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!

news round-up: spring edition

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) blooms in a cattail marsh at the edge of Lake Galbraith, 5 weeks after a prescribed fire.

Wind Energy Is a Big Business in Indiana, Leading to Awkward Alliances (Inside Climate News, 3/30/21) Hotly debated legislation would open the state to renewable energy projects, trumping local restrictions.

Return the National Parks to the Tribes (The Atlantic) The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples

… see also: People have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at least 12,000 years (PNAS journal article) With rare exceptions, current biodiversity losses are caused not by human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies

Nature Curiosity: What Happens to the Animals During a Prescribed Burn? (Forest Preserve District of Will County) At this time of year, the sight of smoke in the distance is quite common, often the result of prescribed burns being conducted throughout the area to strengthen natural habitats for wildlife. Seeing these fires up close can beg the question: What about the animals? How are they faring in these fires?

Milkweed Pollination: A Series of Fortunate Events (The Prairie Ecologist) Most of us know a friend or relative who isn’t content to follow the standard path in life. Why do things the simple easy way when there’s a more complicated option available? Maybe you’re even that person yourself. If so, you’ll appreciate the pollination strategy of milkweed plants.

Debunking a myth about black walnut trees Or, the reason why growing plants under them is so difficult (Livingston County News) It is difficult to grow plants under black walnut trees, many people know this. Science-based sources including Cooperative Extension for years have blamed a toxic substance called jugalone, emitted from these tree roots. However, a recent literature review by horticulture professor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott at Washington State has determined that this substance isn’t really the culprit.

High-Tech Greenhouse Growing in South Bend (Inside Indiana Business) South Bend-based Pure Green Farms says it is using some of the most advanced technology in the world to create a safe and sustainable environment for year-round farming. In a four-acre hydroponic indoor farm, the company is growing pesticide-free greens that are untouched by human hands until they reach the consumer’s kitchen

Bald Eagle Killer Identified (The Scientist) After a nearly 30-year hunt, researchers have shown that a neurotoxin generated by cyanobacteria on invasive plants is responsible for eagle and waterbird deaths from vacuolar myelinopathy.

Renewables = 20.6% of US Electricity in 2020 (Clean Technica)

Solar Project at North Liberty Elementary School Goes Live Thursday, March 18 (Max 98.3)

What Happened to Pickup Trucks? (Bloomberg) As U.S. drivers buy more full-size and heavy-duty pickups, these vehicles have transformed from no-frills workhorses into angry giants. And pedestrians are paying the price. 

Neonic soil treatment hurts ground-nesting bees, 1st of its kind study finds (CBC) A new study shows the behaviour and reproduction of ground-nesting bees, like those that pollinate squash and pumpkins, is severely impacted when farmers treat the soil with neonicotinoid insecticide at the time of planting.

Madam Secretary (Indian Country) Deb Haaland is confirmed as the country’s Secretary of the Interior, blazing a trail as the first Native American to ever lead a Cabinet agency

Here’s some great drone footage of some prescribed fire that The Nature Conservancy was conducting in NW Indiana.

Armadillos in Indiana? 31st armadillo ever found in the state seen wandering the Toll Road (WSBT, from 2019)

Brood X: Why ‘trillions’ of cicadas set to emerge after 17 years have an ominous sounding name (USA Today) The bugs have been lurking beneath the surface since 2004, feeding on sap from the roots of plants

(see also this 13 min audio piece on Brood X by NPR)

weed wrangle event April 17 + say hi to SICIM

As I’ve shared on this blog, I have the great privilege of working on the Marshall County Parks & Recreation Board.

We are hosting our first event, in collaboration with several local and regional entities for a Weed Wrangle. See important details in this flier:

Weed Wrangles are being coordinated throughout the state by SICIM (Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management). SICIM’s Northwest Indiana regional specialist is Mandi Glanz. If you are a landowner interested in improving the ecological health of your property, give her a call! I’ll share her flier & press release below.


August 13, 2020

Introducing Mandi Glanz, Regional Specialist for the Indiana Invasive Initiative

The Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management board has hired Amanda (Mandi) Glanz as the new Regional Specialist for Northwest Indiana. She began work on August 10, 2020 for the state-wide Indiana Invasives Initiative project. The counties she will cover include Newton, Jasper, Pulaski, White, Cass, Starke, Marshall, Fulton, St. Joseph, LaPorte, Porter, and Lake.

Glanz is a nature enthusiast who grew up gardening, fishing, and exploring the outdoors in northern Indiana. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Biology from Purdue University, West Lafayette. Past experiences include environmental positions with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Dunes National Park, and local agencies. Specific experience includes sampling vegetation, removing invasive species, and planning vegetation management programs.

