Brookings, S.D. (KELO AM) - Wetlands may be the least understood ecosystem, but their value is immense, according to Distinguished Professor W. Carter Johnson of the South Dakota State University Department of Natural Resource Management. "Anything that affects them will have a big impact on the landscape."
For more than 40 years, the ecologist has studied wetlands along rivers and in the prairie pothole region that extends from Canada through the Dakotas to Iowa. In recognition of his contributions to wetlands conservation, the Environmental Law Institute has awarded Johnson the National Wetlands Award for Science Research.
The award is presented to an academic, consultant or other individual leading scientific research on wetland values and functions, restoration or enhancement.Since 1989, the National Wetlands Awards program has honored individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to our nation's wetlands. The recipients provide wonderful examples of how individual citizens across the country can, and do, make a difference in wetlands conservation and restoration efforts."I am both elated and honored. This is about as prestigious award as someone in my line of work can get," said Johnson, adding that he joins a distinguished group of scientists including his colleague, professor Carol Johnston, who received the award in 2009. He will be honored at a ceremony May 8 at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.Understanding importance of wetlands.
Through his wetlands research, Johnson has sought to help people understand their importance. "They have so much biodiversity and importance to the health of the landscape," he noted, citing wetlands teaming with birds, amphibians and beneficial insects. In addition, wetlands retain floodwaters and filter water naturally.South Dakota has a unique legacy in its mixture of lakes, wetlands and grasslands. "It's an incredibly beautiful and productive landscape and we haven't treated it very well," Johnson said. Most of the river or riparian wetlands along the Missouri River were lost when the reservoirs were established, according to Johnson. He estimated that 80 percent of the riparian wetlands have been destroyed. The only sizable remnants in South Dakota occur below Gavins Point and Fort Randall Dams.
These reaches "retain much of their original biodiversity observed by Lewis and Clark," he explained.For his dissertation in the early 70s, he studied the forests along the river. Two years ago, he looked at what has changed over the last 40 years. "The cottonwood is on the way out," he noted, because they "require floods and new sandbars to regenerate." American elm is mostly gone from Dutch elm disease and ash trees are being threatened by the emerald ash borer.Restoring tall prairie grassesSeven years ago, Johnson became one of the founders of the EcoSun Prairie Farms to demonstrate the viability of a "working grass farm," as a means of restoring tall grass prairie and pothole wetlands. He and his cohorts formed the nonprofit organization and leased a section of land near Colman, where they began planting blue stem, prairie cord grass and other perennial species native to the area on retired cropland.
The farm generates income from three main sources—forage hay, native plant seed and, more recently, grass-fed beef, he explained. The native grasses require less input than rowcrops, while resulting in less erosion, better soil and water quality and more wildlife.
During the dry summer of 2012, he pointed out, "the grass farm didn't show drought." The plants were a bit shorter, but "nothing died and it all came back the next year." A recent analysis showed a net yearly farm profit of $60,000, and the highest income levels came from wetland acres."It's a different way of farming," Johnson admitted, but one that farmers who own 400 to 600 acres might want to consider. "I hope we can get it worked onto other farms."The awards program is administered by the Environmental Law Institute and supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, NOAA Fisheries and the Federal Highway Administration. ELI coordinates the awards program, while the federal agency supporters provide financial support, serve on the selection committee and/or participate in the ceremony.