Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Ice Storms Aren’t Always “Bad”

By Terri L. Turner, AICP, CFM

The 18-county Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) which includes both the community where I live in South Carolina and the community where I work in Georgia suffered an ice storm of historical proportions in mid-February of this year.  The older populous in our community say that they “remember three or four ice storms that caused some damage,” but nothing in comparison to the catastrophic damage that Mother Nature wreaked on this area’s urban forest over the four day period from February 11 to February 14, 2014.

Trees that had reached the century mark lay broken and in ruin, to sadly include “irreparable damage” to the iconic and historic loblolly pine at the Augusta National  known as the “Eisenhower Tree.”  It was not just the older forest that suffered, however.  Old and young trees alike found the burdensome weight of successive days of ice on their frame just too much to bear.   Additionally, a wetter than normal Summer and Fall season prior to the ice event left root systems compromised and unable to be the sturdy foundation that they once were.

Local experts have estimated that between 80 to 90 percent of the area’s trees were affected in some way during the ice event.  According to Roy Simkins, a local arborist and Chairman of the Augusta Tree Commission, “about 25 to 30 percent of the area’s pine and oak species were completely lost.”

Clean-up has resulted in massive debris piles, causing one on-looker to describe the recent ice event as “Mother Nature’s selective pruning.”  Let us just suffice to say, Mother Nature’s lopping, cropping and trimming was widespread and dramatically extensive.

So, as cleanup of damaged trees and limbs continues, I turned my attention to the lesser noticed victims of “Ice Storm Pax” – our area’s wetlands and riparian areas.  The devastation within their boundaries is just as egregious as that found elsewhere within our community, but what, if anything are our communities going to do to deal with all of the destruction?  Jeanne Christie with the Association of State Wetlands Managers (ASWM) and Thomas Biebighauser with the Center for Wetlands and Stream Restoration were gracious enough to supply that answer for me.  The answer is nothing.  “Debris is part of the natural process of wetlands even in a dramatic winter like this one,” Jeanne Christie writes.   “Removal of fallen trees and limbs should only address any safety issues associated with people visiting the wetlands, but it’s likely a lot of new habitat was created, and natural succession will replace what is lost. The exact tract that the natural succession takes may be impacted by larger climatic changes such as sea level rise, and precipitation changes.”

It is understandable that the wetlands and streams will look pretty awful with the amount of nature’s canopy that has been leveled and reduced to ruin.  However, what might appear to be ruin to some, may be nature’s bounty to others.  Thomas Biebighauser tells us that the “great density of snags created by an ice storm can be of great benefit to roosting bats, and to primary and secondary cavity nesting birds.”

Mr. Biebighauser experienced a similarly devastating ice storm in Kentucky in 2003, and described what he learned by observing their wetlands over an eleven year period. “We found that the large woody debris that had fallen into wetlands greatly improves habitat for turtles, birds, and salamanders such as the marbled salamander.  A bonus was that the fallen trees curbed the illegal use of ATVs in areas, where these motor vehicles had been damaging wetlands and riparian areas.  The trees that fell in the woods were also used by small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.  Another observation revealed the importance of an open canopy in the forest to neo-tropical birds.  The diversity and density of songbirds detected on the bird survey points I was taking in ice storm damaged areas increased many times from pre-storm levels as the forest under-story responded to full sunlight. We have found a great diversity of native plants now growing on the large trees that fell into the wetlands.”

Mr. Bighauser advised that “[t]his is a perfect time to decide what roads and trails you want to open for use by the public.” He explained further, that in areas where they had removed ice storm damaged trees from streams and wetlands, they found great damage to these habitats.  “Rubber tired heavy equipment was used to remove the trees.  This meant that skid trails, or low standard roads had to be built to access wetlands and streams.  The ruts from the heavy equipment in these saturated soils caused deep ruts.  Water flowed in these ruts, causing head-cuts to form, resulting in significant erosion.  The erosion was bad news for fish and wildlife that continues today.  The heavy equipment that was used for logging brought in an invasion of non-native invasive plants.  The areas not logged remain free from these species.  The rubber tires and tracks on the heavy equipment moved an unwanted diversity of non-native plant species over the areas affected by the ice storm.”

I learned a great lesson here.  Sometimes, the best answer is to do nothing at all.  Mr Biebighauser sums it up nicely, “the ice storm was a bonus to the plants and animals that use wetlands and streams. You really don’t need to do anything to help these species after an ice storm.”

In the response of these wetlands and stream experts, I am reminded that wetlands and riparian areas are amazing and beneficial ecosystems.  Left to their own devices, our urban wetlands will heal themselves from this tragic ice event.  In fact, if the truth were to be known, the wetland and riparian areas probably fared far better than other locations within our urban forest and will probably fare better in natural events still to come in the future.  But then again, that’s the definition of resiliency – to withstand, to rebound and to adapt.  Our wetlands are modern day examples of resiliency.  They are already bracing for the next damaging storm event, rebounding from the recent ice storm, and adapting in order to withstand for what is to come their way in the future.   They do their job each and every day without very much fanfare and often without notice; yet, left untouched by man (and his bulldozer) they will live and thrive for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come.

The author, Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM is the Development Administrator / Floodplain Manager / Hazard Mitigation Specialist for the Planning and Development Department in Augusta, Georgia.  Ms Turner is the current Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) Region 4 Director and the ASFPM No Adverse Impact (NAI) Committee Co-Chair.  She has been awarded many prestigious awards in her career to include the 2010 ASFPM Local Floodplain Manager of the Year Award, the 2010 Mary Fran Meyers Scholarship from the Natural Hazards Center and was named a White House Champion of Change in 2012.  Ms Turner spends most of her free time writing for national publications and traveling across the country lecturing on sound floodplain management, hazard mitigation, climate change adaptation, and sustainability and resiliency issues.

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