Leaf Litter

Biohabitats Projects, Places, and People

Check out the latest Biohappenings, including examples of our work in national parks.

By Amy Nelson

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Some Positive Gulf News

With all the news of ecological devastation currently emanating from the Gulf area, we thought Leaf Litter readers might enjoy hearing about some positive improvements occurring in the region.

South Louisiana is a biologically rich area of swampy bayous and marshes that teems with both life and history. Amidst the alligators, baldcypress trees, and Spanish moss, the echoes of generations of people who have lived within and loved this unique landscape ring out. Step back into the region just south of New Orleans in 1810 and you might have met up with the famous privateer and smuggler, Jean Lafitte. Apparently not a big fan of trade embargos, the federal government, or authority figures in general, Mr. Lafitte made a profitable living sneaking illegal goods and slaves into New Orleans and Louisiana via the bayou swamps. One can only imagine what these semi-pristine wetlands were like at that early point in the 19th century. While Jean Lafitte’s nefarious activities only lasted a few years, his impact on the cultural memory of the region persists.

Fast forward to the early to mid decades of the 20th century and a new form of piracy begins in the region. But instead of pillaging ships, this time the landscape is ravaged. In the quest for the short-term wealth associated with fossil fuel extraction, miles and miles of canals are excavated across the region, creating dramatic changes in both the hydrology and ecology of the delta. During the construction of these exploratory access canals, rich organic soils are piled up in long spoil mounds flanking the sides of the new waterways. Highly organic soils that have taken thousands of years to form are left to oxidize in the sun and are eventually heavily colonized by non-native species such as Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum).

Creep forward to the late 20th and early 21st centuries and witness the gradual realization of the folly of this activity and the critical importance of the swamps and marshes as storm surge buffers, water quality filters, and biological treasures. While the repair of this region, so heavily impacted by decades of fossil fuel production, appears daunting, restoration efforts are underway.

Biohabitats is currently undertaking marsh restoration along three miles of canals within the JeanLafitteNationalHistoricalPark. Named after the smuggler, this park unit encompasses approximately 20,000 acres of forest, swamp and marsh just south of New Orleans. It offers people an important and accessible view of the Louisiana wetlands while also protecting valuable habitat.

Biohabitats is working with National Park Service to remove these decades old spoil mounds and restore the historic hydrology of this area. Logistical challenges in this project include the use of specialty equipment. Our earthmoving crews are working with floating excavators, commonly referred to as “marsh buggies,” to physically remove invasive tree cover and place the excavated soil back into the canals.  A “Short arm” marsh excavator (marsh buggy) used for removing vegetation and soil, both of which were dropped into the canal.

In the process, we are preserving unique specimens and stands of valuable oaks and baldcypress, in effect, creating “tree islands” within the marsh.  Upon completion, the final grade of the spoil mounds will be at the level of the surrounding marsh, allowing the free movement of water and the eventual recolonization of these sites by emergent native vegetation.

While the views of oil-soaked marshes and dying pelicans are tragic, Biohabitats is proud to be making a positive contribution towards the ecological restoration of this unique region. Degrading the spoil mounds and removing the invasive vegetation offers a rare opportunity to receive instant gratification in our work. At JohnLafitteNationalHistoricalPark the landscape change is instant and dramatic! But don’t take our word for it, next time you are in town for Marti Gras, drop your beads and leave a day or two to take an airboat ride into the park and view our work. It might not be as exciting as the French Quarter but it is definitely more family-friendly!

Restoring Historic NYC Wetlands At Gateway National Recreation Area

JamaicaBay, an estuary within the jurisdictional boundary of New York City, is one of America’s most important estuaries. Encompassing the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, Jamaica Bay has been important to the cultural and economic development of New York City and the nation for more than 200 years. The 142 square mile watershed supports one of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States. As a result of all this urbanization and related industry, JamaicaBay’s historic wetland complex is half the size it once was, and its remaining salt marshes are rapidly eroding. Nevertheless, the estuary remains an important ecological, cultural, and recreational resource for the citizens of New York City.

After working with the City of New York to develop a Watershed Protection Plan for JamaicaBay to address these challenges, we (along with partners Hazen & Sawyer and HydroQual) are now in the process of implementing some of the innovative and exciting strategies we recommended. Within Gateway National Recreation Area, for example, we are planting eelgrass, developing floating islands to be used a wave attenuators to work against shoreline erosion, and collecting ulva and other macroalgae to convert into biofuel. In areas around Gateway National Recreation Area, we are constructing oyster and mussel reefs to enhance water quality and habitat. We’re thrilled to be playing a key role alongside the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in returning JamaicaBay to an ecologically rich, diverse and resilient estuary.

Restoring Urban Streams On National Park Land

Rock Creek Park, a favorite spot among Washington, DC bikers, hikers, birders, runners and skaters, is natural oasis amidst a highly urbanized landscape. Administered by the U.S. National Park Service, this popular park contains many degraded streams. Biohabitats is currently helping the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) restore two of them. For both design/build efforts, we are applying a regenerative stormwater conveyance approach. This involves raising the channel bed and reconnecting the stream with its floodplain and riparian wetlands to optimizes the conversion of stormwater to groundwater and reduce its erosive energies. Our designs will also minimize damage to trees, and incorporate felled trees into in-stream structures. Those of you attending this year’s ASLA Annual Meeting and Expo  may want to sign up for our Regenerating the Rock Creek Urban Watershed field session  to learn more about our work in Rock Creek park.


If you’re participating in the June 22 Passaic River Symposium, an event we are proud to sponsor, be sure to stop by the Biohabitats table and chat with Senior Ecologist Terry Doss from our Hudson River Bioregion office.

On July 12, Invasive Species Specialist Kevin Heatley will present “More than an Inventory – Prioritizing Invasive Treatment Sites with Limited Resources” at the Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Conference  in Naples, FL.

Biohabitats President Keith Bowers will tell participants at the TEDCO/Chesapeake Bay Foundation Technologies Showcase on July 21  about new technologies we are implementing to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Senior Ecologist Joe Berg will present “Water Resource Management, Ecological Engineering, and Ecosystem Services”, at the 2010 ESA Annual Meeting August 1-6 in Pittsburgh, PA.

In early September, we’ll leading two field sessions  at the 2010 ASLA Annual Meeting and Expo: “Regenerating the Rock Creek Urban Watershed” and “Tidewater Anacostia River Boat Tour: Restoration of an UrbanRiver.” Space is limited, so reserve your ticket soon!


Two Biohabitats staff members have taken new leadership roles in the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SER). Senior Environmental Scientist Joe Berg (pop up link to Joe’s page on web site) has been elected President of the organization’s Mid-Atlantic Chapterand Environmental Scientist Suzanne Hoehne (pop up link to Joe’s page on web site) was appointed Membership Chairperson for the Midwest/Great Lakes Chapter.

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