Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Prosperity at a Superfund site?

The term prosperity has come to mean financial well-being and success (often measured by how much material stuff we can collect or consume).  However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word prosper has the following origins:

c.1460, from O.Fr. prosperer (14c.), from L. prosperare "cause to succeed, render happy," from prosperus "favorable, fortunate, prosperous," perhaps lit. "agreeable to one's wishes," from Old L. pro spere "according to expectation," from pro "for" + abl. of spes "hope," from PIE base *spei- "to flourish, succeed." Prosperous is first recorded 1445, originally "tending to bring success;" in the sense of "flourishing" it is first recorded 1472. [prosper. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 30, 2010, from website: ]

The words in this excerpt that catch my intention are “render happy”, “hope” and “flourishing” -- words that aren’t necessarily linked to monetary or material wealth.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a synonym for prosper is “thrive” [].  Hence, in my personal characterization of prosperity, I like the broader context of well-being….whether it is a thriving environment, my personal well-being, or whatever.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day evaluating how well things are thriving at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center – a wildlife refuge created from an area of land ravished by 80 years of zinc smelting (see  By the 1950’s, much of the vegetation had been lost and the site looked like a moonscape devoid of life, including soil microorganisms and fungi – things that seem to survive under the most extreme conditions!  Yes, I did say that I went to see how things are thriving at this site, which is part of the Palmerton Superfund Site.  

In 2002, a group of citizens purchased over 750 acres of property within the Superfund designation – land heavily contaminated and damaged by acid deposition and heavy metals (zinc, lead, cadmium, and arsenic).  These individuals had dreams of restoring this land and creating an educational center and wildlife refuge.  Crazy, right?  But in 2003, test plot plantings of warm season native grasses commenced, and against all odds and scientific reasoning, it worked.  The plants grew.  Today, just a few years later, about 400 acres have been converted to a grassland and thriving habitat.  At the above link, you can see some dramatic before and after pictures.  Talk about a story of hope!  

Early yesterday, I went out with Jennifer Lansing of Arcadis BBL (an environmental consulting and management firm) and Dan Kunkle (Executive Director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center) to evaluate the status of young tree seedlings that had been planted 2 years before. 

Dan and Jennifer discussing the changes that have occurred at the site

Some like the young oak and the back-crossed chestnut (to confirm resistance to chestnut blight) were doing well. 

Many of the seedlings that had been planted, however, had not survived.  This could have been due the contamination, drought, poor soil nutrients or lack of mycorrhizae, or herbivory (or some combination of these factors). 

What I did notice for the first time since I have been going to the site over the past five years was that the moss was not only greening but putting out reproductive structures!

Also, we saw rotting logs!  This might not sound too exciting, but the trees that died from the contamination had been laying on the mountainside for decades since there were no decomposers remaining in the soil.

I was also surprised to see sandwort (Minuartia patula) blooming.  This small plant typically blooms in very early summer and has completed its lifecycle by the end of June.  It is a hyperaccumulator; in other words, it can accumulate very high levels of metals without showing any toxic effects.  To a plant biochemist, this is truly a plant of great intrigue.

Sandwort is a low growing plant - seen here with the small white flowers

The next group of visitors to the site yesterday was from Fort Indiantown Gap/Penn State University.  We are evaluating the possibility of a) managing the grassland with controlled burns and b) using the refuge as a site to reintroduce the endangered Regal Fritillary butterfly.   This rare and beautiful butterfly is found at only two sites east of the Mississippi, one being the Fort Indiantown Gap military base in central Pennsylvania along the Appalachian mountain.

The 8 individuals who came to the refuge today will serve as tremendous resources for advise as how to manage the grassland.  There is a chance that we can establish critical food plants for the larval stage of this insect and we already have the habitat (little blue stem) and other nectar plants for the butterfly.  Wouldn’t it be an amazing story of hope if this once contaminated moonscape were to become a site to save a species?!
As we said goodbye to the “FIG” staff, we saw the first Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly of the season on the asters.  I didn’t get a picture, but you can see one taken by my son at this site .  It is truly a wonderful fall visitor.
The grasslands are beautiful this time of year (and filled with surprises) as seen in the pictures below.

The seeds of the grasses are beautiful and allow for identification!

Joe, from Fort Indiantown Gap

A number of state and federal officials were also on site yesterday to discuss the future restoration work across the river on land owned by the National Forest Service.  The hope is that some seeding of warm season grasses will begin along the Appalachian trail next summer.

I also had a chance to enjoy the fall beauty of the educational habitat (native plant) gardens that we have been working on at the nature center.

I would say it was a day of prosperity at this Superfund site!

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