Mountain bike and hiking trail opens by Plymouth (SB Tribune article)

I’m very happy to see The Trails at Mill Pond highlighted by the South Bend Tribune today. Here’s a link to the article.

Glad also to see that it featured our neighbor and active Flat Lake Watershed member Eric Howard. (Flat Lake is a waterbody that is downstream from PHJC property, and our watershed group helps coordinate stewardship in the vicinity with habitat improvements, trash clean-ups, water monitoring, and hunting).

Here’s hoping we can continue the momentum for the Marshall County Park and Recreation Department!

opening day! with more improvements to come…

Poison Hemlock and its discontents

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is considered an invasive species in N. America. That is, it is both non-native and causes ecological and/or economic harm. Mums, garden tulips, Bleeding Hearts and the like are non-native, but since they don’t bother anyone and just sit there looking pretty, they aren’t invasive. Only a fraction of the many non-native species are considered invasive.

I’ve seen Poison Hemlock become more and more common along Indiana roadsides. It “is a biennial weed that exists as a low growing herb in the first year of growth and bolts to three to eight feet tall in the second year, when it produces flowers and seed” (see more from Purdue extension).

By the name, you should have enough common sense not to consume it. It’s what they made Socrates drink on death row. But don’t touch it either… exposure to bare skin can cause serious reactions in some people. Many plants in the Carrot family, Apiaceae, are like this, with Queen Anne’s Lace / Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) a noteable exception.

In Northern Indiana, the plants are coming into full flower. The window for spraying the plant with herbicide is closed, as there isn’t time enough to stop the plant from producing viable seed. Remember, as a biennial, all the flowering plants you see will be shortly dead, the species living on through seed. Cutting is the only option left, and even that isn’t foolproof. Even when cut, a few robust plants will have enough moisture available in the stem to take the flower all the way to a viable seed. Talk about tenacious! If you want to be absolutely sure at this point, you have to cut and landfill the flowers.

Poor photo of a Poison Hemlock plant about to flower. Hmmm… why does it look so scraggly?

But a few weeks ago I was out spraying, and I saw a few plants with scraggly and curled leaves. I was very excited! It sure looked like insect impacts to me.

One reason that we think some plants become “invasive” is that they are out of place from the web of life in which they evolved over a long period of time. Any given plant species has numerous rusts, viruses, fungus, insects, and animals that are adapted to feeding on it. Most plants have evolved a specific chemical resistance that works against most insects, except for a small suite of species or group of species who evolved a way around it (think of milkweed and monarch butterflies).

This complex and biodiverse web ensures that any one species isn’t permanently dominant. There is an ebb and flow with the cycles of each species, the variation in climate, and stochastic events. When liberated from this web of checks and balances, sometimes plants go berserk and can dominate native communities.

Back to the insect-impacted plant! I didn’t know what it was right away, but after some Googling, I suspect it’s the European Hemlock moth (Agonopterix alstroemeriana), which was accidentally introduced to N. America in 1973. I didn’t actually observe any larva or moths, so I’m basing that just off a quick observation of the leaves. To my knowledge, the moth has not been documented feeding on native plants, so that’s good!

So… problem solved, right! Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the moth provides any serious control of the spread of this plant. Nonetheless, I decided not to spray the plants that had insects present (since I didn’t know anything about it upon first observation).

It turns out that there is a native wasp (Euodynerus foraminatus) that parasitizes moth larva, and has learned to also do so to the European Hemlock Moth. This, in turn, may limit the moth’s ability to impact Poison Hemlock. What a tangled web!

It’s a good reminder that our terms native/non-native, invasive, naturalized, etc. are just human constructs that attempt to make sense of the world around us. Nonetheless, I still think they are important concepts. Lots of things are “merely” constructs! But it’s good not to be overly-ideological about it, and remember to continue to test the concepts with observation.

So… learning to identify Poison Hemlock (especially in the year 1 rosette stage, long before final flourish of flowering) and control it will still be important tasks. Should you choose to go into battle, just be sure you wear proper PPE for skin protection!