She especially enjoys environmental education and outreach. In the words of Aldo Leopold, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Glanz said she has always been one who cannot. She is looking forward to working for the Indiana Invasives Initiative and collaborating with partners to develop strong Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMAs) that will help conserve land for future generations.

Will Drews, Chair of the Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasive Management group, which sponsors the state-wide Indiana Invasives Initiative, is honored to have Glanz on board. She is one of six Regional Specialists now on board around the state. Drews notes, “We were impressed with the experience and enthusiasm Mandi will bring to the job. She is also familiar with the area and already knew many of the partners that she would be working with.” He adds she is very smart, and her references were stellar. Without exception, Drews noted, “we were told to hire her quick, before someone else hired her. We think she’ll be a real asset to the Indiana Invasive Initiative.”

The board thinks Glanz will do well continuing to strengthen the young CISMAs and be the catalyst to help new ones get started; building teams locally to help increase the awareness of the harm invasive species do to our natural landscapes.

Glanz can be reached at mandi@sicim.info or call (260) 243-2161.

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Whoop, whoop! An endangered crane stops by

We were recently blessed with a brief visit from “#5-10,” one of just 667 Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) existing in the wild. On March 16th, a co-worker and I were driving back to campus after working on the wetland restoration on 9th road

despite the lack of precipitation, the new water feature is filling up nicely!

…We looked out and observed the bright white 5-ft tall federally-endangered bird on “Mt. Baldy,” the grassy knoll that rises to the northeast of Moontree Studios.

photo: Adam Calhoun Photography

Scientists attach uniquely colored leg bands to each of these birds (and many other species), allowing them to gather data from citizen photographers across the country. Telephoto lenses allowed myself and another co-worker to get identifying photos, which I submitted to International Crane Foundation along with data from our observation. It turns out that “#5-10” is an 10 year-old, captive-raised female that recently overwintered in Tennessee and is currently en route to her breeding grounds in Wisconsin (click here to read her full biography). You can see a map of all their recently reported sightings here.

#5-10 was associating with a flock of about 12-20 Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), with whom Whooping Cranes will frequently migrate and associate. “Whoopers” are slightly larger and are primarily white, except for their black wing tips, which are exposed during flight. It makes for quite the sight!

(Note that very occasionally someone may encounter a visibly white Sandhill Crane, an example of leucism, a condition that affects many birds).

not a White Pelican, not a Swan, not a leucistic Sandhill Crane… it’s a Whooper

These are the only two species from the Crane family (Gruidae) that live in the Americas. Although they are quite visibly simpatico, their evolutionary lineage split about 11 million years ago. According to a 2010 genetic study, our Whooping Crane is more closely related to the Tibetan Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) than it is to the Sandhill.1

The restoration of wetlands and decades of tireless work from federally-funded scientists, volunteers, and advocates have made recovery of this species a possibility. There are only 85 of these birds in the eastern migratory population, which breed in Wisconsin and overwinter in the Southeast. This population (including #5-10) was taught to migrate by following a handler in an ultralight airplane.

After millions of years of evolution and decades of captive-breeding and assisted migration efforts, the loss of this species would be an unconscionable act of negligence. At least 5 have been illegally killed in Indiana alone. Only vigilant, persistent protection in the coming decades will allow this remarkable creature to safely come back from the brink of extinction.

#5-10 stuck around the property for about four days, foraging in the alfalfa and corn fields and (I imagine) roosting overnight in the wetlands with the Sandhills. We have been trying to keep quiet on this until we were reasonably certain it had continued its migration. She has yet to raise a chick that survived long enough to make the fall migration with her. Here’s hoping 2021 is her year!

Works Cited

1) Krajewski, Carey & Sipiorski, Justin & Anderson, Frank. (2010). Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequences and the Phylogeny of Cranes (Gruiformes: Gruidae). The Auk. 127. 440-452. 10.1525/auk.2009.09045.

Other Resources
US Fish and Wildlife Fact Sheet

your input needed for Marshall County Parks & Recreation Department

Marshall County residents: as the Vice President of the Marshall County Parks & Recreation Board, I’d like to invite you in this brief survey to share your ideas of what recreational amenities you think are missing and would like to see added in Marshall County! Your input will help lay the foundation for our local parks system. Please fill out this survey by March 25th.

Survey link >> tiny.cc/MarshallCoParksPlan

And while you’re here, please be sure to like & follow our Facebook page. Thanks!