ohn P. Graham knows all about incremental progress.
Someday, 200-foot-tall trees will tower where soybeans now grow, part of an intact forest on an otherwise-crowded coast. Yet while Graham plants trees year after year, harbingers of his success are already bursting from the underbrush.
“I remember in 1999, 2000, you couldn’t find a bobwhite quail anywhere, period,” he says. “If you saw one on Milford Neck, it was in a cage in the back of some boy’s truck.”
Today Milford Neck has plenty of bobwhite quail, thanks to Graham’s forest restoration work. It also has turkeys, woodcocks, black ducks—species that you just didn’t see much 10 years ago. “This is like, whoa, big stuff,” says Graham.
It is big stuff, and such comeback stories—of degraded lands and waters brought back to life—are happening all around us.
But why not preserve sites that are already in good shape, rather than restore degraded ones? It’s a strategic choice, says Joni Ward, the Conservancy’s director of science for North America. Restoration is about reviving the components that make a landscape function. At Milford Neck, the key component is trees (see below). In another place, it might be a stream that once ran with clean water. Get that piece working again, and both nature and people benefit.
Here, we offer some of the Conservancy’s best comeback stories. Some have happy endings. Others are works in progress—with hopeful signs all around.
Just Add Water
Soil removed from levees: 2 million cubic yards
Cost of design and earthwork: $8 million
Wetland acres restored: 7,000
Not many conservation projects start with a bang. But at Williamson River Delta on Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon, 100 tons of dynamite made a dramatic difference.
Upper Klamath Lake is among the largest freshwater lakes in the United States. Before the 1950s, the Williamson River’s vast delta nurtured young fish and attracted migrating birds. Then levees were built, draining the delta for farm fields. Other wetlands along the lake met a similar fate. Water quality declined, and two native suckerfish slipped onto the federal endangered-species list. “There were 100 million larval fish with no rearing habitat,” says Mark Stern, the Conservancy’s Klamath Basin conservation director.
To stop the slide, the Conservancy purchased half of the delta in 1996 and the other half in 1999, with the ultimate goal of re-establishing the wetland that once covered the area. Federal, state and local partners all assisted the effort. “This was a high-profile project,” says Stern, one that affected agriculture, conservation and fisheries. “Everyone in the basin had an interest in it.”
After years of preparation, the Conservancy in autumn 2007 finally dynamited two miles of levee. (It shaved down another 20 miles with heavy machinery.)
Over the next three days, Upper Klamath Lake poured back in. Wetland plants quickly took hold. “The wetland response was almost instantaneous,” Stern says. Now, the wetland is lush and alive with birds and healthy fish. “You wouldn’t believe it was in alfalfa production just four years ago,” says Stern.
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Hope From Disaster
Trees planted to date: 1 million
Towns participating: 150
When Hurricane Stan swept through Guatemala in October 2005, soaked hillsides around Lake Atitlán came crashing down. Mudslides killed more than 400 people in one village alone.
Following the hurricane, the Conservancy partnered with American Electric Power and local group Vivamos Mejor (“Let’s Live Better”) to reforest unstable slopes. The working area is vast: 300,000 acres home to 300,000 people, says Jorge Cardona, the Conservancy’s program manager.
The project helps communities help themselves. Families receive a stipend to plant oak, avocado and native fruit trees on their land, says Carlos Gomez, a coordinator with Vivamos Mejor. Coffee growers are also participating, and tree nurseries now employ local residents. The Conservancy has been the project’s “most constant and supportive” partner, providing funding and technical help, says Gomez.
Gomez points to the municipality of San Antonio Palopo to describe the project’s value. In 2008, the mayor, concerned that his town was at risk from future storms, came to Vivamos Mejor asking for assistance. Now, 64,000 new trees are growing on hillsides above the town, and more than 375 people have benefited.
World’s Largest Seagrass Restoration
Eelgrass seeds planted annually: 5 million
Acres of eelgrass planted to date: 317
Total acres of eelgrass now growing: 5,000
Each spring, volunteers wade into waist-deep water off Virginia’s Delmarva Peninsula. They don snorkels and masks and slip underwater into a tangle of eelgrass to collect seeds.
