Tag: Environmental Awareness

Vernal Pools: Springing to life!

hand holding eggs over water

Here we are, it’s March! You made it through the cold dark winter! The days are getting longer, the sunlight is feeling warmer, and maybe this year more than ever, many of us are feeling the push to move more, get outside, feel that sun on our faces. To be sure, there will be one more snowy day that will surprise us – and is it really a surprise when it happens every year? – but the idea that winter is behind us lifts our human spirits.

The wildlife around us are feeling it too; they are awakening from their winter hide-aways and are starting to move around, looking for food and mates. The extra daylight, warmer ground temperatures and spring rains trigger movement for a special group of animals that use temporary vernal pool habitat to complete their life cycles. If you hear the high-pitched call of the spring peepers, or the quacking sound of a wood frog chorus, chances are you are near a vernal pool. 

What is a vernal pool? Vernal pools are seasonal bodies of water that form only in the spring in shallow depressions that occur throughout the glaciated region of eastern North America, including the Great Lakes and New England. One key factor that separates vernal pools from any old puddle that we see in the spring as snow melts, groundwater rises and rain collects in low places is the lack of an outlet or connection to running water, such as a stream, brook or creek. This specific difference allows for a special habitat that lacks fish, where certain amphibians, insects and other invertebrates can lay their eggs and complete a portion of their life cycle. The other important factor in identifying a vernal pool is that while they may stay on the landscape for at least two months, vernal pools are generally ephemeral, or temporary, so as spring rains pass and temperatures rise, the pool will disappear. This drying also prevents fish from establishing permanent populations. You may walk by a vernal pool on your summer day hikes and not notice this very special habitat.

Vernal pools vary in size and can be surrounded by wetlands, swamps or dry land, depending on where they sit in the regional landscape. In some cases, deeper sections can look like a pond and have vegetation reflective of that such as water lilies or grasses, while others may be only a few inches deep and have a layer of leaves or moss at the bottom. While they are most often found in forested areas, they can also occur in fields or roadsides. Some pools can fill in the autumn or winter and remain ice-covered until the magical combination of spring weather allows for ice to thaw and the organisms to come out, while others remain dry through summer, fall and winter and are only apparent in the spring.

Why are vernal pools protected? One reason is because the unique set of species that depend on these pools cannot exist anywhere else, and they in turn play a role in the ecological life cycle that supports all life on this planet. Vernal pools are considered a type of wetland or water body, and in New England, are regulated and protected at the federal level by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Each state also has regulations specific to vernal pool identification and protection, and in Maine and Massachusetts, mapping and recordation as well. In New Hampshire, vernal pools are regulated and protected per the state wetland rules Env-Wt and are defined under Chapter 100. Vernal pool identification is based on physical factors as well as the primary and secondary indicators, which are specific species that only use vernal pools as habitat.

Vernal pools come to life in different times of year within New England, as early as late February along the Rhode Island and Connecticut coasts, while upper Vermont and Maine will not see vernal pool activity until mid-April. Here in New Hampshire, we start to see amphibian migration on warm rainy nights starting in late March and extending through late May.  

Vernal pool organisms also rely on the undisturbed upland surrounding the pool, what is often called the pool envelope. Vernal pool amphibians spend most of the year in the upland discretely feeding, hibernating, and preparing to breed in the spring. Protection of uplands around vernal pools from development or alteration is an important part of the regulatory and permitting process, which is why identifying vernal pools during the correct time of year is an important part of planning for any development type of project, including not only residential and commercial development, but also infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.

Hoyle, Tanner’s Certified Wetland Scientist, Joanne Theriault, has the training and experience to investigate your site for vernal pools – and given the length of time spent indoors this winter assisting her children with remote learning, she is eager to get outdoors again! Reach out to her with questions!

Your Holiday Decorations May Contain an Invasive Species

Decorating for the holidays can bring joy to households, and putting your decorations up early could make you happier, but watch out for Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)! If you are a DIYer or like to craft your wreaths or other holiday decorations using materials from your backyard or local outdoor environment, you may be mistakenly causing harm to the environment and creating future landscaping challenges for yourself and neighbors. Oriental Bittersweet is covered with bright red fruits and yellow capsules, making this vine alluring, but according to the UNH Cooperative Extension service, the vine is also highly invasive and poses a significant threat to native plants.

Oriental bittersweet is native to Eastern Asia and was intentionally introduced to the United States in the mid-1800s as ornamental landscaping and for use in erosion control because it is both pretty and effective; it is fast-growing, spreads easily and is not finicky about soil or water conditions. Oriental bittersweet has escaped cultivation because it grows in full sun as well as shade, and in many different locations including meadows and grasslands, woods and woodland edges, along roadsides and even on dunes and beaches! After the invasive species made its way to New Hampshire in 1938, by the 1970s it was recognized as an aggressive invader, and by 2011 it was widespread across New England. It is now found throughout 21 of the 33 states where it was introduced, a region extending from Maine south to Georgia and west to Iowa.

