Sunday, November 14, 2010


Looking East on the Kittatinny Ridge. To the left, Red Hill, to the right, the AT as it climbs the Eastern Kittatinny Ridge on the other side of the Lehigh River Gap
[Note: Yes, it's been forever since I've written anything here. I apologize for the hiatus. A big piece of news (if anyone out there who reads this doesn't know this already): I am engaged! Mike proposed on the Grand Canal at Versailles--trop romantique et tellement bon. This fall has been very busy and I've been focusing on work (my last year of grad school! youpie!) and wedding. Recently, I had an incredible weekend with Restoration Ecology class. We went to restoration sites in Maryland and Pennsylvania. We met sea turtles and a former coalminer and "Tea Party activist" who runs the largest compost business in PA. It was a whirlwind. Below is an excerpt--slightly edited for internet--from a report I wrote about one particular site that deeply impressed me. Everyone, look up the Lehigh Gap Nature Center and become a member. They are doing such impressive work there and need the support. Excuse the proselytizing.]
The Kittatinny Ridge was an impressive sight as we drove through Slatington towards the Lehigh Gap, and as we pulled into the parking lot at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center everyone’s eyes were fixed on that massive rise of rock laid bare. By the end of the visit, awestruck feeling inspired by the stark landscape shifted to awe at what a small number of determined people have been able to accomplish to restore a devastated environment. Dan Kunkle, Director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, narrated the story of zinc smelting in Palmerton. Zinc companies were drawn to the area because of the nearby coal mines—coal was more expensive to ship than zinc, so the zinc company shipped zinc from New Jersey to where the coal was coming right out of the ground. Between 1898 and 1980, two zinc smelting plants owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company poured zinc, cadmium, lead, and sulfur-containing smoke from their stacks, a deadly smog that eventually killed all the vegetation on the slopes of the surrounding hills. With the trees and other plants dead, topsoil washed off the slopes, leaving a rocky substrate contaminated to 8 inches with heavy metals. In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the area a Superfund site.

Ruin of the New Jersey Zinc Company West Plant
The Lehigh Gap Nature Center presides over a thriving and growing wildlife refuge right around the corner from a blasted heath. The Lehigh river, once owned by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation company, has recovered from its once foul condition and now is home to otters and wood ducks. The ridge has pitch pine and hairgrass savanna at its high elevations, which Indians and settlers once burned to encourage good low-pH soil and sun for blueberries. There are also two endangered species on the ridge: Fringed Bleeding-heart (Dicentra eximia) and Glade Sandwort (Minuartia patula). Dan is a TogetherGreen fellow and winner of a “Best Citizen” award from the county (he didn’t tell us this last part, I ran across an article online). He left his job teaching high school biology and environmental science to run the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, and credits his wife for allowing him to pursue this dream. He's also one of the most pleasantly modest people you could meet. He’s made restoring the Kittatinny Ridge his life’s work. Dan explained the EPA goals: revegetate with native species, stop the erosion problems, and fix metals in the substrate—using plants that do not bio-accumulate metals—so they are immobilized and unable to migrate into water sources. Included in the Superfund designation are Blue Mountain, a 2 ½ mile long mountain of zinc waste, the town of Palmerton, and the water of Palmerton. CBS Television is (through a long history of companies buying each other) the responsible party. The New Jersey Zinc Company started a restoration on the east side of Kittatinny that is now 20 years in progress, and still has not fulfilled the EPA’s goals. Dan attributes this failure to a lack of vegetation management and intrinsic problems with the restoration method—based on a soil/public waste compost mixture called "EcoLoam." The east side of Kittatinny restored by NJZC has vegetation, but it is chock full of invasive species and bio-accumulating tree species. 

Canada Wild Rye
Little Bluestem
In light of the failure of NJZC's restoration, Dan said, he posed the questions: How would nature repair the mountain, and how can we find out and jump start the process? To answer these questions, the restoration effort turned towards ecological models. Dan knew that sometime during the post-glacial period, grassland would have been part of the first succession of  plants. That grassland literally laid the foundations for soil which eventually supported forest on the Kittatinny Ridge. He also knew that there are areas where the soil is naturally high in heavy metals, such as serpentine barrens. Several different kinds of warm season grasses grow on serpentine barrens. Warm season grasses do not accumulate heavy metals. Would warm season grasses work on Kittatinny Ridge? Fifty-six one-acre test plots were planted in 2003, and the success of the test plots led to planting seeds with a crop duster in 2004. Along with the seed-planting program, compost was spread up to the highest slopes that could be reached with a tractor. Lime was added to bring the pH up from 4.5 to 6. The compost was essential for establishing decomposers on the barren contaminated substrate, on which all fungi had died. The crop duster worked, and the program was continued on higher slopes. Among the grasses planted were switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), and lovegrass (Eragrostis). Along with the grasses, other plants started to grow, among them invasive species such as Buddleia and Ailanthus. Birch and poplar also started to grow, presenting a management challenge. The warm-season grasses do not bio-accumulate, but these trees and the invasive species do, and will end up mobilizing the heavy metals in the contaminated substrate when they shed leaves and eventually die. Dan has organized a monitoring and management program to remove the invasive species with herbicide. He explained that because the heavy metals will always be there in the sub-soil, adaptive management is crucial. There is a challenge not only with plants bringing heavy metals up into their tissues, but also the soil could shift around over time and re-expose the contaminated substrate, leaving it exposed and able to be washed away with rainwater. Over time, the metals may become less biologically available, but that will take a century or more. Some local people and organizations say they prefer to “let nature restore itself,” but the movement of heavy metals makes that approach foolhardy. Dan told us of hiking with a president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on Kittatinny Ridge, and indicating to her that with the contaminated substrate on ATC lands exposed to the elements, heavy metals were washing downstream with every rain storm. The warm-season grasses are working to gradually prevent the heavy metals from mobilizing, but it is a fragile balance.