|Bio Research Leads to Permanent Conservation of Local Wetlands and Uplands
December 05, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
The thigh-high grass of the West Branch Wetland conceals mucky water, making footing treacherous. Your next step might be onto a stable clump of vegetation, or into a covered hole deep enough to send chilled water cascading over your boot tops. It’s no place for people to picnic or build, but it’s heaven for frogs, salamanders, turtles, and snakes.
|(l-r) Student researcher Devynn Birx-Raybuck '09 and Davidson Lands Conservancy Executive Director Roy Alexander '64 muck around in the West Branch wetlands.|
Several years of fieldwork by Davidson College’s Herpetology Laboratory have revealed an astounding diversity of flora and fauna at the remote site just four miles east of campus. The discovery built momentum for a conservation movement that has led Mecklenburg County to purchase the rare wetland for permanent protection. It’s an exciting example for students of how scientific research can directly influence public policy.
Mike Dorcas, associate professor of biology, has been directing students in local population studies of reptiles and amphibians since he joined the faculty in 1998. Unfortunately, the work often is like counting heads on a sinking ship. His before-and-after studies clearly document the harm that real estate development in this fast-growing area causes to frogs, salamanders, snakes and turtles that depend on unpolluted water and undisturbed woodlands.
Searching for new study sites for his reptile and amphibian investigations class, Dorcas in about 1999 learned of a large wetland east of town adjacent to the West Branch of the Rocky River. “It was awesome and hugely diverse,” he recalled. “When we started sampling, we found that essentially any wetland amphibian found in the region could be found there.”
The 23-acre bottom land site had been farmed as recently as 1974. But nature had quickly reclaimed the fallow property, and beavers dammed a small creek on one edge to form a shallow permanent pond on some of the property. A berm created by Corps of Engineers dredging of the river in the early 1900s prevented the wetland from naturally flooding. Because the area dried out occasionally (except for the beaver pond), the amphibian and reptile population thrived with minimal threat from predatory fish.
J.D. Willson ’02 was one of Dorcas’s primary researchers. “We caught large numbers of animals,” Willson said. “That showed us there were big populations at the site. We had surveyed a lot of places around the college in previous studies, but this was the hot spot.”
Visiting Instructor Steven Price directed turtle studies in the beaver pond that confirmed populations of mud turtles, snapping turtles, painted turtles and sliders. Willson also recalls finding garter snakes, water snakes, and the very rare ribbon snake in the thicket of beaver dam limbs. In fact, a complete herpetological inventory of the site revealed 10 species of frogs and toads, six of salamanders, six of turtles, four of lizards and eight of snakes. The latter includes the only known population of Eastern Ribbon Snakes in the area.
The Davidson team immediately recognized the value of the wooded uplands surrounding the wetland. Dorcas explained, “A lot of animals that use the wetland also depend on surrounding uplands. Many amphibians come to the wetland only to breed, and spend the rest of the time in the surrounding forest. Some turtles hibernate on the dry land surrounding a wet area, and all turtles make their nests on land. A big component of wetland ecology is the critical upland habitat surrounding it.”
Research has shown that marbled salamanders travel up to 625 meters from the water, and recommends that as much as 300 meters of upland habitat surrounding a wetland should be left undisturbed to help maintain its ecological integrity.
The wetland and surrounding upland was owned by a development firm called Forest City Development. In 2002 Forest City sought approval from the Town of Davidson to build on it an 843-unit neighborhood to be called “Summer’s Walk.” By law, development could not encroach into the wetland itself. But the town approved a Summer’s Walk master plan that included houses built right up to edge of the wetland, encompassing all of the upland. “It would have turned the wetland into a very big detention pond, and that would have been a terrible shame,” said Roy Alexander ’64, executive director of the Davidson Lands Conservancy (DLC).
Dorcas was a member of the DLC and sought its help in conserving the uplands. Led by its president, Sterling Martin ’63, DLC appealed to town planners to also protect 67 acres of upland. Two local garden clubs got involved and paid for a botanical survey of the land, which documented more than 100 species of plants.
|Professor Dorcas points out some of the work of the many beavers in the ecosystem.|
But the town had already approved Forest City’s plan, and the developer was not amenable to the loss of so much land and potential revenue.
Alexander was willing to initiate a DLC fundraising campaign to purchase the property, but knew it would take several million dollars. So he appealed to the Mecklenburg County Parks Department in hopes of tapping the much deeper pockets of county government.
Key county officials were impressed by the potential of the site. The county had conducted a “greenprint” study that identified the wetland as one of the top 10 most desirable properties for preservation in the county. Steve Law, county real estate officer, said “The greenprint process and years of documented biological research by Mike and his students were enormous resources for me in persuading people this was a tremendously important acquisition for the county.”
The county currently maintains 20 nature preserves, and most are alluvial wetlands along the Catawba River on the other side of the county. “There are very few wetlands left in Mecklenburg County,” explained Law. “And this one was in danger of being developed.” The property filled a geographical gap in a map of proposed county nature centers, and is also on the proposed route of two county greenway projects and a regional greenway.
A team of representatives from the county, town, and college began trying to help the developer find an economically viable way to include uplands preservation in the site plan. At one point the town enlisted the expertise of renowned “green” planner Randall Arant, who drew up some altered, more environmentally friendly, plans for the subdivision.
But it may have been the economic downturn that finally won the day. Forest City apparently concluded that it could not make its economic model work without building on the upland property. So the company unexpectedly offered to sell the entire 90-acre upland and wetland area to Mecklenburg County as a way to recoup its investment. By selling the property, the development shrunk to 341 units, all located outside the upland area.
Negotiations began, and the parties recently signed the sales agreement at a price of $4.2 million, which was available through the county’s 2007 land bonds.
|Birx-Raybuck and one of the species of salamanders that need both wetland and upland to survive.|
The county hopes some day to build a nature center on the site. Don Seriff , the county natural resources program manager, envisions activities such as public recreation, educational programming for school children, and maybe even permanent lab and office space for Davidson College biologists. “We would love to continue the relationship,” he said.
Seriff said Davidson College was the vital link in the preservation project. “If Mike and students hadn’t gotten involved we wouldn’t have recognized the importance of it at the level we do now,” he said. “This is a great example of citizen science, of students doing real research on conservation issues and getting positive results.”
Biology department faculty member Steven Price, who led much of the research in the wetlands, noted, “I’m very pleased that our efforts have led to protection of the place. You can spend lot of time talking about conservation issues and writing papers, but to actually see something positive occur based on research you’ve done is a great feeling.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
Posted By: Bill Giduz