The seeds are used to restore eelgrass beds, which once flourished for hundreds of miles along the East Coast, including a dozen barrier islands now owned by the Conservancy. But in the 1930s a pandemic killed most of the eelgrass and stripped away a vital component of coastal habitats. Eelgrass beds dampen wave action and help prevent shoreline erosion, says Barry Truitt, a scientist at the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve. They also provide vital habitat for scallops and other species. “These are essentially underwater prairies,” he says.
The planted eelgrass has spread beyond expectation, says Robert “J.J.” Orth, with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Orth developed the seed-harvesting method, and Truitt calls him the driver behind the project, which includes federal, state and local partners. “When we started in the late 1990s, we’d go out there in a boat and it would be open water without a blade of grass,” Orth says. “Now [the grass] is everywhere.”
In 2007, Truitt included an aerial photograph with a funding proposal he sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the photo, “NOAA” is clearly spelled out in 50-foot eelgrass letters.
Kitty Todd Preserve, Ohio
Kitty Todd Preserve in 1972: 26 acres
Preserve today: 920 acres and growing
Oak Openings is the name given to the tapestry of sand, swamp and widely spaced oak trees that once spread across a 20-mile swath of northeastern Ohio.
By the middle of the 20th century, the Openings weren’t so open any more: Small farms, light industry and residential development had slowly overtaken the landscape.
Then in 1972, the Conservancy began piecing together its Kitty Todd Preserve to recover some of Oak Openings’ former glory. In subsequent decades it bought one parcel after another, overcoming the challenges of restoring each piece, says Terry Seidel, who directs the Conservancy’s protection efforts in Ohio.
“A pig farm was the most extreme example,” says Seidel. “We demolished the house, removed thousands of old railroad ties, and scraped away 3 feet of soil, pig manure and plastic Wonder Bread bags.” Once the land was cleared, 19 endangered native plant species popped out from under the manure, no seeding required.
The preserve now hosts the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which was reintroduced here after a decades-long absence from Ohio.
Fish (Almost) Out of Water
Acres burned to date: 27,000
Fish stocked each year: 2,000
Rugged Muleshoe Ranch, 80 miles northeast of Tucson, has something unusual for this part of Arizona: water.
The 49,000-acre preserve includes seven perennial streams and 41 year-round springs. It is also home to several endangered native fish species.
The ranch had been grazed pretty hard for 110 years before the Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management acquired it in 1982, says the Conservancy’s preserve manager, Bob Rogers. “Stream banks had been trampled. The uplands were more shrub than grass.” Unlike shrubs, Arizona’s bunchgrasses grow dense roots that slow water so it percolates through the soil, says Rogers. That limits erosion from storm runoff, fostering streamside plant growth and the shade that helps make creeks fish-friendly.
The cattle are gone—although the Conservancy does graze other properties better suited for it—and now the ranch is burned regularly to encourage the spread of grass.
Each October, tiny fish from a nearby hatchery are moved to equally tiny creeks by helicopter and on foot, carried in backpacks. Fish populations are up—as much as 18.5 percent in the case of the endangered Gila chub, says Rogers.
“The fish habitat has improved so much,” he says. “Had the Conservancy not taken over, I think some of the fish would have been lost forever.”
Milford Neck Preserve, Delaware
A Project for the Generations
Tree seedlings planted to date: 93,375
Acres restored to forest: 231
An American goldfinch spots an oasis of trees in a vast field. Emboldened, the bird flits from the forest to this small refuge to hunt for insects.
The goldfinch has discovered one of the habitat islands planted in a former farm field at Milford Neck. It’s just the type of visitor John P. Graham wants to attract: As the Conservancy’s land steward, he has overseen a decade-long effort to convert farmland to forest at the 2,800-acre preserve.
Milford Neck already harbors Delaware’s largest tract of contiguous forest, an important link in the eastern flyway used by migratory birds. The Conservancy is making that tract even larger.
Graham begins by planting habitat islands consisting of 6- to 10-foot trees installed close together. The clusters attract birds, which drop seeds from the surrounding forest. And so natural succession, the advance of new forest, begins.