As a reminder of why we choose to spend so much time on invasive species, I’ll share one more carroty photo.

Poison Hemlock (left) right next to it’s native cousin, Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea).

On the left is Poison Hemlock, growing adjacent its native cousin, Great Angelica, aka Purple-Stemmed Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), seen towering on the right. Angelica is one of our tallest herbaceous (non-woody) plants. It’s usually indicative of high-quality natural wetlands. It sure looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss. Like the hemlock, it’s growth is biennial. It contains furanocoumarins, which can cause phytophotodermatitis, which happens if you touch the plant and then expose the area to UV light from the sun. Which is why I’m very careful while harvesting the seeds from this plant. Like I said, don’t mess with the carrots!

So: if we can keep the invasive species at bay, we can let the native plant community (and insects, etc) do their thing. Doing so isn’t rocket science, but it does require attention, diligence/commitment, trial-and-error, and strategizing/triage.

bicycles!!!

The title says it all. After >100 years, it’s a technology that keeps on giving, and is now seeing a resurgence in importance & visibility. Just a few pounds of steel can be a human-force multiplier.

everybody likes ’em… good luck getting your paws on one right now!

An unofficial group in Plymouth has been doing monthly rides around town to build community, highlight the bike routes through town, consider the challenges that still exist, and just to have fun.

We are meeting again this Friday at 5:30 pm at River Park Square. (Event details here). Please join!

It was at one of these exact meet-ups a couple years ago where a few key community leaders met and the spark of an idea ignited. A pollinator way-station on an unused mini-lot downtown? Well, sure! Since the ride, the garden was installed, and maintained, and now blooming.

I recently acquired an action camera so I could get a bikes-eye-view of my rides. One Friday, my family rode downtown to grab takeout and eat it at this little pocket park.

I made a 4 min video of the trip, highlighting the waystation, and tried my hand at some video editing:

Next I wanted to show off the county parks department’s newest mountain bike trail, what we’re calling “The Trails at Mill Pond.” I didn’t have a proper mountain bike, really, but I didn’t think that was any reason to stop me! There’s a nationwide shortage of mountain bikes, and it looks like I’ll have to order one and wait a couple/few months (my first pick was expected to be delivered in January 2022, so I’m looking for something else).

I haven’t had time to edit down all the footage I took, but here’s a 60 second teaser:

The trail has been attracting a TON of enthusaism in the community and the region. Volunteers and donors are coming out in droves. We really couldn’t be happier with the effort!

The grand opening of the trail is this Saturday at 10:00 AM. (Details here). Hope to see you there!

Then… SURPRISE! Little did I know that several serious mountain-bikers (and you tubers) hit the trails and produced a suburb 10 min video previewing the trail!

Now of course my lengthier footage is going to feel too amateur by comparison… hehe… but maybe I’ll see what I can do with the editing software. My camera was mounted to my helmet (and without suspension on the bike, the shot is really a little too shaky). I really liked the chest mount that they used, showing handlebars and hands/arms. Maybe I’ll try that next.

I also shot footage from our last community bike ride through Plymouth, I just haven’t had time to edit it, and I wanted to get this posted ASAP!

See you Friday night and Saturday morning. What a week for cycling in Marshall County!

news round-up: mid-spring edition

Well, I usually wait longer than this to post news round-ups, but there’s just a lot!

Summer is only 1 month away. The threat of frost is past, and we’ve got a week of nighttime lows in the 60’s forecast.

Which also means… the tick nymphs are out. Ugh.

do you see it?

Even after several layers of protective measures, my kid still came back from the woods with this tick attached. We’ve dealt with Lyme disease once and it wasn’t fun. It’s a depressing thought, but I’m thinking of restricting certain outdoor activates for them in late spring.

For a refresher on ticks and tickborne diseases, here’s a good piece by MN Dept of Health.

