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Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership - 2012-07-10

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Restoring peatlands in the Albemarle-Pamlico region

By Jim Hawhee, APNEP staff
July 10, 2012

Dr. Mike Burchell of N.C. State installs a water monitoring well.

Dr. Mike Burchell of N.C. State installs a water monitoring well.

On July 2, the temperature in Great Dismal Swamp approached triple digits. Dense poison ivy, ticks, mosquitos and biting flies were also forecast. Despite the punishing conditions, a project team with representatives from N.C. State University, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, Christopher Newport University, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program converged at Dismal Swamp State Park to install six monitoring wells as part of regional peatland restoration effort.

The well installation was part of an APNEP-funded grant, which was awarded to the Nature Conservancy. At the adjacent Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a series of water control structures and ditch plugs also will be installed as part of the project.

The project team surveys damage from recent wildfires in the swamp.

The project team surveys damage from recent wildfires in the swamp.

Members of the NCSU Water Quality Group led the well installation effort. Monitoring wells were partially assembled in Raleigh, then brought to the swamp in a trailer. Also in tow was a newly constructed bridge to cross the canal and an impressive array of carpentry and landscaping tools.

Not that the team was landscaping.

“We call these hungry bushes, because they’ll eat you up,” said Jamie Blackwell as he blazed a path through dense foliage to interior sections of the swamp.

Jamie and the rest of the NCSU team transitioned easily between bushwhacking, swinging sledges, auguring deep holes by hand and drawing upon their considerable expertise to discuss well installation techniques.

Jamie Blackwell hammers a post to securely mount a surface monitoring well.

Jamie Blackwell hammers a post to securely mount a surface monitoring well.

The NCSU Water Quality Group also has provided leadership for several other landscape-scale conservation projects in the Albemarle-Pamlico Region.

Restoration projects at North River Farms and Lux Farms have restored thousands of acres, with thousands more slated for completion. APNEP provided substantial funding for these efforts as well, which in contrast to this peatland restoration project, are taking place on privately-owned farmland.

The NCSU Water Quality Group considers well installation techniques in the Kim Saunder Ditch.

The NCSU Water Quality Group evaluates a well site at Kim Saunder Ditch.

The project has coupled scientific experts in many disciplines (including hydrology, soils and wetland vegetation) with environmental managers working to make landscape-scale improvements in the area’s ecological conditions.

“Collaboration is key,” notes Amin Davis of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

He explains that the peatland restoration activities on state park lands have advanced primarily through knowledge gained by other peatland restoration efforts, including those occurring at Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges.

Amin Davis takes field notes during the well installations.

Amin Davis takes field notes during the well installations.

Peat soils are formed when organic matter, including leaves and downed trees, falls into soils that are wet and lack oxygen. Peat soils in the Great Dismal Swamp are several feet thick and are springy to walk on due to their low density.

Given enough time and pressure, peat can eventually become coal. Similar to coal, peat soils are also capable of burning when dry, as evidenced by the 2011 Lateral West Fire and the 2008 South One Fire, which burned 6,400 acres and 4,700 acres in the swamp, respectively.

Peat fires are particularly dangerous and difficult to fight, as they can travel underground through the peat soils and move behind firefighting lines. Restoring the area’s hydrology by raising the water table will ultimately reduce firefighting costs in the area, but more importantly it reduces the risk that firefighters will have to fight an intense peat-fueled blaze.

Recent wildfires burned through several feet of peat soil and down to the water table.

Recent wildfires burned through several feet of peat soil and down to the water table.

In addition to reducing firefighting costs and tempering fire behavior, hydrological restoration at the swamp provides ecological benefits. A North Carolina Natural Heritage Program inventory showed that the northeastern part of the swamp has become drier and that red maples are overtaking the traditional white cedar stands. Shifts in the vegetation community have become even more pronounced in the last 30 years, as historically hand-dug canals were deepened to eight feet with heavy construction equipment in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Restoring the hydrology of the swamp is the first step to a full scale ecological recovery, but after hundreds of years of drainage, ecological changes in the swamp will be slow and hard to predict.

“There is no guidebook,” says Jon Blanchard, Natural Resources Program Manager with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. “The scale of change is decades; it’s not something that happens overnight.”

Jon Blanchard (left) assists in the well installation.

Jon Blanchard (left) assists with the well installation.

He also notes the importance of monitoring while undertaking a large and complex restoration effort. “It’s an adaptive management process, and our approach will have to be adjusted as we go.”

Finally, hydrologic restoration slows down the water running through the swamp and is expected to improve water quality. The Dismal Swamp Canal connects to Albemarle Sound through the Pasquotank River, and more than 50 million gallons of water pass through this canal each year.

As APNEP works to develop ecosystem-based management approaches in the region, this project provides a compelling example of their benefits on the ground. These restoration efforts provide a host of economic and ecological benefits in the swamp that extend down into the region’s rivers and sounds.

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