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Reviving Michigan's coastal marshes

Allison Smart, a biologist with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, examines wild rice in Arcadia Marsh.
Peter Payette
Allison Smart, a biologist with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, examines wild rice in Arcadia Marsh.


Most visitors to northern Michigan are looking for sugar sand beaches on the Great Lakes. But if you’re a spawning fish or a migratory bird, you might be looking for a coastal marsh.

The Great Lakes used to be lined with coastal marshes that were full of native plants and wildlife. But in lower Michigan, many of these places been drained, plowed, polluted and, more recently, overrun by exotic plants from other parts of the world.


Some conservation groups are working to restore and protect the marshes we have left.

Many coastal marshes in Michigan are near river mouths where towns have sprung up. The Arcadia Marsh in Manistee County is right along the highway. It’s home to more than 150 native plants, including a variety of wild rice sometimes referred to as river rice. It's a threatened species in Michigan.


It’s an unpredictable plant.


Allison Smart is a biologist with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.


“You will have years when you will have a ton of wild rice and then you have years where you might have five or six," she says. "That’s one of the mysteries of wild rice that we have.”


Native Americans have harvested wild rice in the Upper Great Lakes for hundreds of years.

“Traditionally it would be a gathering time, a really important time for people to work together to harvest the rice which was a way to sustain throughout the winter,” says Smart.

Smart is here for an annual survey of wild rice in Arcadia Marsh. They don’t expect to find a lot because the water level in Lake Michigan is too high for wild rice this year.


Biological engines


If you look at Arcadia Marsh on Google Maps, you’ll see that some of the waterways here run in straight lines. Those are ditches that were dug to drain the marsh to run a railroad through it and allow cattle to graze. Those drains have been plugged with walls of stone recently, put in by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.


And that’s helped the marsh recover.


The conservancy’s director, Glen Chown, says marshes like these are the biological engines of the Great Lakes.


“If we care about the Great Lakes, if we care about fish and water quality and waterfowl that migrate through the Great Lakes, you’ve got to prioritize not only protecting marshes but in many cases restoring them,” says Chown.


Invaders: a new threat


In the next month or so, the conservancy will buy another coastal marsh property; one that needs no restoration work.


Petobego Pond is a lagoon on Grand Traverse Bay that's almost a mile long and is basically untouched by human development. But even properties like that are threatened by invasive species these days.


"If we care about the Great Lakes ... we've got to prioritize not only protecting marshes, but in many cases restoring them."

Dennis Albert has studied Great Lakes Marshes since the 1980s and is a researcher at Oregon State. He says the low water levels in the Great Lakes that started around 1999 allowed exotic plants to spread rapidly.

“On Lake Michigan, we saw it a little bit less than on Lake Huron, but you saw especially phragmites showing up on Grand Traverse Bay, and many other protected wetlands all of a sudden were taken over by these invasive plants.”


A revival


Back in Arcadia Marsh, the surveyors are not finding much wild rice, as expected, but there is one bright spot:


The place where they find the most river rice is where they planted it last year.


Angie Lucas is with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.


“You can see the golden tops of the plant. They kind of look like fireworks,” she says.


Even though there are just a few plants this year, the researchers think Arcadia Marsh will be a place where the plant can thrive in the future, now that much of the damage done to the marsh in the last 200 years is being repaired.

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