream for migratory fish, but also dammed off these sediments way up in the watershed and prevented them from coming down to the seashore?”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Many U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projects currently funded with Sandy resilience dollars, including marsh restorations in Delaware, New Jersey and a stretch from Rhode Island to southern Maine, focus on restoring sediment transport to help bolster healthy coastal marshes and enhance natural defenses that protect coastal communities and sustain people and wildlife. Damaged and undersized culverts are being replaced where needed, and obsolete dams are likewise being evaluated for removal, including several in Maryland,  Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Other, similar projects are being funded through the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Grant program from the Department of the Interior and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

At John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge, ten miles southwest of Sachuest Point on Pettaquamscutt Cove, the effects of lost marsh elevation are being felt by the salt marsh sparrow, a bird species of high conservation concern that builds nests down inside the deep swirls of grass that make up a healthy salt marsh. When marshes don’t accrete (build up their own sediment) enough to keep up with sea-level rise, the low nests are flooded and the sparrows’ eggs will wash away; already-hatched young will drown. Here, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is in the early stages of perhaps the most drastic of remediation measures: dredging river-bottom sediment and depositing a skim of clean, tested dredge materials onto disappearing salt marsh (a technique known as thin-layer deposition).

Days-old salt marsh sparrows nest deep down in the thick, swirling marsh grasses. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Days-old salt marsh sparrows nest deep down in the thick, swirling marsh grasses. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

“Depending on the sea-level rise, various models have the population going extinct in 50-60 years,” says wildlife biologist Nick Ernst, whose team at the Chafee refuge is using Hurricane Sandy resilience funding and years of accumulated research from the SHARP and I&M programs to try to improve conditions for the sparrows. “There’s not a lot of sediment to build up the salt marshes here; it’s a sediment-starved system. So we’re going to try to jump-start that process by putting thin-layer deposition—dredge material from the river—onto certain areas of the marsh to try to increase that elevation so the sparrows have a place to nest in the meantime, [while we] try to combat the sea-level rise we’re going to be witnessing over the next couple of decades.”

Test dredging and sediment deposit are scheduled to begin in late fall or early winter at the Chafee refuge, Ernst says, with full-scale implementation commencing in 2015-2016.

For more information on how federal resilience funding is being used to clean, restore and enhance natural areas that were affected by Hurricane Sandy, please visit our Hurricane Sandy Recovery page. To read more detailed stories about funded projects in action, browse our blog posts here.


Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture turns 10!

The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture recently held its 10-year anniversary recognition meeting in West Virginia. Today, fisheries biologist Catherine Gatenby shares her story about the partnership’s conservation journey, and highlights many of the natural resource accomplishments achieved during the past decade.


The Eastern brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are an American symbol of pristine wilderness. Photo credit: Robert S. Michelson of Photography By Michelson, Inc.Brook trout

The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV) is celebrating its 10th year this fall.  This National Fish Habitat partnership is going strong – protecting water quality and restoring healthy populations of wild native brook trout in the Eastern United States.EBTJV_10TH_anniv_photo_at_NCTC[1]

The partnership is made up of more than 370 agencies, organizations and citizens from Maine to Georgia. During the past decade, EBTJV projects have opened and restored more than 400 miles of river to wild brook trout. That distance equates to 7,392 football fields lined up end zone to end zone! The work has also restored nearly 500 acres of brook trout habitat (imagine 245 soccer fields).  That’s a lot of space to fish, play or swim.


Lynn Camp Prong is now home to the greatest brook trout population in the Great Smoky National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service


Anglers benefit from the work of the Joint Venture when brook trout habitat is restored to its natural state. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

Why all the attention on brook trout? In past centuries, brook trout reigned in eastern rivers and streams. Today, less than 9 percent of their historic habitat is intact. Most brook trout can be found only in headwater streams, where forest cover helps maintain the cool temperatures they need, river water is clean and well-oxygenated, and there is plenty of food.

“The eastern brook trout really is an American symbol of pristine wilderness and our national fishing heritage,” says Callie McMunigal, who leads brook trout projects for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They also are excellent indicators of clean water and a healthy environment, and their disappearance indicates environmental decline. Through the EBJTV and the Service, we are improving water quality in streams and rivers by reducing sedimentation caused from erosion, reducing runoff of contaminants and increasing natural filtration around rivers.”


Before photo: This culvert in Long Mountain Brook, Coos County, NH impeded access to eastern brook trout’s native habitat. Photo credit: EBTJV


After photo: This culvert replacement project in Long Mountain Brook, Coos County, NH (part of the Nash Stream watershed) has greatly improved habitat for the eastern brook trout. Read more on the Nash Stream Restoration Effort in the 2014 list of Ten Waters to Watch; Photo Credit: EBTJV












Steve Perry is Coordinator for the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture  and retired Inland Fisheries Division Chief for New Hampshire Fish and Game (he’s also a master angler!). Steve says he got hooked on the idea of forming the partnership in 2004, when he was part of a group of people with phenomenal passion and commitment for conserving brook trout.

“The enthusiasm generated during that initial meeting has propelled us to making this partnership into reality,” he says, adding that the common vision of the group and a “big picture” assessment of the brook trout’s rangewide status provided the scientific foundation for the partnership’s success.

