Take a walk on the (literal) wild side

- Elisabeth Vines

Wetlands used to be considered wastelands.

We are old enough to remember when developers filled in swampy areas and the public thought it was a boon, ridding itself of mosquitoes’ breeding grounds.

We remember, too, when wetlands were considered ugly, a place for pollutants to be dumped.

This view was as old as our nation. George Washington, in 1763, formed a company to drain, for farming, the Great Dismal Swamp, which lay partly in Virginia and partly in North Carolina.

The federal Swamp Acts of the mid-1800s encouraged the destruction of wetlands. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, over a third of the nation’s wetlands were destroyed.

We thought of this history as we edited a letter to the editor this week from Dave Nelson, a member of the Knox Conservation Advisory Council who wrote proudly of the restored boardwalk through the 76 acres of wetlands in his town.

Knox has long valued its wetlands. We wrote more than 20 years ago about the building of the original boardwalk, spearheaded by the late Dan Driscoll, using funds from the Tennessee Pipeline.

And before that, more than 30 years ago, we recall talking to the late Jon Kusler, the executive director of the Association of the State Wetland Managers, at his home in Berne.

Kustler wrote model floodplain management legislation that many states used as a template in adopting their laws in the 1970s and ’80s.

“What we do now, in this generation,” Kusler told us in 1990 of preserving wetlands, “could make the difference in all of our futures.”

Our nation went through an environmental awakening in the 1970s. Here, in New York state, our legislature responded to the uncontrolled loss of wetlands and the resulting floods by passing the Freshwater Wetlands Act in 1975.

Besides flood protection — wetlands act as natural reservoirs — the act lists 10 other benefits:

— Controlling erosion: Vegetation in wetlands filters sediment and slows water movement;

— Maintaining water quality: Microorganism break down and use nutrients, reducing pollution;

— Recharging groundwater: Water from wetlands seeps down to replenish underground aquifers;

— Maintaining surface flows: Wetlands frequently serve as groundwater discharge sites;

— Providing habitats for fish and other wildlife:  One half of New York’s protected native plants, many of which are endangered or threatened, are wetlands species. Wetlands provide breeding, nesting, and feeding grounds for fish, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife;

— Producing nutrients: Wetlands are one of the most ecologically productive systems on Earth, converting sunlight and nutrients into food sources for animals;

— Promoting recreation: Annually, 12 million New Yorkers hike, bird-watch, hunt, fish, trap, boat, or camp for an annual worth of more than $5 million;

— Maintaining open space: Wetlands are often the only undeveloped areas along crowded riverfronts and coastal regions or in urbanized areas;

— Allowing educational and scientific research: Wetlands can serve as outdoor biophysical laboratories, living classrooms, and vast training and education resources; and

— Maintaining biological diversity: Wetlands are habitat for many rare and indigenous species of plants and animals and many in themselves represent unique natural communities.

When Dave Nelson spoke in Knox earlier this month as the ribbon was cut on the new wetlands trail, he named many of those benefits: reducing flooding and erosion and creating wildlife habitat as well as opportunities for nature study.

“When people learn about something and understand it, they can appreciate and value it and then they will preserve it,” Nelson wisely said.

Although it took the European settlers of this continent centuries to realize the value of wetlands, we would posit the Native Americans had an intuitive understanding of their value.

Nelson credited Eric Marczak, who chairs the Knox Conservation Advisory Council, with being “the driving force behind the walkway project.”

When we’ve interviewed Marczak in the past, for a podcast or when he was performing with his wife, Dawn Standing Woman, of Mohawk heritage, we’ve come to understand he has a deep reverence for Native American traditions and values. A flutist and flutemaker, Marczak met his wife when he repaired her broken flute.

 He makes the holes in his flutes with stone tools just as they were made hundreds of years ago, and he can even make the stone blades so well that they look exactly like tools that have been around for centuries.

Hundreds of the bone whistles that Marczak has made are reproductions of original Native American bone whistles. The whistles were part of former state archaeologist William Ritchie’s collection at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Marczak refers to Ritchie’s book on the archeology of New York State as his bible.

When handling ancient flutes such as his 700-year-old flute made of a duck’s wing bone, Marczak said he tries to connect with the people who made it.

Of Polish and Ukrainian heritage, Marczak grew up in Cohoes acutely aware that the ground there was sacred to Native American. He remembers a local archaeologist showing him where the longhouses had been on Peebles Island. His early memories of growing up along the Mohawk River are of his anger at seeing how the local factories were spewing pollution into the river.

While he played music on the weekends, Marczak spent 34 years at a day job with the state’s health department and, in 1974, became part of the team that started testing the Mohawk River for PCBs and other chemicals. He describes the gratifying revelation of realizing that, as a grown man, he was fulfilling what he had wanted to do as a child, which was to clean up the river.

Marczak said that, despite being raised Catholic, he was always drawn to Native American traditions and the values that the traditions uphold.

“This old culture, the reverence for the land … without the land we don’t live healthy,” said Marczak. “The Native American solution is, if the Mother is not healthy, we’re not healthy,” he said, referring to the Earth.

In the midst of all the dismal news of climate change and the destruction we humans have wrought, we are pleased this week to write of this successful effort in Knox to value wetlands.

While the boardwalk was constructed with volunteer labor, the $40,000 in funds for materials came from the Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District. Just last week, we reported that not-for-profit organizations can now apply to the district for funding up to $40,000 for conservation projects.

We hope others will be inspired by the success of the Knox council and do so.

Beyond that, we urge anyone and everyone to take a walk on the wild side — on the Knox wetlands trail.

Marczak approached ecologist and former Department of Environmental Conservation herpetologist Alvin Breisch about indexing the wide variety of plants and animals in the Knox wetlands. Breisch, in turn, enlisted a group he is part of, the Thursday Naturalists, experts who are passionate about nature.

“There are many, many species of plants and animals that rely on wetlands for all or most of their lives,” Breish told Hilltown reporter Noah Zweifel, who wrote about the cataloging of the many species in the Knox wetlands. “For species such as amphibians and many migratory birds, wetlands are crucial for nesting and reproduction.”

In January, Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club President Tristan Lowery told Zweifel that the Knox wetlands are “quickly becoming a favorite destination for birders in the Capital Region,” with 125 species recorded there so far, and more expected.

An alarming study in 2019 showed that the population of North American birds dropped nearly 30 percent since 1970 — almost three billion birds gone.

The report itself termed the loss a “crisis” and study coauthor Peter Mara, along with John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell Lab, called it “a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.”

“Birds are indicator species,” they wrote, “serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble. Unfortunately, this study is just the latest in a long line of such mounting evidence.”

This is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Yes, of course, if humans and other species are to be rescued from this calamity we’ve created we need world-wide commitment, especially from industrialized nations, to limit our use of fossil fuels.

But for this moment, we are taking heart, in the midst of this peril, in the 125 bird species that have been seen in the Knox wetlands.

We need to renew our reverence for the land. “The Native American solution is, if the Mother is not healthy, we’re not healthy,” as Marczak put it 15 years ago — and then he did something about it.

Let us follow his lead on the path to environmental preservation and redemption.

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