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Easement enhances land with wetlands, wildlife habitat

By Maggie Jelliff

Wetland area creates wildlife habitat.Jeffrey and Karen Cross have lived on their 170-acre farm in Saegertown, Pennsylvania for 25 years. Now retired, Jeffrey worked as a psychology professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. His wife Karen is the founder and former Executive Director of Child to Family Connections, a non-profit licensed foster care agency she started in 2002 which bridges the gap for children in foster care to be placed with families.

In 2012, Karen and Jeffrey became concerned when surface ditches started forming behind the dam on their property which caused occasional flooding and began showing signs of erosion. Jeffrey and Karen turned to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) to restore old fields, a dry lakebed, and forestland within their operation.

Cross credits Lew Walker, an affiliate of NRCS, employed by Penn Soil Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), for introducing him to NRCS. “NRCS solved a design problem in the dam that was causing erosion,” said Cross regarding the dam on one of the small lakes on his property prior to beginning WRP. “It was a financial nightmare because it was too expensive for us to pay for repairs,” said Cross. NRCS gave technical assistance and recommended breeching the dam to offset the loss of water.

The permanent WRP easement enhanced 164.4 acres with ten separate wetlands, wildlife habitat and vegetative enhancements. Since the soils within the associated agricultural lands continued to be saturated, they were ideal for converting to wetlands.Grassy area around wetland

District Conservationist, Jody Lasko talks about how the Cross’s were already taking conservation initiatives prior to beginning work with NRCS. “They already had warm season grasses planted which served as a habitat for ground nesting birds and improved soil health with the deep roots. They also planted wildflowers to help with pollinators,” said Lasko. By having planted transitional grasses, the land was better prepared for the wetlands project to be implemented.

Permanent vegetation was planted to improve natural diversity and minimize erosion; tree seedlings were planted within 4.15 acres to provide wildlife habitat. Nearly an acrea and a half of trees were cleared for younger forest species to thrive and establish habitat. This practice especially favors woodcock, as well as other species that need varied vegetation for shelter. The woodcock habitat generally consists of young, densely growing hardwood trees rooted in moist soil that supports a sufficient number of earthworms: the birds’ primary food source.

“We had our first hatch of water fowl and we can see an increase in habitat diversity, so we know the wetlands are doing their job,” said Cross.

A long-term management plan was developed with NRCS which provides guidance for basic maintenance needed to protect the restored wetlands enrolled in the WRP. The permanent easement allows the property owner to still have rights for enjoyment, but no farming may be done that would damage wetland areas.

“Knowing that the property will always be like this is really great,” said Cross.

One of the wetlands now has a population of Yellow Spotted Turtles; the species has been classified as Federally threatened on the US Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species List.
Jeffrey and Karen now raise English Springer Spaniels and use their land as a non-commercial regulated shooting ground for hunting. “The dogs love it too. Soon enough, I won’t be able to get them out of the water,” said Cross.
While Jeffrey and Karen were initially disappointed to lose such large acreage of deep water, beavers have moved in and are damming up large expanses of shallow water which was originally the pond basin. Jeffrey said the property is a much more diverse habitat and creates synergy between what NRCS installed and the indigenous beaver population.

“I love water and I love wetlands. I’d much rather look out to see water than a field of tall grasses; it’s just aesthetically beautiful. It was a long haul, but we couldn’t be happier,” said Cross.