As I was doing some invasive species control yesterday, I came upon this Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) sprout and took this blurry photo. It was in a ditch that was burned this spring along with the adjacent oak woods. Anyone out there remember cutting these from roadsides in the spring? My dad did (northern Iowa in the 50’s and 60’s) but it doesn’t appear to be a common practice anymore.

Anyway… I’ll write a grab-bag post of goings-on from the spring at another time. Now, the news:

Governor Signs Bill Repealing Most State Protections for Wetlands into Law (Indiana Environmental Reporter) New law removes state protections and permitting requirements for more than half of all state wetlands and weakens protections for most remaining wetlands.

South Bend’s new invasive plant ban includes Bradford pear (AP) Dozens of invasive plant species, including a commonly planted flowering tree, will be banned from being sold or planted in South Bend starting this fall under a new ordinance.

Ørsted is first in US to operate solar, wind, and storage at utility scale (Electrek)

Talking about a revolution: What ‘clean’ gold mining would mean for the Amazon (Landscape news)

Pollinators Are in Trouble. Here’s How Transforming Your Lawn Into a Native Wildflower Habitat Can Help (Discover Magazine) Biologists are recruiting everyday gardeners to save pollinators, with a little help from a smartphone app.

Recovering from “Fortress Mentality” (Strategies for Stewards blog) a great reflection on the challenge of maintaining ecosystems in the Corn Belt.

20-Megawatt St. Joseph Solar Farm Unveiled Today; Local Clean Energy Now Flowing (PR Newswire) Executives from American Electric Power, Indiana Michigan Power and the University of Notre Dame, along with Indiana Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch, officially flipped-the-switch for I&M’s largest solar array; South Bend Mayor proclaims Thursday, May 6, to be Solar Energy Day in South Bend and the President of Commissioners of St. Joseph County declares it to be Solar Energy Day in St. Joseph County

Add Layers to Garden Beds for Beauty and Sustainability (Houzz) You can renew nature at home by filling in gaps with native plants and extending the bloom season

New Law Restricts Local Governments’ Ability to Address Climate Change (Indiana Environmental Reporter) House Bill 1191, now Public Law 180, takes away local governments’ power to restrict natural gas or set energy-saving regulations on buildings.

South Bend ban on invasive species to start in September (WSBT) The city council voted 8-0 Monday to approve a ban on the future sale or planting of invasive species in the city limits, including the Bradford pear tree. The measure fills the gap of 47 species of land-based plants that the state had left off of a ban that it created in 2019 against 44 species.

The enemy no more, fire helps regenerate forests (Faquier Now) On the warmest day of 2021 yet, the fire swept over Summers Mountain in a remote corner of Highland, a Virginia county so lightly populated that cattle outnumber humans by almost seven times. At times the fire moved with startling rapidity, fast as an arrow of flame. Watching it spread along the southeast slope, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources forester Kent Burtner quoted the Bible: “The devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.”

Deepening Drought Holds ‘Ominous’ Signs For Wildfire Threat In The West (NPR) After one of the most destructive and extreme wildfire seasons in modern history last year, a widening drought across California and much of the West has many residents bracing for the possibility this season could be worse. Anemic winter rain and snowfall has left reservoirs and river flows down significantly, even as the state experiences its driest water year in more than four decades. Today, wildfire fuels in some parts of California are at or near record levels of dryness.

In Colombia, Indigenous Lands Are Ground Zero for a Wind Energy Boom (Yale e360) The northernmost tip of South America, home to the Indigenous Wayúu people, is the epicenter of Colombia’s nascent wind energy industry. But Wayúu leaders are concerned that the government and wind companies are not dealing fairly with the inhabitants of this long-neglected land.

Idaho Senate approves bill to kill 90% the state’s wolves (AZ Family) The Idaho Senate on Wednesday approved legislation allowing the state to hire private contractors to kill up to 90% of the wolves roaming Idaho. The agriculture industry-backed bill approved Wednesday on 26-7 vote includes additional changes intended to cut the wolf population from about 1,500 to 150.

