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Published: Tuesday, 10/19/2010

Former farm near Fermi restores itself to marsh


NEWPORT, Mich. - A half-mile north of DTE Energy's Fermi 2 nuclear plant lies a birder's paradise that reminds conservationists of what can happen when valuable coastal land is restored to its nature state.

A 67-acre site known as the Brancheau Unit, acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the newly established Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in 2003, has virtually re-established itself as marshy wetland in under a year. For more than a century, it had been tiled and drained for farming.

After farm tiles were removed and dikes were built to help enhance the site's hydrology, the soil held water and - much to everyone's surprise - native plants began sprouting on their own. There was no seeding, even with the site being used for agriculture for 100 years, John Hartig, the refuge's manager, said.

"We did not seed a single thing and all of this stuff just came up," he said. "All of this seed was still down in the soil after all of those years. Everything just came back on its own."

Cattails, sedges, and other lush vegetation took only about nine months to grow, Mr. Hartig said.

The site work was done through a collaboration that included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, Waterfowl USA, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the Michigan Duck Hunters Association, Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, DTE, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Council. Duck and waterfowl hunting eventually will be allowed, Mr. Hartig said.

Wetlands are nature's kidneys, able to filter free-flowing contaminants. They also help with flood control.

The ecological value of them hasn't been understood until recent years. Northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan are among the nation's leaders in wetlands historically destroyed by farming or development, officials have said.

"This project is another fine example of conservation by design. First, we were able to purchase the land, and then a great group of partners led by Ducks Unlimited was able to restore it back to what nature intended," U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn) said.

Legislation that Mr. Dingell authored and pushed through Congress in 2001 created the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, the only wildlife refuge shared by the United States and Canada.

"This restoration project is especially important in this area because we have lost more than 90 percent of our historical wetlands," Steve Dushane, assistant refuge manager, said. "This project has not only restored wetlands and enhanced wildlife habitat for migratory birds and other wetland-dependent wildlife, but it has reduced nonpoint source loadings of pollutants to western Lake Erie and helped reduce the risk of flooding to local residences and businesses."

At a recent dedication, David Shefferly, state chairman of the Michigan Ducks Unlimited chapter, said the project was enhanced by the number of groups' contributing roles. "We've really done something big here."

The international wildlife refuge consists of more than 5,700 acres along a 48-mile stretch of shoreline on the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie. It offers habitat for 29 species of waterfowl, 23 species of raptors, 31 species of shorebirds, more than 100 species of fish, and more than 300 species of birds.

Contact Tom Henry at:


or 419-724-6079.

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