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The Value of Wilderness: Old Woman Creek

Friday, July 28, 2000 at 4:32 PM

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This week, a U.S. Senate subcommittee approved a piece of legislation that would set aside billions of dollars in federal funding for environmental conservation. Supporters on both sides of the aisle are calling it one of the most significant commitments to conservation in U.S. history. At least some of that money would make its way to a tiny nature preserve near Huron, Ohio on Lake Erie. There, international scientists are conducting research that can safeguard environmental and human health around the world. From Old Woman Creek, 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.

KS- In this natural estuary - where the waters of the land meet the waters of Lake Erie - Great Blue Herons and kingfishers feed on sunfish and perch that dart among cattails, sedges, and yellow water lotus. Old Woman Creek is a last remaining bit of coastal wetlands wilderness along an overdeveloped Lake Erie shoreline. But it’s not a place for throngs of people to come and exclaim over rare plants or the four bald eagles that inhabit the preserve. It’s a place for wilderness to exist on its own, largely untouched by human intervention. And it’s a place for students and scientists to learn more about the mysterious workings of a natural freshwater estuary.

Gene Wright is the director of Old Woman Creek. For over two decades he has watched the estuary’s dynamic ecosystem respond to changes in the natural and human environments that surround it. He hasn’t watched alone. From as far away as Russia and as nearby as Cleveland, scientists and researchers of international reputation have come to study at Old Woman Creek, to discover for themselves how the wetlands, marshes, and swamp forests work to purify water—and provide a breeding and feeding ground for a wealth of lifeforms.

GW- It’s better than a sewer plant.

KS- On a sunny summer afternoon Wright and fourteen students from Bowling Green State University enter the estuary by canoe, paddling between clumps of blue vervain, sedge, and Fragmites giant reed grass, a foreign invader that has replaced native cattails in many Midwestern wetlands. Education is an everyday occurrence at Old Woman Creek and this day is no exception. But this no Darwinian paradise, where only the strongest survive. Other pressures besides natural selection are at work here, shaping the fate of individuals and sometimes whole populations.

Wright has been at Old Woman Creek since it opened in 1980. He worries what will happen to the estuary as increasing development puts new stresses on the fragile ecosystem. But he says that’s one of the reasons why Old Woman Creek exists. He admits that even the estuary’s demise would give scientists and researchers important information about why such natural systems are essential to environmental - and human - health.

This year a new source of federal funding for studying, protecting, and restoring natural resources may become available to help fund projects like Old Woman Creek. The Conservation and Restoration Act, or CARA, now awaiting Senate approval would set aside nearly 3 billion dollars annually in federal income from offshore drilling. It could be used for a variety of conservation projects - including coastal stewardship - in all 50 states. Mike Colvin, who heads the Ohio Department of Natural Resources¹ Division of Coastal Management, says the wilderness that is Old Woman Creek will continue to provide an essential knowledge base for generations to come.

MC- Old Woman Creek has tremendous value to extrapolate research into planning and decision-making elsewhere. We are putting together so much information about the characteristics of Old Woman Creek and its watershed. That can be helpful to watershed management planning in other places.

KS- If CARA passes, the new funding couldn’t be more timely. Just last week, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency released an 83-point plan to restore Lake Erie. Among others issues, the plan calls for new controls of agricultural and urban runoff, a prime focus of research at Old Woman Creek. And this week the International Joint Commission - which oversees protection of Great Lakes resources - released its ten-year report on the health of the Great Lakes. The IJC warns that, unless greater efforts are made on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border, 32 years of clean up in the Great Lakes could fail. At Old Woman Creek, I’m Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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