Restoring America's Heartland Takes Heart

Restoration Director of Michigan Chris May at The Nature Conservancy’s Erie Marsh Preserve

The time has finally come for Erie Marsh, a 2,217-acre expanse of coastal wetlands, containing eleven percent of Southeastern Michigan’s remaining marshlands. The Nature Conservancy is currently collaborating with the Erie Shooting and Fishing Club, Ducks Unlimited, and Michigan Department of Natural to launch the first phase of its multi-year plan to reconnect Erie Marsh Preserve to Maumee Bay and Lake Erie. This plan was made possible through a 2.6 million dollar grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The project is planned to start in December, with one goal in mind: improve the overall health and productivity of the wetlands within the bay with hopes of a rewarding outcome.

One of the biggest struggles Erie Marsh faces is being so close to urbanized cities like Detroit and Toledo. Erie Marsh endures uncontrollable factors from the cities such as sedimentation, nutrient inputs which cause changes in water quality, and hardening of shorelines. However, there are controllable factors that have been put in place to improve and restore Erie Marsh.

An integral player in the restoration project is the Erie Shooting and Fishing Club. The club donated the property to the Conservancy in 1978, while retaining hunting and fishing rights. The club’s directors and members have remained involved and conscious of problems on the marsh such as invasive species control and wetland erosion.

During the 1940s, the Erie Shooting and Fishing Club constructed multiple dikes around the marsh to control water from the bay into the wetlands. As the years progressed, dikes were built covering more than 1,000 acres of the marsh. The dikes were a controversial issue at the time. Although dikes provided control over the amount of water flowing into the wetlands, the dike segregated Erie Marsh from Maumee Bay. As the dikes have degraded since the 1940s, part of the restoration project is to build a sufficient passageway for native aquatic species to enter and exit through the marsh. As Chris May simply puts it, “diked wetlands that have been segregated from natural waters for decades can still be reconnected and be beneficial for native aquatic species.”

A contributor to the Erie Marsh restoration project is our very own Restoration Director of Michigan, Chris May. Chris and the Conservancy plan to set the first phase of the restoration project in December. The project consists of constructing a large fish passageway structure, with two four-foot diameter openings that lead into a 258-acre open-water area on the south end.

The restoration project consists of constructing a large double-dike distribution canal connecting the management units of the marsh. Within the canal, water is able to rise to a level above the management units, meaning it can be distributed by gravity versus electricity or fuel-powered pumps. Future plans on the marsh include extending the water distribution to the preserve’s northern end.

Pumping will be needed occasionally, and the Conservancy plans on replacing the diesel driven pump and purchasing a modern pump that will flow up to 12,000 gallons per minute and will pump in both directions. This makes it useful for conservation staff to independently manage specific units throughout the marsh.

The restoration project also focuses on the control of invasive and native species. Invasive species (aquatic and terrestrial) cause problems at the marsh. In particular, Phragmites (common reed) poses harmful threats to both land and water. Originally from Asia, Phragmites can grow up to fifteen feet tall and tends to create monocultures which block out sunlight and the struggle for existence for native species is at risk.

“In my opinion, Phragmites is the most devastating invasive species in the entire Great Lakes area,” says May. “Plenty of research shows that common reed reduces the diversity of native fish, birds, insects, and crustaceans. The thatches decompose much more slowly, which actually raises the elevation of the marsh and can completely change the local hydrology.”

An effective method to control the Phragmites is to spray it with herbicides, remove the standing dead material, and then flood the area with at least three feet of water. The future pumps and shored up dikes will allow staff to control and manage flood affected areas without causing damage elsewhere. May is currently collaborating with local, state, and national partners to develop a state-wide management plan to control Phragmites.

Without the help of our partners, the restoration project would not have been able to overcome all of the obstacles Erie Marsh faces. Working together, communicating with one goal in mind: the comeback of Erie Marsh.

Learn about other Nature’s Comeback Heroes and how you can become a hero, too!


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