Contact: Howard Phillips- 252-796-3004 ext 226
August 6, 2008
Restoring Wetlands Improves Wildlife Habitat, Helps the Environment, and Protects from Wildfires
Photo Credit- USFWS- Tom Crews (taken Aug 3, 2008)
Aerial view of Evans Road, showing the hydrology restoration site in the foreground on the west side of Evans Road, the Evans Road Firebreak alongside the road, and, in the background, the aftermath of the Evans Road Fire.
With the Evans Road Fire having a prominent position in news in eastern North Carolina for all of June and most of July, it’s been hard for refuge staff to focus attention on other projects. However, Refuge Fire Management Officer Vince Carver “still has stories to tell” about the time leading up to the Evans Road Fire. “The Evans Road Fire isn’t over yet. But, at least it’s calmed down enough to allow us to think about why the fire burned the areas it did. A lot of work was done in the months and years prior to this fire. Two projects really affected the impact of the Evans Road Fire- without them, the block of pocosin west of Evans Road would have likely been a part of this fire—and the homes on Shore Drive would have been at more extreme risk.” The first project was the Evans Road Fire Break. Having that defensible space already established saved the day more than once on this fire. The second was a hydrology restoration project - an area of the refuge where the draining had been greatly reduced in an effort to restore natural water levels." Prior to the Evans Road Fire, a partnership between the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restored 7,500 acres of previously drained pocosin wetlands at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
Although the wetland restoration was primarily to minimize the impacts of local nutrient pollution and improve water quality and wildlife
habitat, it also helped to greatly reduce the potential for wildfires like the Evans Road fire.
Saturation of the soils limits the potential for peat ground fires to spread while still allowing the above-ground vegetation to burn (a necessary component of pocosin ecosystems). "With help from our friends at NCDENR we've been able to get a lot of our hydrology restoration work done much more quickly than we could have otherwise" said Refuge Manager Howard Phillips; "and it appears to have paid big benefits on the Evans Road Fire".
Pocosins are unique wetlands, also known as southeastern shrub bogs. They are characterized by a very dense growth of mostly broadleaf evergreen shrubs with scattered pond pine. The thick layer of peat soils underlying pocosins act as nutrient sponges over thousands of years, locking-up nutrients, carbon, and other pollutants in vegetation and the ever- deepening soil layer.
When pocosins southeast of Lake Phelps were drained for farming and peat mining (which is no longer being done in this area), their nutrient retention functions were lost and some of the nutrients they held were released to adjacent waters.
In addition, drainage makes pocosins drier which increases the frequency and severity of wildfires.
When these lands became part of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1990, managers began restoring natural water levels. The NCDENR partnership has accelerated the ongoing restoration efforts.
Concern about nutrient pollution prompted staff at Pocosin Lakes and Alligator River national wildlife refuges along with NCDENR to restore natural water levels on previously drained pocosins to offset the excess nitrogen by re-establishing the pocosin's function as a natural nutrient sponge. "This approach of off-setting new nitrogen pollution in the watershed with an equivalent amount of local nitrogen reduction is a win-win for the environment" according to Service contaminant biologist Sara Ward, "the restoration reduces the potential for water quality degradation where nutrient enrichment is already a problem and at the same time enhances habitat for wildlife by saturating these lands again".
The project involved elevating more than seven miles of roads at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Raised roads act as levees to help re-flood the historically drained peatlands. Raised roads also allow better access to fight fires when they occur. Water control structures are then used to help maintain optimum water levels. When complete, 7,500 acres will have been restored through cooperative funding and technical assistance from NCDENR and the Service’s refuge, coastal and environmental contaminants programs. These restored pocosins will retain about 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen and 48 million pounds of carbon each year which will help water quality in the Pungo River and the Pamlico Sound.
The current project, although providing substantial environmental benefits, addresses only the most severely altered lands on the refuge.
Over 15,000 additional acres on the refuge are targeted for similar efforts (including portions east of Evans Road where wildfire
suppression efforts are currently underway).
By managing the water levels to allow peat soils to remain wet, peat ground fire danger has been reduced on portions of the refuge where the restoration is complete. Future restoration activities planned by Refuge Managers will continue to minimize fire threats.