Restoring complex vegetation in urban settings: The case of tidal freshwater marshes

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Tidal freshwater marshes have diverse plant communities that vary spatially and temporally due to hydrology, animal activity, and other factors. Development of urban centers along rivers of the U.S. Atlantic coast has reduced the historic extent and quality of these and other coastal wetlands. Because the vegetation of these wetlands is more complex than that of salt and brackish marshes (where restoration of vegetation typical of natural systems has sometimes been successful), restoration of tidal freshwater marsh vegetation is likely to be more difficult, particularly in urban areas. Watershed urbanization alters hydrology, sediment load, propagule availability and composition, nutrient status, and other variables that together create an environment different from that of wetlands in less developed areas, possibly precluding restoration of typical marsh vegetation. Tidal freshwater wetlands were historically extensive along the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, but most of these were lost due to filling, dredging, or hydrologic alteration. Over the last decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has implemented projects designed to restore tidal freshwater wetlands along the Anacostia, which involved increasing elevation with dredged river sediment and planting native vegetation. To illustrate some of the mechanisms affecting vegetation development in restored tidal freshwater marshes in urban areas, I present a case study on one of these wetlands, Kingman Marsh, that also includes research at another restored wetland and two natural reference sites. Studies by my research groups indicate that the restored wetlands undergo essentially a planting-modified process of primary succession. Low densities of seeds are initially present in the substrate, and prolific seed dispersal into the restored sites results in high initial plant diversity comprised of plantings and ruderal (i.e. weedy) natives and exotics. Seed banks develop rapidly at the restored sites, probably due to colonization and early reproduction by ruderal species. Hydrology and disturbance by non-native animals (including resident Canada goose) are important variables controlling establishment of vegetation in these systems. Recent literature and the case study indicate that the environmental conditions of urban settings impose constraints in restored wetlands that result in plant communities more like those of urban natural wetlands than those of wetlands in less urbanized watersheds. This suggests that rather than design wetland restoration projects with the goal of creating “pristine” wetland vegetation, restorationists must identify, accept, and if possible capitalize on the ecological constraints of the urban environment in setting achievable and desirable restoration goals.

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