As succession proceeds, the soil, tree species and bird species change. “Jump forward five or seven years, and it’s difficult to even see the individual habitat islands,” says Graham. At 12 years old, the forest consists of 25- to 30-foot trees. Yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, flycatchers, yellow warblers and other Neotropical migratory birds nest in the growing woods. “It’s a musical little place,” Graham says.
Even so, the finished product—a mature stand with 200-foot-tall trees—remains a long way off. “I’m doing work that even my great-grandchildren will never see at a really mature stage,” says Graham.
Longleaf’s Last Stand
Acres of old-growth longleaf pine in Moody Forest: 350
Typical age of old-growth longleaf pines: 200–300 years
Surrounded by the large-scale industrial forestry of southeastern Georgia, generations of the conservation-minded Moody family doggedly refused to clear-cut their old-growth longleaf pine forest. But by the 1990s, a new threat loomed: the absence of fire, which is needed to remove sapling-suppressing pine duff.
Under natural conditions, forest fires clear the duff out every one to five years. But the property had not experienced a fire for decades.
Without fire, few pine saplings sprouted to replace the old trees. As hardwoods steadily encroached, one of Georgia’s last stands of old-growth longleaf pine looked as if it might disappear—until 2000, when the Conservancy purchased the land with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and reinstituted a regular regimen of prescribed burning.
These days, lucky visitors may hear the tat-tat-tat of a red-cockaded woodpecker, which prefers nesting in long-leaf pine. “It’s nice to be able to show people a stand that has never been logged,” says Chuck Martin, the Conservancy’s manager of Moody Forest Natural Area. Even the wind, he says, sounds different in old-growth.
Tree seedlings planted so far: 650,000
Percentage of original Atlantic Forest that remains: 12
In Brazil in the 1990s, the Conservancy and partner SPVS faced a daunting challenge: The Atlantic Forest, a tropical forest ecosystem known for its vast diversity of species, was quickly disappearing.
How could conservation compete against the quick money of ranching?
Enter American Electric Power, General Motors and Chevron, three American companies looking for ways to offset carbon dioxide emissions. From 1999 to 2002, they provided funding to the Conservancy and SPVS for an unprecedented project that promised to capture and measure carbon in forests—and thus make standing trees a valuable commodity. The Conservancy quickly purchased some 46,000 acres of Atlantic Forest.
The 40-year project aims to keep 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by both protecting intact forest and reforesting denuded land, much of it devastated by ranching. Team scientists track biomass at more than 500 permanent plots, calculating carbon from that measurement. “We can measure the carbon for the entire life of the project,” says the Conservancy’s Gilberto Tiepolo, who coordinates the carbon project. “This is huge.”
Indeed, this first experiment informed similar forest carbon projects in Bolivia, California and Indonesia.
But carbon is only part of the story. The project employs 27 local people and provides training in tourism, beekeeping and other businesses that generate income without harming trees. Former ranch workers are now employed as forest rangers. Wildlife is recovering, too. “Nowadays you can find jaguars,” says Tiepolo. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t.”
Pines and Persistence
Volunteers who helped restore preserve: 3,000
Native plants grown from seed and installed at preserve: 15,000
Booms resonate as waves crash against the rocky shoreline of Blowing Rocks Preserve on Florida’s Jupiter Island. Salt from the water sprays onto the land. Most non-native plants can’t tolerate the spray, so its presence helps suppress invasive species.
Blowing Rocks wasn’t always like this. The 73-acre preserve was overrun with Australian pines and other invasive species when the Conservancy acquired it in 1969. Floridians loved the stately pines, which were planted to provide shade. Unbeknownst to most landowners, however, the trees outcompeted native plants and blocked that crucial salt spray, says conservation program manager Mike Renda.
In the 1980s, the Conservancy began a 20-year project to restore Blowing Rocks Preserve. Staff member Jora Young made the rounds to neighborhood groups to explain why the organization was tearing out 4,000 beloved shade trees. “Island residents were really upset,” she says. “I was a little afraid I was going to be strung up by my toes.”
The Conservancy invited volunteers to help with the restoration and see how the native vegetation responded.
Ultimately, says Renda, Blowing Rocks became an example followed across Florida. “What we did here is now the norm,” he says. Pushing ahead with a new approach, he says, “really showed the persistence of the Conservancy.”