Wherever Oriental bittersweet is found, it grows very rapidly, wrapping around trees, damaging, and sometimes suffocating or killing them. The vines can uplift tree roots and can take down trees that reach 90 feet in height. The extra weight on the trees can cause limbs to drop and contribute to power outages or cause damages.

Try American Bittersweet
When making holiday decorations or wreathes, a good alternative to Oriental bittersweet is American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), but this species is less widespread in New Hampshire and is typically found only in landscaped locations actively maintained by a homeowner, since it cannot compete with Oriental bittersweet in areas that are not maintained such as roadsides and open wooded areas. The two species can be easily confused because they are similar in color and appearance. Oriental bittersweet fruit (pictured below) has a bright yellow outer covering with red centers, is located along the vines in leaf axils and has bright, yellow colored leaves in the fall that are easy to see. American bittersweet fruit (pictured below) can sometimes have a yellow outer covering but tends to be more orange or even red over a red interior and tend to cluster at the stem’s end.

Oriental bittersweet (left) and American bittersweet (right)

Winterberry

Try Winterberry
Another good decorative option that may be available locally is winterberry (Ilex verticillata) – this species (pictured right) is easily noticeable in the swamps, wetlands, damp wood edges, and along the edges of ponds and streams throughout New Hampshire. Showy, clustered red berries pop out from the vegetation in the late fall, and, different from bittersweet, persist on branches well into the winter months, explaining how winterberry got its name. It is often considered one of the best plants for providing winter interest in the garden.  

Ask for Help at Garden Centers
If you are cutting your own vegetation to use in holiday decorating, take the time to look further than roadsides, since those habitats tend to be invaded by Oriental bittersweet, or consider asking for scraps at garden centers or local nurseries since they may have remnant cuttings of native plants for free or low cost. Maybe even think about your holiday decorating in the summer and fall, so that while you walk, run, hike or explore your local surroundings, you can keep an eye out for winterberry, holly or American bittersweet locations. 

I Already Have Oriental Bittersweet – Now What?
Don’t worry, you can save the trees and your holiday spirit! If you see Oriental bittersweet in your holiday decorations, the best thing to do is throw it away. You can also burn it in your fireplace or woodstove. It’s best to avoid throwing it outside or composting since the fruit, or “berries” can survive through winter and will create new vines in the spring. If DIY isn’t your area of expertise, remember to ask when you purchase decorations with berries if they are real or plastic, and if they are real, where they came from, and does the seller know which species they are? Again, if you are ever unsure, best to throw them in a fire rather than outdoors to prevent the unintentional spread of invasive species.

Reach out to our Senior Environmental Coordinator Kimberly Peace if you’d like more information.

Presidential Power Sways Environmental Perception

Who would you say was one of the most significant environmental Presidents? Would it surprise you if I told you I think it is Richard Nixon? Yes, the only US President to resign from office, and who commonly made such un-eco-friendly statements as comparing environmentalists to a bunch of animals, was also the President who signed into creation the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969. This was one of the first laws that established the legislative framework for protecting the environment, outlined national environmental policies and goals, and developed the Presidential Council on Environment (now known as the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)) within the executive office. NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate our national environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental, human and social impacts of their proposed actions as well as the reasonable alternatives to those actions.

In 1970, President Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Before the agency was created, our nation had no central authority overseeing the protection of the environment. Shortly afterwards, he signed into effect the Clean Air Act Extension. This is one of the most significant air pollution control bills in American history. It required the newly formed EPA to create and enforce regulations to protect people from airborne pollution known to be hazardous to human health, specifically targeting sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead.

President Nixon also signed into effect the Endangered Species Act (1973) creating the concept of preserving species and their habitats listed as threatened and endangered; this act has been called “the Magna Carta of the environmental movement.”

Finally, in the midst of his impeachment concerns, Nixon also proposed and lobbied through Congress the Safe Drinking Water Act that was ultimately signed by President Gerald Ford in 1974. This act initiated national efforts to protect the nation’s lakes, streams, rivers, wetlands and other bodies of water. It is fundamental in protecting aquatic resources including public drinking water supplies.

It comes as no surprise that during such an important environmental awareness period the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, proposed the idea of a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media and ultimately gathered a national staff of 85 to promote events across the country. On that first Earth Day over 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in many wonderfully creative ways.

In the 45 years since the origin of NEPA and these other ground-breaking legislations, environmental protection and regulation has become extensive and complex. In my role as Environmental Coordinator, I work hard to ensure our clients and projects comply with the applicable laws and regulations that govern our projects. I work to guide projects from preliminary design through construction and operation while successfully acquiring the relevant federal and state environmental permits, including NEPA compliance for impacts to streams, rivers, floodplains, wetlands, and state- and federally-listed species, among others.

Earth Day 2015 will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the event that raised environmental issues awareness to unprecedented heights and brought the concept of working towards a cleaner and safer nation from a wild “hippie” idea to mainstream citizens. For more information on how you can participate in Earth Day celebrations and events visit Earth Day Network.