Scene Outdoors: Sweating on the Mississippi

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Matt Hagen of Green Bay, Wis., jabs a tree-planting device into the soft ground of the Gores Pool #3 Wildlife Management Area north of Red Wing as part of a project to help habitat and also find out the best way to regenerate wanted trees. Grass and trees were removed before the planting.

RED WING — "Visit a large Mississippi River island! Frolic amid mosquitoes, mud, humidity, poison ivy and nettles! Bring the whole family!"

Not very appealing as a vacation ad?

You're right.

This particular island, located several miles north of Red Wing, is no vacation destination or recreational paradise. Still, the Corps of Engineers and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are working on a forest-regeneration project to improve its habitat for animals — not its appeal to people.

The Gores Pool #3 Wildlife Management Area project is one of several going on this summer to help the river. Others are to control reed canary grass (that's a goal of the island project, too) and build more islands to help backwaters.


Those projects, in turn, are part of a major push in the past decade or so to not only slow the decline of Upper Mississippi habitat but also to actually improve and increase good habitat.

Over the years, after the locks and dams were built mostly in the 1930s, habitat has deteriorated, especially in the once-plush backwaters such as Weaver and Reno bottoms. They are filling in with sediment washed in from rivers. Also, when the Mississippi could no longer drop low in summer, allowing vegetation to flourish and the river to renew itself, more wind-swept, murky areas began to appear.

Another problem is that reed canary grass has become more dominant, creating mats so thick that little else can grow there. It's also a pain for recreation — just ask anyone who has tried walking through that wretched stuff in the dark while wearing waders and toting decoys and a shotgun.

The feeling for years was that little could be done; there was so much sediment, and the river couldn't be lowered, and there was nothing to stop the spread of unwanted plants.

Now, however, things are happening that that should at least slow the rate of deterioration and perhaps even give habitat a boost.

One area is on that island with the mud, mosquitoes, nettles and poison ivy.

Ray Marinan, a corps forester, said the idea was to experiment with different ways of logging and getting rid of reed canary grass. The island is used mostly by wildlife, with only some birders and deer hunters coming out, he said. "It's not a destination, that's for sure," he said.

The goal is to find the best way to get rid of the grass and plant trees, especially swamp oak and others with nuts for wildlife. They are also experimenting with different ways of planting seedlings to see which works best.


Mike Wachholz, DNR forester working on the project, said the best way to help islands and river lowland is with loggers who take out trees at little or no cost to governmental agencies. Then the agencies can do the work of wiping out the grass and planting more desirable trees, he said.

Don Nelson, area DNR wildlife supervisor in Rochester, agreed the project was not so much for people but animals and their habitat. Some rare species, such as red-shouldered hawks, might live there too, he said.

The work is being done because lowland forests are part of the wider ecological picture, he said. The Mississippi is getting more attention with the corps, Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all working on projects.

One project he would love to see work well is finding ways to keep reed canary grass at bay. "It's very difficult if not impossible" to erase because of thick mats of rhizomes under the soil. "Its a management nightmare is what it is."

One way to control that nightmare is with chemical treatments, said Lisa Reid, a service biologist working with small plots in the Wabasha/Kellogg area. That is one of 10 places in the Upper Midwest where experiments are under way to control reed canary grass. They are use different spraying methods to determine which works best, she said.

In certain areas, spraying does improve habitat, adding the badly needed diversity, she said.

Other projects are cutting reed canary grass for cattle forage, she said.

Another kind of project that has been worked on for decades is building islands to protect backwaters, said Mary Stefanski, manager of the Winona District of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.


With backwaters losing islands or emergent vegetation, the wind has longer stretches of open water to rile up, and muddy the water. Muddy water means less light getting down, less light means less vegetation and that further worsens water quality.

Islands not only provide habitat but also slow the wind, she said.

Her agency and the corps are finishing an island-building project in a pool in the Minnesota-Iowa area and the corps is working on one near Gores in Sturgeon and North lakes, she said.

Tom Novak, corps manager for that project, said the eight to 10 islands will cost about $8 million and also use some sand dredged from the river. Sturgeon Lake is near Treasure Island Resort & Casino, while North is just upriver.

That work could also be done in conjunction with a drawdown that lowers water so more mud is exposed and more vegetation grows, he said. Ideally, they would build the islands first and then have back-to-back drawdowns because it's more effective.

The work is a way to make up for ecological damage from the dams, he said, and tries to bring back habitat and diversity.

They can't recreate all the islands of the past, but they can put some in strategic places, Novak said. In the past 27 years, the corps has done 56 projects from St. Paul to past St. Louis, improving more than 100,000 acres, he said.

Reporter John Weiss has covered the outdoors for the Post-Bulletin for more than 36 years. If you have a comment or story idea, call John at 507-285-7749.


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