Lehigh Gap Restoration Project: Year 2 Progress Report

The following article is from Fall 2004 issue of Wildlife Activist.
By Dan R. Kunkle

There is a cautionary tale about a man who fell off the top of the Empire State Building and upon passing the 30th floor was heard yelling “so far so gooooooood”  And then there is the old adage, “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.” With these two bits of wisdom in mind, I am cautiously summarizing the progress so far in the Wildlife Center’s efforts to restore the barren mountainside as “so far, so good.”

Constant monitoring of the growth of last years test plots, and promising new growth on the year two aerial application area reveal excellent results on the land based application areas from year one, and satisfactory growth on the year two aerial application area.   The restoration is mandated by EPA as part of the Superfund restoration work in the Palmerton area.  Viacom, Inc. is the responsible party who is funding the restoration efforts.  The Wildlife Center’s methods are being used on the degraded parts of WIC’s Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge that lie within the boundaries of the Superfund clean-up area.

From late May through mid July, 2003, Viacom, Inc.’s engineering firm, Frank and West Environmental, directed planting of 56 one-acre test plots on the slopes along the LNE Railroad bed and on the accessible lower slopes of the mountain above the LNE bed.  These plots were rectangular or square areas, each marked with a metal sign listing the grass species and soil amendments used on the plot.  Any plots located uphill from another plot were separated from the lower plot by a zone of untreated land.

While all the species have been found growing in the plots, the dominant species during this second year of growth has been sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes).  In August, the small purple flowers waving on spikes of lovegrass in a sea of green were beautiful.  Flower and later seed-heads of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) were prominent above the nascent prairie spreading over the year one test plot area.  Already, large amounts of the downhill areas below each test plot are filling in, making the test plot boundaries indistinguishable in many places.

Another species that fared exceptionally well the second year was Canada wild-rye (Elymus canadensis), which was planted in a limited number of plots, but will most likely be included in future plantings.  The nodding heads of this species were prominent in certain areas.

Frank and West engineers Chris West and Jake Nims carried out a total cover analysis study in August. Preliminary results revealed significant increases in the total area covered by live grasses in the year one test plot areas. West said, “The establishment and growth of the warm season grasses on the Wildlife Information Center property was very promising last year.  That trend continued this year as well.  For example, the percentage of total live plant cover for test plots where mushroom compost was applied was approximately 63% at the end of the 2003 growing season.  Preliminary results from the 2004 growing season indicate that the percentage of total live plant cover has increased to over 81%.  Frank and West president Jim Frank concurred and added, “The fact that several warm season prairie grass species produced viable seed the first year and all of the grasses produced seed the second year is very encouraging.  I believe we have found the correct combination of agricultural lime, fertilizer, compost and warm season prairie grass seed to help the mountain become green again.”

John Dickerson, retired warm-season grass specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been an advisor on our restoration effort from the beginning.  He visited the test plot area in mid-October and was very pleased with the progress of the grasses in just two years.  He believes the basic approach is very sound and the grasses are performing very well on the site. Dickerson pointed out the role of NRCS and their Big Flats Plant Materials Center, near Corning, New York in developing the commercial availability of these grasses for projects such as ours.

Our partners, Bill Mineo and Sherry Acevedo of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, carried out hand seeding with grass seed only and no amendments on some of these steep slope areas.  These plots showed enough germination and summer survival to give us (and Viacom) the confidence that aerial application could work.  So a crop duster was hired, and Jake Nims of Frank and West oversaw the application on 84 acres of steep, mostly rocky areas in April 2004. Again, a wide buffer was left untreated between the aerial application zone and the land-based application plots.

There was significant germination and growth of grass seedlings in this rocky area, with seedlings sprouting up between boulders.  The best growth was observed on a few gravelly areas that were devoid of large rocks.  Because of a minimalist approach concerning soil amendments (there was only commercial fertilizer applied – no lime of compost), and because of the large amount of rock cover, seedling growth was sparse and slower than on the land-based application areas.  This was expected, however, and the growth was satisfactory in year one.  In fact, this growth was more typical of year one warm-season grass growth than the tremendous growth witnessed on the 2003 areas.

Viacom Vice-president/Environment Jeff Groy is the company’s Palmerton Superfund supervisor, and has been working with the Wildlife Center to implement our warm-season grass restoration methods since we contacted him in 2002.  When asked about his thoughts on our first two seasons of restoration work, Mr. Groy said he is “pleased with the progress of the test plots and aerial application area.  The results are very encouraging.”  He added that he is “looking forward to working with the Wildlife Information Center to implement the full-scale re-vegetation of Blue Mountain using warm season grasses.”

A concern turned up this summer while monitoring the test plot growth – invasive species. Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), a prominent invasive species along the rail beds and highways in the Gap, made inroads into the test plots.  Ailanthus altissima, another invasive species that is taking over the banks of the Lehigh River just north of our refuge, was also seen in the test plots.  This tough tree, also called Chinese sumac or Tree of Heaven, is extremely difficult to eradicate once it is established.  This prompted Center officials to put out a call for volunteers, and 40 people showed up on September 26 to “pull weeds” (see page 10).  The volunteers removed thousands of Buddleja and about 100 Ailanthus trees.  There will be ongoing efforts to remove these invasive species, which if left unchecked, could take over large areas, converting valuable native wildlife habitat into a wasteland of plants that are largely useless to our native wildlife.  Mineo, the person responsible for pointed us toward warm-season grasses at the beginning of the restoration effort, is pleased with the results so far and is not at all surprised by our success.

He said, “it is a critical time now to begin thinking about adding other species to the mix to enhance diversity and create even higher-quality wildlife habitat.”  Specifically, he suggests adding deep-rooted native flowering species, including legumes, to the grass mix. According to Mineo, the flower seeds can be added to the grass seed mix in any areas we plant next year, and can also be added to existing stands by over-seeding.  He emphasized that “timing is everything – you’ve got to get those flowers in next spring in areas where the grasses are already established, before the grasses get too dense.”  He also recommends adding some oaks and other tree species that will not take up the metals to create a savanna. Finally, Mineo believes we should try some cool season natives in areas with more moisture, such as seep areas or the riparian area.  “We want diversity of other plant species as well as diversity of grasses,” he concluded.

Charlie Root, EPA Superfund site manager for Palmerton toured the test plot area with Kunkle on October 19.  He was very pleased with the results on the ground so far, noting that there was little visible difference between the various test plots.  He noted that it was difficult to see the areas between the test plots as well, since the grass has spread down-slope to fill in the gaps.  Root said, “Visually, and esthetically, this is very successful.  There is vegetation here providing habitat for wildlife, and the erosion has been stopped.  However, we need to see the results of the metals uptake studies before we make a determination as to whether you will be allowed to go forward with the remaining acreage next spring.”  That plan to go forward includes planting the remaining acreage with warm season grasses and adding amendments as indicated by examining the test plots.  The results of the metal uptake studies and risk assessment are due back to EPA by late November.

To sum it up, “so far, so good.”  We will keep you posted as our restoration project continues.

Citation:  Kunkle, D.R.  2004.  Lehigh Gap Restoration Project: Year 2 Progress Report. Wildlife Activist 51:4-6.