(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 810, August 8, 2018.)

The locks and dams of the Mississippi have allowed commercial industry to tame the mighty river and transport goods up and down its waters. But those feats of engineering don't come without a cost.

North of every dam is a massive river pool where silt builds up and native habitats wash away. Thankfully, multiple organizations have banded together to restore these ecosystems in hopes of guaranteeing a strong future for native wildlife.

It's impossible to fathom the enormity of the Mississippi River. At more than 2,300 miles long and collecting water from 24 different states, it is by far the largest water shed in the United States. From its head waters in Minnesota, to the Louisiana Delta, the river hosts 29 dams with 11 connected to Iowa's banks. For several millennia, undisturbed fish and wildlife called the Mississippi River home. But come the 1930s when the dams were installed that all changed almost immediately impacting the native habitat.

Brandon Jones, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: So when the lock and dams were put in place and obviously the water levels rose, loss of habitat from the shallow backwater slough areas was lost and then also as water was staying up on the trees you get a lot of tree kill as well.

But beyond water level rise, the Depression era lock and dam construction necessitated cutting out a great deal of timber to secure the structures. Between the two events, much of the remaining trees were silver maple, a single dominant species with a lifespan of roughly 80 years. Today, with the tree population starting to age out, action was required to heal the ecosystem and ensure wildlife could sustain along the river.

Jones: So we are in Pool 9 of the Upper Mississippi River and we're actually at what the project that was complete called Harper's Slough Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Program. And so this project was started about five years ago and it was completed construction wise last year and today we're out here kind of tidying up things and doing some tree plantings to help make sure that the islands can hold, it gives some links to hold the soil together and the trees a jump start.

Trees may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering waterway rehabilitation. But these mid-channel islands are an important feature to the overall Mississippi ecosystem. Constructing new islands and restoring river woodlands is vital to all who depend on the river.

Andy Meier, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: People think of rivers as water, which is what they are, and it's easy to think about the fish in the river but not to think about what are the drivers of those fish habitats and that ecosystem that is there. So historically there was a lot more forest on the Mississippi River and what it contributes to the overall ecosystem health are things like slowing water when the river is flooding and so that helps to capture sediment and helps to clarify the water. It provides dead wood that actually moves into the river and dead wood is a really important component of fish habitat. It helps prevent erosion. And it's really important for the ecosystem as a whole.

Jones: The purpose of the program and what we're trying to do is to somewhat recreate that habitat that was prevalent before the lock and dams were put in place. And it creates phenomenal wildlife habitat. The water fowl response this past fall and even this spring creates a lot of good subaquatic habitat and also helps with water quality and clarity which promotes the subaquatic vegetation.

With the indigenous silver maples dying off, diversifying the tree populations was a top priority. But an additional goal was to plant species that could sustain themselves while strengthening and island.

Meier: These swamp white oaks that we're planting here have a life span of 250, 200 to 250 years potentially. It produces acorns that a lot of wildlife depend on. Wood ducks are actually a species that eat acorns if you can believe it and there's a lot of wood ducks on the river. It also is really interesting because there are certain birds, certain bird species, the swirling warbler which is a species of concern throughout the eastern United States seems to cue in on oak trees specifically and so where we have more oak then we tend to have more of those warblers. So that is why we're doing oak. And there was actually just recently a study done that showed that hackberry as well is preferentially used by birds migrating up the Mississippi River flood plain. And so with the trees certainly the goal is not just that these trees are going to survive, but that they're going to grow up into mature canopy trees, start producing seed, regenerating on their own. Our hope is that we'll get seeding of other forest species and we'll have bird habitat and wildlife habitat and that this island will hold and maybe even build itself over time.

To pull off this multimillion dollar rehabilitation project, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers supplied the funding, while the Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa DNRs supplied their expertise as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who will be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the island. As for who is planting the trees it's simply local volunteers who have a stake in the future and the beauty of the Mississippi.

Meier: People like to get out and get their hands dirty and be a part of nature and I think that's who we are as human beings. But I think that the river holds a special place for a lot of people. Anyone who has grown up along the river there's no way that it's not a part of your life. And I think a lot of people really value the recreational opportunities that the river provides, the wildlife habitat that it provides, just the feel of being on the river. And I guess my sense would be that they just want to bring something to contribute to the river and to make sure that the system is behaving as well as it possibly can.

Jones: The Endangered Species Act was created because we recognized back in the '70s that we were doing a lot of changes on the landscape that were causing certain things that people enjoyed and liked to decline and basically grow extinct. And so as Aldo Leopold once said, being stewards of the land is what we all should be a part of.

With the restored island's first inhabitant, a nesting bald eagle already taking up residence, there is visible hope that all of the work that has gone into the habitat rehabilitation program is bound for success.

Jones: 50 years from now if we had a crystal ball, if all these trees we're planting today all succeed and grow and were mature 50 year old oak trees and hackberry trees birds would benefit from it, the neotropical migrants, the bald eagles, wildlife, deer would benefit from it, wetland species alone. So again it's the whole ecology approach is being taken into account when these projects are created.

REAP
Gilchrist Foundation