Restoration: Thinking Like a Bluff





August 14, 2012

As I walked my last stretch of lakeshore this past Tuesday (yes, we have completed our 75-mile journey!), I ran into a few curious souls who were interested in what I was surveying for as well as my findings thus far.  One lady even invited me to her home, exuberantly proclaiming that I was more than welcome to survey her property (and other area properties) for invasive plants, in addition to the miles of shoreline already on my plate.  Another gentleman inquired about my surveys and then asked if I ever had any great epiphanies come to me during my long, solitary walks on the beach.  While I did not go into detail describing the inner workings of my mind with this kind stranger (one can only imagine what runs through your head after a full day of walking in the sun by one’s lonesome), the question did provoke my thoughts a bit more.  During my final lakeshore trek of the summer, sun drenched and energy waning, I began to think more deeply about the project Randy and I had been assigned.  Sure, it’s pretty amazing to be awarded the opportunity to walk the beach all summer and get paid — but that’s not the only reason we’re out there.

I began thinking about the bigger picture — what our data means, how it may be of use to future generations, and how we can use this data to develop plans for improving the land and water.  And then I considered the immense amount of “stuff” (for lack of a better word) that is still unknown, and perhaps how arrogant we — humans, that is — may be to think that we can just come in and alter years of nature’s handiwork.  Now don’t get me wrong, I completely support the fact that invasive plants do not have a place in our native ecosystems.  But, maybe we shouldn’t just go in and vengefully destroy all of these plants.  The grant administrators have asked us to reduce 25% of all invasive plants documented, excluding Phragmites, of which 50% is supposed to be eliminated within the next two years.  Establishing goals is vital to any project’s success, and I understand tangible results need to be reported for continued funding, but are these numbers perhaps too arbitrary?  I can’t help but wonder if maybe we should slow down . . . take a step back . . . fully understand the implications our work may have on this rare ecosystem. 

Being involved in the lakeshore surveys last fall made this summer’s surveys even more interesting, as I was very observant and attuned to the many changes along the lakeshore.  Our coastal ecosystem is extremely dynamic — shifting day-to-day, season-by-season.  Some of the species we encountered last fall were not seen this summer, possibly due to the greening of surrounding vegetation, or maybe because they aren’t there anymore.  Areas of beach have washed away, taking much of the vegetation along for the ride.  Some bluffs have further eroded; others are being restored; and streams that flowed steadily into Lake Michigan last fall are nothing but a slight meandering indentation in the sand now.  So while I do think it’s very important that we manage the coastal habitat for the greatest possible ecological health, perhaps we shouldn’t pull out our loppers and herbicide just yet. 

Perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to turn this landscape into our laboratory.  Maybe we need to study this system longer and really get to know the land we’re working with.  There are so many elements that come into play when dealing with land management and restoration.  If we remove all of the Japanese honeysuckle vine from the bluff but have nothing to replace it with, we will only end up with a washed-out bluff and likely some very unhappy property owners.

I won’t call this an “epiphany,” but it is something to think about.

— Kristin Schinske

[photos by Kristin Schinske]