Watching the wetlands: SUNY-ESF receives $500,000 grant toward development of field manual

Micah Benson | Art Director

SUNY-ESF has received a $500,000 Wetland Program Development Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to create the first official wetland monitoring field manual in New York state.

“Currently, the state does not have a way to monitor wetlands,” said DJ Evans, director of the New York Natural Heritage Program, a major player in the development of the field manual. “We will provide the tools to do that.”

The New York Natural Heritage Program, a partnership between the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is spearheading the development of the field manual, which can be used by wetland managers across the state, Evans said.

The field manual will include protocols for comparing the landscapes of wetlands to one another, evaluating their conditions using aerial photography and monitoring wetlands remotely using computers, Evans said.

The grant money will be valuable in funding staff members’ research in developing the protocols, she said. This staff will likely consist of faculty and students from ESF.

The project is expected to take three years, Evans said. It is currently in the planning phase, but field work will begin this summer. This will involve surveying hundreds of wetlands around the state and extracting information, such as the populations of plant and animal species, soil composition and water quality, she said.

Many researchers at ESF have been wondering how to measure aspects of wetlands, such as the diversity of fish or amphibians, said Richard Smardon, leader of water and wetland resource studies at ESF.

“These protocols can sort of be used as health indicators for wetlands,” he said.

Smardon said there is a lack of specific, geographic data dealing with wetland systems. He said he thinks the manual will provide expansive information about the plant and animal life of specific healthy wetlands to set a standard for comparing wetlands of the same type.

Types of wetlands in New York state include freshwater tidal marshes along river outlets and saltwater marshes, said Scott Sveiven, a conservation biology graduate student. All of these wetlands play a crucial role in the condition of ecosystems, buffering against floods, replenishing groundwater and serving as critical habitats for native plants and animals, he said.

Flooding after Hurricane Sandy was especially destructive because many of the saltwater marshes that used to exist along the East Coast have been developed or drained, Sveiven said.

“Those can play a very large role in absorbing a lot of excess water in times of storms and floods,” he said.

Another main conservation issue facing wetlands today is invasion by non-native plant species such as cattail and phragmites, a common reed that often monopolizes freshwater marshes in New York state, Sveiven said.

“Those can choke out native plant species and change the function of plant species as a whole,” Sveiven said.

He said he hopes the manual finds ways to address these issues, in addition to ones such as contamination by chemicals from fertilizers and water level changes due to climate change.

“At the end of the day, a lot of people here are really passionate about the overall sustainability of the environment,” Sveiven said. “Any work that helps to make wetlands more visible in terms of conservation is sort of a victory for ESF’s overall mission of environmental sustainability.”


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