Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Restoring a headwater wetland in forests previously modified for farming


A rock weir and hardened ford used in the wetland restoration project at Finger Lakes National Forest, in Schuyler County, New York. USDA Forest Service photo.

NEW YORK – As part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, six acres of forested wetland were restored on the Finger Lakes National Forest in Schuyler County, New York. As part of the project, a high quality forested wetland adjacent to the Sawmill Creek candidate Research Natural Area was expanded to occupy a larger extent thought to previously exist before farming practices drained part of the wetland. Additionally, a rock weir and hardened ford were constructed to replace a failing concrete culvert and headcut eroding into the adjacent candidate Research Natural Area. The wetland was likely much larger in the past, but had no longer functioned as a wetland, since it was drained with drainage ditches and possibly drainage tiles to remove water from the area.

Wetlands historically occupied lowlands and shallow basins in the project area. Farmers in the Finger Lakes region began artificially draining the land in the 1800s to make it more productive for growing crops, by installing underground drainage systems. These systems drained vast areas of wetlands in the Finger Lakes region. These drainage systems remain largely functional to this day.

During project construction, a drainage ditch previously used for farming was dismantled, pit and mound topography and vernal pools were restored, and an old culvert was replaced with a rock ford and grade control structure. Non-native invasive species were controlled in both the functioning and restored portions of the wetland. Approximately ten small, natural-appearing, irregularly-shaped shallow water/emergent vernal pool wetlands were constructed, with irregular depths, up to 18 inches deep, and  occupying approximately a tenth of an acre each, designed to hold water from late fall to late spring, drying up in most summers. Fairy shrimp, frogs and salamanders frequent these types of pools. Periodic drying of the wetlands keeps breeding populations of fish out that could otherwise feed on the smaller organisms.

Weeks after construction, the newly created wetlands are already holding water, and the rock ford and weir are functioning as designed. Monitoring of similar recent projects has shown that created wetlands function as designed to dry out during the driest summer months, and host a suite of native frogs, toads, birds, insects and amphibians. Wetland monitoring and further construction projects are planned to continue on the Finger Lakes National Forest in order to improve hydrologic function and wildlife habitat.

Partners for this project included the Tioga County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition.