Sand dunes, storms, and lots of fish: This week in environmental news

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA highlights recent environmental news stories from the past week. Here’s what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

A public hearing was held Monday for a request from Bro G Land Company, who wants to build a 1,200-foot driveway on Lake Michigan dunes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Michigan sand dunes development controversy rages over 1,200-foot driveway (Huffington Post): Last August, Gov. Snyder signed legislation that changed development standards for landowners on privately-owned sections of the state’s sand dunes. Since then, around 50 applications have been submitted that request permission to develop on the dunes. Monday was the first public hearing for one of these requests, a request from Bro G Land Company, who wants to build a 1,200-foot driveway to a private residence. This driveway would stretch across a critical dune habitat on Lake Michigan. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hopes to reach a decision regarding the driveway by May 13.

Fracking opponents can start gathering signatures for a 2014 ballot proposal (Detroit Free Press): Supporters of a ban on fracking in Michigan can begin collecting petition signatures after the Board of State Canvassers approved the petition language Tuesday morning. This proposal would ban using horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to access pools of natural gas and oil underground across the state. Oil and gas companies have used fracking in Michigan since the 1960s and say that the fracking is well-regulated and not harming the state’s environment. Gov. Snyder, who supports fracking, commissioned the University of Michigan to complete a study on the practice. A report on the study is supposed to be released later this year.

Storms contribute to debris in Michigan waterways (The Detroit News): A huge pile of tree limbs, brush, marsh vegetation and garbage is clogging part of the Saginaw River after the recent storms that brought flooding to Michigan. Officials are urging caution to recreational boaters and anglers, as this debris can be a water hazard for boaters when it moves into the rivers.

Once too polluted, Lansing’s Red Cedar River is once again open to anglers (Michigan Radio): For the first time since the 1960s, people will be encouraged to fish along a portion of the Red Cedar River at Michigan State University, after the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and various MSU dignitaries (including Sparty) dumped buckets of Steelhead trout into the river. Forty years ago, the Red Cedar River suffered water quality issue, primarily from non-source point runoff and agricultural drainage, but the river has been cleaned drastically since enactment of the Clean Water Act and supports a diverse fishery today. The DNR plans to continue stocking the Red Cedar River on MSU’s campus for the next five years.

Let the river run: Dam removal accelerates across Michigan (MLive): A growing number of communities across Michigan are removing obsolete dams, restoring fisheries and developing riverside parks and trails. Big Rapids built a 2.6-mile Riverwalk trail along the Muskegon River after the city removed remnants of the Big Rapids Dam in 2001, and other cities, such as Detroit and Lansing, are working to improve water quality in their long-abused rivers by developing riverfront parks and trails. Gov. Snyder’s 2013 budget included $2.5 million for dam removals or repairs, and the DNR recently announced $2.35 million in grants to support dam removals or repairs in six communities. Four of these grants will help fund dam removals in Traverse City, Lyons, Shiawassee and Vassar.

Do soil microbes help plants to adapt to their local environment?

MNA’s mission includes studying Michigan’s natural history. While every visit to a sanctuary brings a chance of expanding your knowledge and appreciation of nature, MNA also seeks to support dedicated scientists who try to understand our world and its fascinating flora and fauna. When done in a way that is compatible with conservation, MNA encourages scientific research on sanctuaries.

This post, which will be first in a series, was written by Tomomi Suwa, who is a graduate student in Dr. Jen Lau’s lab at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station. She is studying hog peanut, a wildflower native to Michigan that occurs on Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Southwest Kalamazoo County. To learn more about her research, visit tomomisuwa.com or Dr. Jen Lau’s website

Tomomi Suwa. Photo: Kate Webbink

Tomomi Suwa. Photo: Kate Webbink

Plants have developed many great ways to cope with harsh environmental stresses such as drought, heat and salinity. Because plants can’t move, one coping strategy is to produce a lot of seeds that can disperse far and hope that at least few of them will land on a suitable spot. A second strategy is to evolve traits that help plants deal with the stressful environment over time. This is called adaptation. Evolution of adaptive traits, however, may take a long time, as you can imagine. So the third strategy is to get “help” from other organisms. For example, if plants end up on a poor nutrient soil, they might be able to associate with fungi and bacteria that can facilitate finding nutrients.

My research focuses on how soil bacteria make it possible for plants to live in different habitats. Rhizobia, a type of soil bacteria, live inside the roots of some plants and act like natural fertilizer. Rhizobia can convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into ammonia, a form of nitrogen plants can use. In turn, plants can provide sugar to the rhizobia. This beneficial interaction is called mutualism. Rhizobia can help plants grow in areas where they might not live otherwise. Just like human relationships though, plants and rhizobia may not be compatible, or one of the partners may not even be available! For example, rhizobia may not survive or convert nitrogen effectively in certain environmental conditions, like in shade or areas that have high nitrogen in the soil.

flowering hog peanut

Flowering hog peanut. Photo: Tomomi Suwa

Using a native plant called the hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), I am looking at how the rhizobia in its roots can make it possible for plants to live in different habitats. Hog peanut is an annual legume species, closely related to soybean. What’s neat about hog peanut is that the plants can set seeds aboveground and belowground!

Hog peanut tends to grow in small patches in the forest and wetlands but it’s unclear why they grow in certain microhabitats. Is it because rhizobia are distributed in a patchy way, or is it because rhizobia benefit plants differently in various environmental conditions? I am currently doing field and greenhouse experiments to test this hypothesis. I started this project about two years ago and so far, I conducted some field observational studies in southwest Michigan, including at Kalamazoo Nature Center, Pierce Cedar Creek and MNA’s Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary. I don’t have answers to these questions yet, but I should be able to tell you more about it in a couple more years… so stay tuned!

April 22 marks Earth Day’s 43rd anniversary

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Western hemisphere of globe

On April 22, more than one billion people around the world will participate in the 43rd Earth Day. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and NASA.

What are you doing April 22?

Will you be at work? At school? Running errands? Helping the planet?

If you plan to volunteer and help the environment, you’re not alone—April  22 is the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day, a day where more than one billion people around the globe celebrate the earth and take action to protect it.

Earth Day was founded by Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after he witnessed the severe damage caused by the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969. Nelson was inspired by the student movement opposing the war in Vietnam and believed he could put environmental protection on the national political agenda by taking that type of energy and coupling it with the emerging public awareness about air and water pollution. He built a staff of 85 people to promote events across the country, and on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans participated in organized protests and rallies for a healthy, sustainable environment.

Earth Day in 1970 brought together all types of Americans—Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, urban and rural—and was part of the spark that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. In 1990, Earth Day went global, putting environmental protection on the world stage and gathering support from 200 million people in 141 countries. For its 40th anniversary in 2010, Earth Day Network launched its A Billion Acts of Green campaign, which “inspires and rewards both simple individual acts and larger organizational initiatives that reduce carbon emissions and support sustainability.” Today, Earth Day Network has recorded more than 1.01 billion acts of green.

The 2013 Earth Day campaign, called The Face of Climate Change, seeks to capture the many faces of climate change: those affected by climate change and those working to fix the problem. Until April 22, the Earth Day Network is collecting pictures of people, animals and places that are directly affected or threatened by climate change, as well as images of people who are attempting to do something about it. On and around Earth Day, the Earth Day Network will show an interactive digital display of these images at thousand of events throughout the world—including next to federal government buildings in the countries that produce the most carbon pollution. In addition to showing the effects of climate change, this campaign will highlight the power of individuals that come together and take action across the world. The team hopes to inspire leaders and citizens to act and fight against climate change.

This Earth Day, you can help the planet and volunteer in your own backyard! MNA has volunteer days on April 22 at Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in Cass County, Powell Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Lenawee County and Big Valley Nature Sanctuary in Oakland County. Check out our events calendar for more details.

Wolves, solar process, Great Lakes and native fish comeback: This week in environmental news

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA highlights recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here are five articles you might’ve missed this week:

Western gray wolf. Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR.

A western gray wolf. Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR.

Wolf hunting weighed in Michigan (Great Lakes Echo): Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to allow Michigan to create a wolf-hunting season after Michigan wolves were taken off the state’s endangered species list in December. Conservation groups and Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission are now debating how a wolf hunt will affect the health of the wolves, ecosystem and people. One of the main reasons for establishing a wolf-hunting season would be to control wolves that threaten people and livestock. The Michigan DNR is surveying the wolf population and will recommend to the Natural Resources Commission if a hunting season is needed to control them. Survey results will be released in late April.

New solar process gets more out of natural gas (New York Times): The Energy Department is preparing to test a new way for solar power to make energy by using the sun’s heat to increase the energy content of natural gas. The new system uses the sun’s heat to break open the natural gas and water molecules and reassembles them into carbon monoxide and pure hydrogen, two chemicals that burn better. The mixture, called synthesis gas, requires energy that is usually captured by burning natural gas, but this new process takes that energy from the sun. This process, which researchers hope to test by this summer, could cut the amount of natural gas used (and greenhouse gasses emitted) by 20 percent.

Obama budget seeks $300M for Great Lakes cleanup (Pioneer Press/Associated Press): President Obama’s proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year includes $300 million for the Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program that supports research and cleanup projects for the Great Lakes. On Wednesday, Obama asked Congress to continue this program, which has spent more than $1 billion addressing some of the lakes’ longest-running environmental problems. The program has provided more than 1,500 grants to university scientists, government agencies and nonprofit organizations in eight states and has supported efforts to prevent Asian carp from invading the lakes.

Ocean nutrients a key component of future change, say scientists (Science Daily): According to a multi-author review paper involving the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), variations in the availability of nutrients in the world’s oceans may important to future environmental change. Marine algae need certain resources to grow and reproduce—including nutrients—and the growth of these tiny plants can become restricted if there are not enough nutrients available. Marine algae and other microorganisms support most marine ecosystems and play a big role in cycling nutrients and carbon throughout the ocean system, so understanding nutrient cycling is important for predicting environmental change.

A surprising comeback for Lake Huron’s native fish (Michigan Radio): Some of Lake Huron’s native fish are recovering after the food web collapsed a few years ago. These fish—including bloater, slimy sculpin and Lake trout—are experiencing changes so dramatic that some scientists wonder if Lake Huron’s ecosystem is experiencing some kind of permanent change, which biologists call a regime shift. There are no signs of a dramatic recovery in Lake Michigan—the same body of water as Lake Huron—so it’s unclear why fish are doing well on one side but not the other.