Into the thick of it
By Reena Ramos, ACRES Outreach Manager
Each step into the bog meant a full commitment for leg muscles. It was like walking through brownie batter. Pausing to look up could mean a face full of sphagnum moss for those who didn’t watch their footing.
I scanned the landscape of dark water with its clumps of lush plant life and floating mossy islands. Filtering through the canopy, patches of sunlight decorated delicate ferns and slender sedges with a golden glow. A bright serenade of bird songs contrasted with the sudden “plunks” of amphibious creatures abandoning air. Each step I took brought earthy scents of deciduous decay from pools of coffee-colored water.
The bog seemed a fantasy world carved in detail, left for whoever happened to stumble upon it. And stumble upon it we did, as the person next to me caught themselves on a log hidden in the depths of the murky water.
I turned to look at the intrepid crew I had joined for the day, a crew now knee-deep in muck, always watching for our primary foe: poison sumac.
A bog has an impressive ability to humble even the most experienced explorer.
When a patch of plants caught someone’s eye, the resulting commotion drew us together to observe the little white flowers of an American shinleaf. Quite a find! The state of Indiana lists the plant as “rare.” A man in a brimmed outdoor hat grabbed a worn yellow notebook and jotted down “Pyrola americana.”
And our visit’s purpose? Why, in balmy 90-degree weather, were we trudging through this wetland looking for wildflowers and the like?
Importance of a survey
Let’s rewind this story back to my arrival. I had pulled into the parking lot of Ropchan Memorial Nature Preserve, located in Steuben County. This 80-acre preserve was acquired by ACRES in 1973, and its trails are open to the public. However, that day we had permission to ditch the beaten path and explore uncharted terrain. (I should say “not recently” charted terrain. The last time a botanical survey was conducted at Ropchan Memorial Nature Preserve was 1983, nearly 40 years ago.)
“This preserve possesses unique features which usually are home to more conservative plants. Although the 1980s species list on file shed some light on plant communities within the property, it was not providing the full picture,” explained ACRES Land Stewardship Director Evan Hill.
I tightened my backpack as the ACRES crew (Stewardship Assistants Gavin King and Jenna Bair, Project Manager Ben Taylor and three interns), shimmied into waterproof waders and doused themselves in insect repellent. At the trailhead I greeted Nathanael J. Pilla, a smiling, brimmed-hat botanist from Orbis Environmental Consulting whom ACRES had commissioned to complete a new botanical survey of Ropchan Memorial.
A botanical survey is an inventory of what is growing in a specific space at a specific time. A tool used to understand the conditions and habits of a site, this survey can influence future research, monitoring or management practices. For example, we can identify which non-native invasive plants need to be managed, and whether there are rare, threatened or endangered plants to monitor.
“Identifying what a site has in terms of biodiversity is one of the first steps in determining how to best manage the property,” Hill said.
Botanical surveys involve finding someone well-versed in plants, often a professional botanist, then setting them loose with a notebook. The botanist will scour the site, cataloging every plant, marking abundance and location. When they return (covered in battle scars, burrs and bug bites), the notebook will contain a list of plant species observed.
Refreshing our knowledge
Before our excursion, I looked at the 1983 survey, a typewritten list of plant names. This original survey aided ACRES for several years, allowing us a glimpse into the preserve and influencing our interactions. However, like all living things, habitats may shift as our earth changes.
Similar in purpose to medical physicals, regular surveys keep us informed about possible changes occurring on a preserve. A comparison of botanical surveys may reveal what changes occurred where, and from that information, we can explore possibilities as to why.
“Ideally we would have botanical inventories completed at every ACRES property. We are currently playing catch-up on these inventories, focusing now on properties that possess more unusual systems. Our goal is to conduct these surveys on a few properties each year,” Hill said.
By the end of the year 2022, two botanical surveys will have been conducted on Ropchan Memorial Nature Preserve, one during July’s growing season, and another in September. Along with helping us understand what is currently growing, a new survey can expose differences in the plant community across time. How have plants here changed? Have our restoration efforts (or, in contrast, local development) influenced the plant communities? What can we do to better care for and/or monitor the land?
For a botanical survey to occur at a preserve after 40 years is an exciting experience that wouldn’t be possible without ACRES and our members. Because Ropchan Memorial Nature Preserve will be forever protected in its natural state, future surveys can be conducted, and we can continue to compare, monitor and thus make the best stewardship decisions.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 ACRES Quarterly, mailed to members each season. The 20-page Quarterly features ACRES news, stories and events. You can subscribe by becoming an ACRES member with a donation of $20 or more. Click here to learn more!