“The assessment really showed us how things looked and what needed to be done,” Steve says. “It paved the way for the adoption of a series of conservation priorities that could be addressed at regional, state, and local levels, giving everyone a seat at our partnership’s table.”

Since the partnership formed a decade ago, it has grown from 50 to more than 300 partners today.

Steve predicts “the best is yet to come.”

Next steps? The EBTJV will continue to play an active role in landscape-scale conservation efforts, coordinating with other partnerships, such as the Appalachian and North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. These science-based cooperatives are producing models and other tools to help resource managers do the right work in the right places to achieve the best results.

EBTJVInfographicFinal_8.5x11 (2)

Our restoration success stories have created $232 million in economic benefits and other impressive milestones as illustrated in the colorful infographic. Credit: USFWS

Learn more about National Fish Habitat Partnerships
Learn more about Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture.

Read more about the Joint Venture’s ten year success story.

Read other blogs on celebrating the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture

For the love of nature, the Sisters of St. Francis preserve the Stella Niagara

Stella Niagara_Jajean photoToday we hear from Jajean Rose-Burney, Development Director at the Western New York Land Conservancy, about a unique partnership among a religious order of nuns, a non-profit land protection agency, and a federal grant program that all share a common interest in natural resource conservation.

View from the shoreline at Stella Niagara. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

View from shoreline at the Stella Niagara. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Imagine a place with inspiring views, a shoreline along a majestic river, rich with history of Native American cultures and historic battles, and acres of vulnerable wildlife habitat. That place is Stella Niagara. All of us at the Western New York Land Conservancy, a regional not-for-profit land trust, are working to protect Stella Niagara in perpetuity, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is helping fund our effort.


The story of this special place began many millennia ago. As glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, they left behind enormous basins of freshwater, what we know as the Great Lakes. A river, the Niagara, formed between two of those lakes, carving its way through a steep escarpment, forming a deep gorge and a rushing cataract, Niagara Falls. A few miles downriver, past the raging rapids and roaring falls, and beyond the impenetrable gorge, you’ll find a gently sloping emerald plain along the tranquil turquoise waters of the lower Niagara River. This beautiful shoreline is the Stella Niagara.

Stella Niagara is one of a handful of natural landing sites along the Niagara River, a place that allows for easy access to and from the river. For centuries, many Native American groups launched canoes from this spot as they hunted, fished, and traded on the Niagara. It was the very spot where the British landed during the War of 1812 on their way to burn the Village of Lewiston and capture Fort Niagara. It was also the very spot that the Sisters of St. Francis, an order of Franciscan nuns, chose to call home in 1907. They have been the owners and stewards of this property ever since.

Stella Niagara chapel_old photo

The Stella Niagara property is home to a small chapel that was in the national spotlight in 1955 when it ‘miraculously’ survived a flood of ice that destroyed many other properties. Photo courtesy of Western New York Land Conservancy

Stella Niagara photo5_blog_chapel

The Chapel at Stella Niagara as it stands today. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Recently, the Sisters began evaluating economic realities as part of a long range planning process and decided to sell their 29 acres along the Niagara River at Stella Niagara. As the largest privately-owned, undeveloped frontage along the entire Niagara River, this parcel is heavily eyed for development. In keeping with the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi and the Sisters’ deeply held concern for the natural environment, they asked the Land Conservancy to purchase, and protect, this spectacular property.

When I spoke with Sister Edith Wyss, Provincial Minister of the Sisters of St. Francis, about their offer, she said “There are certain places in the world that are so spiritually uplifting and whose beauty is so awe-inspiring that they just have to be protected for future generations to enjoy. Stella Niagara is one of those treasures.”

The Stella Niagara property will secure both aquatic and upland wildlife habitat. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Trust

The Stella Niagara property provides both aquatic and upland wildlife habitat. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Trust

Protecting the Stella Niagara property is part of a broader strategy to protect wildlife habitat along the Niagara River. The river is internationally designated as a globally significant Important Bird Area, on par with places like the Everglades and Yellowstone. The river supports threatened species of plants and animals, like the bald eagle and lake sturgeon, and is home to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl and gulls during the winter. Black-crowned night herons, endangered in many Great Lakes states, are common on the Stella Niagara property. Because of its unique currents, the shallow water off-shore from Stella Niagara is an important hatchery for numerous species of freshwater fish.

Stella Niagara property provides important habitat for many wildlife species and is considered  a globally significant Important Bird Area. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Stella Niagara property provides habitat for many wildlife species and is considered a globally significant Important Bird Area. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

In June 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, through the Joint Venture Habitat Protection and Restoration Program awarded us $300,000 to support the purchase of this land. Upon hearing the news of the awarded grant, Nancy Smith, the Executive Director of the Land Conservancy said, “We are so grateful for receiving this significant award, and we are thankful to the Sisters of St. Francis for working with us to protect this spectacular place.”

The property will provide outdoor recreation opportunities in the local community. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

The property provides outdoor recreation opportunities in the local community. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Once acquired, we will open the property as a publicly accessible nature preserve, called the Stella Niagara Preserve, the first nature preserve to be owned and operated by a not-for-profit along the Niagara River. The preserve will have walking trails and allow for fishing and kayak access on the river.

Learn more about the Western New York Land Conservancy

Learn more about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative