Thursday, October 31, 2013

Meet me down by the River

Volunteers sharing Desserts
Sometimes it’s hard to understand what the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area really is. Big and unwieldy like the river itself, there are so many things that make this national park worthy of comparison to places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. There are amazing scenic views from places like Fort Snelling and the Franklin Avenue Bridge – and wonderful recreational amenities like the Mississippi River Trail, a bike trail that runs on both sides of the river through two downtowns. Historic landmarks like Kaposia, the summer settlement of the Dakota in Saint Paul, and the Mill District in Minneapolis where modern day food production was created, remind and connect us to the people who lived here before. Nearly 50 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Osprey make this stretch of river their home. Any one of these things might elevate this place to distinction, but what makes this a national park? Why is the Mississippi River so special that our country has bestowed this place with one of its highest honors? ­­

The physical spaces that make up a park are just spaces without the people to care. And that is where this park earns its accolades and its top place among those glorified parks of the West. The reason why our park matters is because there is a community – our community – that cares about it today. It’s a great responsibility and honor to steward a place that has so much history and a great joy to plan for its future, but it is our stewardship today that provides the enduring connection that is necessary to elevate just any old place into the position of national park. 

On Tuesday night, the National Park Service and Mississippi River Fund celebrated the end of a great summer season with one hundred of our most dedicated volunteers. Tirelessly, these faithful men and women devoted tens of thousands of hours collectively this year to maintaining the landscape of the Mississippi, to introducing new audiences to the beauty and majesty of this place, and to teaching school kids the value of this river that runs through the heart of our Twin Cities community.

Buckthorn busters celebrate a winter haul.
As a volunteer coordinator, I am continually amazed by the dedication of our volunteers to this national park, and their devotion to bringing new audiences into our fold of river rats – and the river provides a real physical space for our community to gather and celebrate. Without us in the picture, this place would just be a river ecosystem (and there are plenty of those), just a transit way to get from point A to point B (like I-94), just a place on a map. It is our community that makes this national park a special place. It’s a labor of real love and it’s fun. And so, an open invitation to the curious: to the teachers, historians, nature lovers, to the seekers, dreamers and scientists all. Join us!

Become a member. Become a volunteer. Go outside and meet me down by the river. 

Let's explore our national park!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Sprouting Cottonwoods Project

by Maria DeLaundreau

This year I am serving the Mississippi River Fund through MN GreenCorps, an AmeriCorps program coordinated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The goal of GreenCorps is to “preserve and protect Minnesota’s environment while training a new generation of environmental professionals.” GreenCorps places AmeriCorps members at host sites around the state where they will carry out their term of service.

As part of my MN GreenCorps year with the Mississippi River Fund, I am researching the best way to restore cottonwoods to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area’s floodplain. Cottonwood trees are an important species of floodplain forests. They are extremely flood tolerant, and often grow very close to the river channel. Their location and sheer size make them easy to notice, but it’s what you can’t see that gives us a clue about the future viability of their population. I was surprised to learn that these trees, which each produce thousands of seeds each year, are not regenerating in many areas of the Mississippi River’s floodplain. Old cottonwoods tower above all other species, but in the understory there are very few cottonwood seedlings or saplings taking hold.  
Standing in front of a cottonwood tree in the Mississippi River floodplain.

Young cottonwoods are having trouble growing because the flow of the Mississippi River has changed. Flood waters pick up soil upstream and deposit it downstream when the river loses enough energy that it can no longer hold the soil in suspension. Dams now control floods, and prevent spring floods from scouring the banks and picking up soil as they once did. This is good for landowners because it prevents the river from rapidly moving its channels and changing where the river sits on their land. However, this change in river flow is hard on cottonwood seedlings. Cottonwoods are great at growing on the soils that flooding leaves behind, in fact they require disturbed, open soils.
The timing of flooding has changed as well. Historically, major spring floods were in April/May. Since then the climate has changed so that now the river floods during the June/July growing season. The later flooding may mean that recently germinated cottonwood seeds have been scoured away or flooded out.
Part of why cottonwood trees are so critical to the floodplain is that they are a foundation species, meaning that it is a species that creates stable conditions for other species. In other words, the ecosystem along the river would be very different if there were no cottonwoods present. This species is one of the first to grow in recently flooded areas, which has the effect of stabilizing dynamic river channels by reducing erosion and making this habitat more suitable for other vegetation. Cottonwoods continue to facilitate the growth of other plants as they­­ grow. As cottonwoods grow larger they shield the area around them from harsh levels of sunlight, thus enabling the growth of trees that require shadier conditions to establish. Over time, cottonwood trees turn sandbars into mature floodplain forest habitat that can support a larger variety of species.