The Untold Story of Grasses (by South African prof Dr. William Bond) 7 min video on the history of grass evolution)

Megadrought’ and ‘Aridification’ — Understanding the New Language of a Warming World (The Revelator) New research reveals a creeping, permanent dryness expanding across the United States. It’s much more than “drought,” and researchers hope more accurate descriptions will spur critical action.

Northern Indiana Utility NIPSCO To Close Half Of Its Schahfer Coal Plant Early (WFYI) The northern Indiana utility NIPSCO has announced it will shut down half of its R.M. Schahfer coal plant in Wheatfield by the end of this year. That’s about two years earlier than when the whole plant is expected to shut down in 2023.

Species or Ecosystems: How Best to Restore the Natural World? (Yale e360) What’s the best way to protect nature and restore what has been lost? A series of new scientific papers offer conflicting views on whether efforts should focus on individual species or ecosystems and point to the role human inhabitants can play in conserving landscapes.

240-pound sturgeon caught in Detroit River among biggest ever recorded in US (Detroit Free Press) How’s this for a big fish story? A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew caught a 240-pound sturgeon last week. It is 6-foot-10, with a girth of nearly 4 feet. It is a native — and threatened — species to Michigan, and one of the largest lake sturgeon ever caught in the United States.

A burning passion for the good kind of forest fire (U of Missouri) With the help of tree rings, an MU researcher is on a mission to show the world that not all fires are harmful.

Who Owns Appalachia’s Greatest Natural Light Show? (Atlas Obscura) Many viewers want to bask in synchronous fireflies’ glow. Ecologists want to ensure that the insects aren’t hurt in the process

a 7-generations project: restoring the American Chestnut

As the Spirit would have it, it just so happened that on Earth Day we broke ground on a unique tree planting project.

Moontree Studios Executive Director Matthew Celmer gets his hands dirty.

We are partnering with local retired forester Bruce Wakeland. If you are familiar with the Marshall-Starke region, you know of Bruce’s enormous contributions to conservation and culture in the area.

One of his biggest contributions to Marshall County was helping steward the timber management program at Mill Pond for Marshall County, prior to it’s conversion to a county park. Through carefully collected data over the decades, he showed that productive soils in our area can provide timber income in excess of typical cash rental rates for row crops (in addition to all the other things a forest provides to us and the ecosystem).

Bruce is currently working with the American Chestnut Foundation to help restore this vital native species.

Bruce adding one more tree to his count of millions planted in his lifetime.

You can visit the ACF’s website to read all about the history of the American Chestnut, a species which accounted for maybe 1 in every 5 trees in Appalachia before it was completely devastated by an imported blight (fungus). It’s a tragic tale, but one that is not yet over.

The ACF has a “3BUR” strategy to return the species to it’s role in Eastern North American ecosystems: “Breeding, Biotechnology, and Biocontrol United for Restoration Using Science to Save the American Chestnut Tree.”

Bruce took a careful look at the existing properties currently under stewardship of Ancilla Domini Sisters, Inc. and found a particular soil type that was ideal for the species. We are starting with just 6 trees to see if the location is receptive. If all goes well, we may be able to expand the trials.

Matthew working again! Affixing wire cages to a metal stake. Hopefully this is enough to keep curious cattle away.

These 6 individuals are 15/16ths American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) and 1/16th Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima), another species who evolved with the blight and has genetic defenses against it. It is hoped that through careful breeding, the resistance can be preserved while also producing a tree that is as close to the original American Chestnut genome as possible.

This conventional breeding program is supplemented with use of biotechnology to introduce a gene from wheat into the American Chestnut tree that will allow it to fend off the blight. Purdue University is involved in this effort, and it is pending approval by regulators.

I wrote last year about the idea of “seven generation stewardship” – said to be based on the Great Law of the Iroquois – is to make decisions based on the benefit of those living seven generations into the future (yes, there’s even a consumer products company named after the idea).

