The damage we’ve done to wetland ecosystems across the lower 48 states in the last 100 years is hard to fathom. The vast habitat destruction has had a negative impact on waterfowl and other birds, mammals, insects and fish.
Where I grew up in northern Indiana, the Kankakee River marsh was once visited by approximately 20 percent of the migrating waterfowl in North America. Today, this once beautiful, meandering, marshland river is a ditch. The marsh is gone.
The same sort of thing happened along the shores of Lake Erie years ago. Shoreline wetlands were destroyed. Yet a restoration effort is taking place and finding success in the region. Led by Ducks Unlimited, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and willing participants of duck clubs, marshes are being restored along the Lake Erie shoreline.
I attended an annual meeting in Port Clinton, Ohio hosted by Ducks Unlimited. This event brings together local marsh owners, duck club members, state agency employees, elected officials and other nonprofit leaders for the purpose of discussing future plans for the region, celebrating accomplishments and spending sometime in hunting blinds.
Chris Sebastian is the sustainability lead and external affairs manager for Ducks Unlimited in the Great Lakes and Atlantic regions. He works with restoration protection enhancement projects in these areas and highlights the sustainability benefits of wetland conservation across the country. The Lake Erie shore restoration project is one of the bright spots of success for such endeavors.
Being able to experience a waterfall hunt and to see firsthand the collaboration that’s taking place as Ducks Unlimited leads the way to restore the marshes along the west coast of Lake Erie showed me the depth of conservation work we can accomplish when everyone is pulling on the same end of the rope.
The Lake Erie Marsh Association is a federation of local duck clubs and marshes. The 40 or so member clubs work together as a unified voice for Lake Erie marsh habitat, wetlands and waterfowl. Together, they are achieving cleaner water, healthier land and more ducks. They are restoring habitat through a cooperative agenda.
“For years and years and years, you know, duck clubs would just keep to themselves,” Sebastian said. “They’d keep closely guarded secrets. But over time, they came to realize by working together, by sharing information, by sharing tips, by figuring out how to make their entire Lake Erie Marsh region more attractive to ducks, they’re all going to benefit. Now they’re seeing the results every day.”
Ducks Unlimited has impacted over 15 million acres of wetlands in this country. You can only get to 15 million acres by improving one acre at a time. So I found it to be very uplifting to see all these different people working together and sharing a common vision. It’s clubs with hundreds of acres working with a neighbor who only has 10 acres of marsh. The Lake Erie Marsh Association makes every acre count.
One such landowner is Dick Carstensen. As a recently retired veterinarian, he’s found some extra time on his hands. Carstensen has spent some of it restoring his family farm into a marsh. He’s the current owner of this legacy property that dates back multiple generations. The land was a marsh, but was drained and turned into a row crop farm a century ago. Dick has returned the land to a marsh and is in love with the results. It was fun riding around with him as he pointed out all the different improvements.
Carstensen took Sebastian and I on a morning hunt in his beloved marsh.
“You could see the pride in his eyes and hear it in his voice,” Sebastian said. “It was great. While we were sitting there watching geese come in all over the place, ducks flying all over the place, other migratory shorebirds flying all over the place, I was thinking that just three years ago this was an agricultural field.”
All along the western Lake Erie Basin, which is in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, wetlands were drained and habitat was lost. Among the many mistakes our country has made regarding landscape management, this one hurt wildlife especially bad. Thankfully, the efforts to correct the mistake are underway and great progress continues to be made. With citizens banding together as the Lake Erie Marsh Association, large organizations like Ducks Unlimited, and state and federal natural resources agencies all working together, the wetlands of Lake Erie are returning.
See you down the trail…