The majestic bald eagle.
Many birds and other land animals rely on cottonwood trees and the habitat they create. For example, they are the preferred nesting trees for bald eagles because they require large branches to support their hefty nest size, and these birds require perches with a high vantage point so they can scan larger portions of the river for prey.

Cottonwood trees also improve aquatic habitat. In time, cottonwood trees will provide shelter for fish. When cottonwoods grow near a river channel, the river erodes the banks around them until the tree is left on unstable footing. When it falls into the river, the branches, which previously would have been home to terrestrial birds and insects, will shelter aquatic invertebrates and fish. The branches in the river also help to improve water clarity by acting as a filter to remove soil and dirt sediment in the water.  
I’m still working with experts to determine which approaches we should investigate further. The future goal is that by experimenting with the best way to establish cottonwoods we will be able to produce a cottonwood regeneration plan and add younger cottonwoods to the riparian ecosystem on National Park Service islands along the Mississippi River. This action will allow bald eagles, other wildlife, and the river to continue benefiting from cottonwood trees while we learn more about what needs to be done for cottonwoods to regenerate naturally once again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Government Shutdown Blues

by Katie Nyberg, Executive Director

As we enter into the third week of federal government shutdown, I wanted to shine a light on what is and isn’t happening at the Mississippi River Fund and our national park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

This park doesn’t have a main entrance gate and the river isn’t closed. Yet, our community is feeling the effects of the government shutdown in a number of ways.

All park staff except for one (Alan Robbins-Fenger) are still furloughed. As project manager for Coldwater Spring, Alan is watching over Coldwater and watering all of the newly planted trees and shrubs. Coldwater Spring remains closed to the public along with the park’s visitor center at the Science Museum of Minnesota. All park programs have been cancelled, including joint public programs offered by the Mississippi River Fund. All volunteer events, including the annual volunteer recognition dinner, have been cancelled or postponed as well, which has greatly affected our ability to deal with buckthorn at Coldwater Spring, since October is the best time to remove and treat this invasive plant.
Park Ranger Abby Olson with Junior Rangers

One of the most striking effects of the shutdown has been on the Big River Journey program, which is funded by the Mississippi River Fund. Many of the school field trips for the Big River Journey program proceeded as scheduled this fall before the shutdown occurred. However, there was one week of river field trips that had to be modified given the lack of park rangers. Thanks to our partners, especially Padelford Riverboats, these modified trips did occur and the Mississippi River Fund was able to provide scholarships for schools, as planned.

Big River Journey's sister program, "Journey to the Falls," was completely cancelled this year due to the shutdown. Given the nature of the river field trip in Minneapolis, it simply could not happen without park rangers. We are hoping to re-schedule all of those schools for trips in the spring.                                            

Park Ranger Sharon Stiteler counting
birds via airplane last year
The Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program continues this fall without participation from NPS Rangers, which has been problematic for curriculum development and delivery, and certainly has caused logistical headaches for our program partners at Wilderness Inquiry. Fortunately, however, the trips have proceeded as scheduled.

Sadly, the annual migrating bird survey that we do in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also cancelled. This study has been in operation for several years and now will be missing an important data year for the long term monitoring of migrating birds along the Mississippi Flyway.

The Mississippi River Fund remains "open for business" and we look forward to welcoming back our park colleagues once this crisis is over. We are filling in for the park where we can and leading communications to keep park constituents informed. We want to thank members, donors and volunteers for their steadfast support of the park and the Mississippi River Fund.