Someone has to supervise the work, right?

Restoring an entire tree species would certain qualify as a seven generations project! (Heck, even planting a single oak tree would). If a couple of these individual trees persist 200 years from now, I’ll be long gone. There is typically several turnovers in land ownership during that time, as well as a cycling of municipal leaders, businesses, cultural trends, etc.

When one thinks about the challenges or threats (to a species, or to a particular tree) on such a timescale, there is a shift in focus. Annual drought or deer herbivory is a very short-term concern, but over the course of 200 years, we start thinking about the very stability of our political system and culture, the composition of the atmosphere and climatic patterns, and the presence and patterns of human habitation on the landscape.

As I accumulate years on my career (and a few pesky gray hairs on my beard, which my daughters found last month), I have come to see these later challenges increasingly salient. I have seen leaders come and go, plans begin and end, strategic initiatives rolled out, ribbons cut, plantings established (and destroyed), initiatives come and go, politicians promise, deliver (or not), then disappear. I have come across past projects from previous companies or institutions, old foundations from buildings long gone, a soil layer disturbed and inverted from some clever human from decades past. Often one finds in the past a startlingly similar perspective, initiative, or project as one is currently in the midst of. Nothing new under the sun, ya know.

Not likely to still be standing in 2221, but we might as well try, while we have breath still in our lungs!

One way of expressing this challenge is the Shifting Baseline, which is “is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system”. This could lead an ecologist to rank a particular ecological community as “healthy” because it was much better than anything they remembered as a youth, even though it may still be a far cry from its state before industrial disruption.

Unless we break out of our limited, narrow perspective (one growing season, one political cycle, one decade, or even one human generation), we may unfortunately (and even unintentionally) oversee subtle but inexorable degradations. You can imagine how this might also apply to our cultural, political, and religious institutions, in addition to obvious ecological examples.

Whew… where was I? Oh… just planting trees! Such a simple act, but connected in so many ways to our past, our future, and the entire planet.

(I’ve been running into an annoying problem of the attached photos not orienting properly. If they are upside-down or sideways, you can see the originals properly by clicking here).

PFAS Are Forever (guest post)

My friend and co-conspirator Marianne Peters runs the Marshall County Recycle Depot in Plymouth, IN. (Remember… they have solar too!) She writes a regular column for our local newspaper, The Pilot News, which I always love to see! This one was so good (and with a relatively new topic; you may remember this previous post on the subject) that I asked her permission to re-post here.

The stellar Recycle Depot team.

I’d like to think I have the milk of human kindness flowing through my veins. 

Turns out I might have a few other substances flowing there as well.  

In 1946, scientists invented two chemicals that people loved from the get-go. We know them by their brand names: Teflon and Scotchguard. Teflon, that miraculous non-stick coating, made it possible to cook sticky foods with ease—no more eggs glued to the skillet. Scotchguard kept the stains off our new white Keds. Teflon and Scotchguard are easier to pronounce than per- or poly-fluoroalkyl, so-called “long chain” chemicals referred to collectively as PFAS.  

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) that addressed PFAS. Why would the waste industry be interested in these chemicals? Two reasons: they persist, and they accumulate. Most of us carry PFAS around in our tissues, where they have been stored up for years. Disposing of them has become a major topic of conversation for waste companies as well as the federal government. Because PFAS are so persistent, they are tough to get rid of. For instance, burying PFAS-contaminated soil in a landfill might be a temporary answer, but the chemicals escape through the liquids pumped off the landfill and eventually end up in groundwater. The U. S. no longer makes some of the more dangerous PFAS, but we import them into the country through manufactured products. We still make other types of PFAS. Both the public and the private sector agree that PFAS need managed for the sake of our public health, despite the usual back and forth about regulation.  

