By Jack Kelly
The late U.S. Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island once said, “Give nature half a chance and it will succeed.” This is the paradigm for the project that has given the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes in Newport, a new lease on life. Decades of neglect and abuse had turned this critical wetland system into a dying, festering and odious eyesore. Through a concerted restoration project involving the removal of a non-functioning dam, and the installation of two new culverts that increased the tidal flow of ocean waters, the marshes began to heal.
While the major restoration was completed three years ago, there is an on-going series of maintenance projects being performed, that will ensure the continued growth and health of these sensitive and vital wetlands. Through the guidance of Save the Bay’s expert staff, local volunteers and others have contributed to this extraordinary effort to rehabilitate the entire Gooseneck Cove area.
Recently, an assemblage of Save the Bay staff members, summer interns and local volunteers, participated in just such an endeavor. Lead by Restoration Coordinator, Wenley Ferguson and Coastal Ecologist, Marcie Cole-Ekberg, the group attacked two projects that will aid the drainage of sensitive marsh areas at critical low tide points and prevent the loss or damage of present wetland features.
Cole-Ekberg led a contingent of workers that included Rob Hudson, a Save the Bay Restoration Ecologist, interns Danielle Ploufe and Annie Procagcini, and John Buchanon, volunteer of Newport, into the southwest portion of the marsh to hand dig and clear drainage channels.
Ferguson and intern Shelby Southworth cleared channels on the east side of the marsh. This is very physical and tiring work. On this particular day it was overcast, humid, and warmer than average, with calm winds. Due to the mild winter that just passed and the warmer spring temperatures, the insect populations of mosquitoes, gnats, and flies were almost unbearable as they swarmed in the moist, still air. However these are the conditions that they can expect for most of this summer.
The second portion of the project for that day included the planting of native marsh grasses. Under the supervision of Biology and Horticultural teacher Scott Dickison, Rogers High School Biology students grew Spartina marsh grass in their classroom. Spartina, also known as Salt Water Cord Grass, is a crucial ecological component to the overall health of saltwater or brackish wetlands. It helps to hold marsh soils in place and prevent the degradation of the marsh.
Accompanied by Dickison and Special Ed teacher, Mary Beth Vierra, the 15 students brought their grasses to the marsh located on Hazard Rd. Save the Bay also provided two trays of grass plugs for the students to plant. This hands-on experience allowed the students to visit the wetlands that are only 500 yards from their classrooms. Thankfully an ocean breeze had picked up and kept the pesky insects from swarming those in attendance.
The students donned boots and waders. With the assistance of Dickison, Ferguson and Southworth, the students planted the marsh grass plugs in exposed soil to maximize their effectiveness. Four intrepid students, wearing waders, Kyle Watts, Ryan Quinn, Ethan Ingersoll and Chayneth Febus, joined Ferguson and Southworth on a peat island located on the east side of the marsh. They planted Spartina grass plugs near the edge of the island to aid in the conservation of the peat structure.
This joint program between Dickison’s class and Save the Bay is one example of how students in the Newport County region are benefiting from projects of this type. The students not only study the processes that create wetland habitats but they can participate in a living laboratory themselves.