PFAS are found in manufacturing processes, but they are also found in our homes in food packaging, nonstick products, cleaning products, pizza boxes, and the packaging that fast food comes in. Stain-resistant coatings on carpets, clothing, and furniture contain PFAS. They also contaminate soil and water in places near manufacturers that uses PFAS, and in turn they are absorbed by food crops or fish—food sources for us. These tiny exposures seem incidental, but PFAS hang around in our bodies for years, eventually accumulating enough to be a health concern. They are especially dangerous for babies and young children who are still developing. PFAS have even been found in the bloodstreams of newborn infants.  

So, what can these chemicals do to us? Scientists agree that with long-term exposure, they can raise our cholesterol levels, which leads to other health issues. There is less evidence, but still concern among the scientific community that PFAS could affect our liver or kidney function. They could also disrupt our endocrine systems—most dangerous for young children.  

Humans made these things. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

People most exposed to PFAS tend to be people who work directly with these chemicals in manufacturing as well as people who live in “fenceline” communities near manufacturing corridors. This raises environmental justice questions as well as health questions. Workers may not know they are exposed. Many fenceline community residents tend to be lower on the socioeconomic ladder and already have increased exposure to pollution. PFAS just add to that burden.  

We can take steps to reduce the influence of PFAS in our lives. (The longer I live, the more I realize the things that might seem to make my life easier might also kill me!) Non-stick pans contain PFAS—I try to replace mine as soon as the finish starts to deteriorate. I have also embraced cooking with cast-iron and stainless-steel pans. Microwave popcorn is delicious, but the packaging contains PFAS—use oil or an air-popper instead. Fast food wrappers, baked goods, and pizza boxes contain PFAS, and that stuff isn’t good for me anyway, so I limit going out and cook at home. I try to wear mostly natural fiber clothing that’s not treated for stains and wrinkles, and since I hate ironing, my look is fashionably rumpled. 

Want more protection from PFAS? Find our what your state or federal lawmakers think about public health policy dealing with PFAS. Ask them to sign onto legislation that prioritizes public health. It will take more than good intentions to avoid these forever chemicals. 

First “Weed Wrangle” in the books, mountain bike trails, and a pollinator patch clean-up

It was a beautiful morning for a “Weed Wrangle” with the Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management & Marshall County Soil & Water! Participants last Saturday learned about invasive species & their management, as well as local & regional opportunities to engage in control efforts. Oak saplings were distributed by SWCD.

After a brief gathering, we hit the trails to uproot the Garlic Mustard and Bush Honeysuckle that have encroached on the area. Several native woodland species were observed, including Downy Rattlesnake Plantain & Pale Corydalis.

Pale Corydalis (Corydalis flavula)
Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), one of our most common native orchids

Some “wild” cows also made a brief but exciting appearance, but we weren’t fast enough to get a video!

The Wrangle was held at Marshall County Memorial Forest (at SR-17 & 14th Rd). Indiana’s first county forest, it was developed in the 1940’s as a living tribute to the veterans of WW2. Last year, it was put under the stewardship of the Marshall County Parks & Recreation Department.

Speaking of

The mountain bike trail is coming right along. The trail committee has been AMAZING! With an all-volunteer board with no budget (yet), this would not be happening without dedicated volunteers willing to put in time and effort to make it happen. This has to be one of the most unambiguously positive things I’ve ever been involved in the county! Most projects can’t be expected to go this smoothly, but I’ll sure take it when it happens.

To stay up to date, follow The Trails at Mill Pond on Facebook. We are shooting for a soft open next month!

Monday, we came together for a quick spring clean-up blitz at a pollinator patch downtown. This was in coordination with clean-up efforts across the county. Thank you to Marshall County Soil & Water Conservation District and all the other partners who brought this to fruition and are carrying through with maintenance!

sorry, this is my blog so you’re going to have to stand a little dad-brag… I couldn’t be more proud of this little 9 year old!
If you don’t know Allie, you should. Community champion and force for change, she’s one of the brains behind this little pocket park. While other folks busy themselves complaining, she’s busy gearing up to find a way out of no way!