Transition back to nature

Liz Maas and Jason Taylor mobilize for a prescribed fire beside their traveling water source, the specially equipped Kawasaki Mule.
Photos courtesy of Transition Ecology.
This close-up shot of a wetland mitigation area shows the biodiversity.
Biodiversity within a wetland mitigation area provides an evolution of color, texture and form that adds to the beauty of the setting.
Blue flag iris is flourishing at this wetland mitigation site. This species is sensitive and won’t survive unless conditions are right. It emerged three years after the site was established.

Liz Maas is working to cure “nature deficit disorder,” a condition she feels is exacerbated by the increased dependence on technology to cope with high-stress, overly busy lifestyles. She launched Transition Ecology in 2004, turning her lifelong education, experience and passion into a business devoted to developing ecologically sound environments that encourage biodiversity and preserve natural resources.

She has a degree in environmental science and a master’s degree in geoscience, both from the University of Iowa. She works with Jason Taylor. Taylor works full-time at a local community college and focuses his off-hours on Transition Ecology projects. Based in Iowa City, the company provides land restoration and management services, primarily in Eastern Iowa.

Prairie establishment

Transition Ecology does limited prairie installation and even less restoration. “Our role is mainly educating our clients about the process and walking through it with them. The more ownership the individual has, the more successful they will be. We help them pick out the seed mix, make sure the seedbed is prepared appropriately and work with them for the next three growing seasons to ensure the prairie is properly established,” she explains.

The majority of the prairie installations are in backyards in urban settings, and are generally small enough that the clients can till and do the seeding themselves. Generally, Transition Ecology’s hands-on involvement is with older clients, people with time restraints and those with in-between size sites. The prairie projects are often the most specific and problematic, especially in the small urban settings, because the client usually has a mental picture of their ideal setting. For example, one client only wanted the blooming species in shades of yellow and blue.

Maas says, “It’s more challenging to craft a natural look that fits their image and still works well within the parameters of the site. We want a variety of species for biodiversity and something blooming to add interest throughout the growing season, spring, summer and fall. A wide range of prairie species are generalists, thriving in most reasonably compatible settings. Other species are hemi-parasites that draw some type of nutrient from an adjacent plant and require that mutualistic relationship to survive.”

Maas recommends height control to keep the young plants from expending energy in blossoms and seed production during the first three years, which allows for better root development and establishment. Since most weed species are annuals or biennials, height control limits their seed production, too, reducing the weed invasion within the site.

She says, “This can be accomplished by mowing at a minimum height of 4 to 5 inches. We don’t want any plant to get taller than 18 inches. Depending on plant growth rates, weather and site conditions, that could require three to six mowings over the growing season. We’ll monitor the site and, if the site owner doesn’t have workable equipment, arrange for subcontractors to do the mowing or do the mowing ourselves.”

She also handles other maintenance issues during the establishment period, such as limiting the spread of invasive species, hand-pulling weeds and seeding new species, if needed. “We’ll only resort to spraying out invaders if other controls aren’t effective. We keep tweaking the mix as the prairie evolves. We may add small plugs or slightly larger plants of species the client has specified, selecting strategic locations for the best visibility and match to plant needs. Frequently, we’ll find some species from the applied seed mix or long-dormant within the soils of the site emerging after two, three or many more years, when conditions are right for them.” It generally takes three to four years to establish a prairie. Maas continues working with the client once the prairie is established to maintain the look they want, adjusting maintenance practices to encourage biodiversity.

Wetland restoration

Maas’ main focus involves wetlands, which she dubs, “The rainforests of Iowa, where we find the most diversity.” Since a wetland is broadly defined as a place where water pools for periods of time, it encompasses a wide range of conditions. It extends from a barely noticed spot where the soil stays moist beneath lawn grasses to a marsh with water 2 feet deep. Some, such as those adjacent to ponds or streams, may be well-established, while others, such as a meadow with some sedges moving in, may be just developing.

A rain garden falls in the mid-range of wetlands, and a lot of Maas’ urban and suburban work involves helping property owners establish rain gardens to improve the biodiversity and beauty of the site. The rain garden becomes the site to collect excess stormwater, whether it’s channeled with direct aboveground directional flow or through belowground piping. Maas’ projects are designed to accommodate the volume of water involved and recharge the water table. Ideally, they incorporate deep-rooted, water-tolerant, native plants in a variety of colors and textures that create a harboring habitat of biodiversity and beauty.

Maas recommends a minimum of 10 or 12 plant species for urban or suburban wetlands, but there’s no magic formula. The conditions of each site are unique and, like all landscape development, must reflect the wishes of the property owner.

The establishment stage for wetlands may require some reshaping for improved hydrology or to control erosion. Otherwise, it is similar to a prairie, with the added challenge of working within wet conditions. Plant height needs to restricted, but, in most cases, it’s not practical to get a mower in or out. Maas says, “For small sites, with limited species, clients can use a string trimmer. For larger sites, we use a Stihl FS450 equipped with the grass blade. It’s fitted with a harness and only weighs about 25 pounds, so fatigue isn’t a factor. It gives us the flexibility to work within the varied species without creating depressions or disturbing areas that don’t require trimming.”

Wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act, and land development that will significantly impact a wetland requires a permit through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As part of the process, the Corps requires the involvement of a wetlands specialist, such as Maas, to help identify areas of potential impact; plan to avoid the impact and preserve the area; or, if impact is unavoidable, to minimize that impact and develop a comprehensive mitigation plan. She also assists the developer in navigating the permitting process on both the federal and state levels.

After the permitting and construction, it’s federally mandated that a wetlands site be monitored for a minimum of five years to ensure it functions properly. Maas also handles this process. The number of monitoring site visits varies from four to seven per year depending on seasonal variations and the complexity of the project. The Corps’ reporting form requires extensive detail extending from the functioning of the hydrology to the identification, status, location and percentage of cover for majority plant species within the site. This must be supported by photos taken at each visit, and at the end of the year, each individual visit report is incorporated into a comprehensive annual report.

Transition Ecology’s trained team is at work on this prescribed burn, with every member strategically placed.
The site as it appeared on April 1, following a prescribed burn.
The same site as it appeared on June 17, showing the biodiversity of the prairie.
The same site as it appeared on July 10, showing the ever-changing panorama of color, texture and form.

Her observations during the monitoring visits may lead to recommendations for specific actions similar to those on other wetland sites, only on a larger scale. Transition Ecology may be hired to oversee these tasks performed by the client or a qualified contractor, or to actually do the work. Once each year, a representative of the Corps or Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will make a site visit with her to discuss progress and any necessary adaptations due to changing circumstances.

Woodland restoration

Most of the company’s woodland work focuses on timber stand improvement. Urban developers are often working with sites that were previously plowed fields or cow pasture where woody species have crept in over the years. Clients want to preserve some of the woodland quality, but need guidance.

The company also provides contracted services to the DNR on some of their regional woodland restoration projects.

Fire for hire

One of their services is prescribed fire. Maas says, “Fire is a big part of the evolution of most of our native ecosystems. It’s an effective tool in restoring them and as part of the maintenance regime when administered by those qualified to apply it appropriately.”

That qualification comes through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), which was created to develop synergism among all the agencies overseeing federal lands that are prone to wildfire. Among the participating agencies are: the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Parks Service and the National Association of State Foresters. NWCG has developed the national interagency wildfire qualifications guide, along with the associated training program curricula and supporting technologies.

Maas notes there’s no hard and fast formula for prescribed fire in a prairie, woodlands or wetlands area. An established woodland and a recently restored one will respond much differently; each prairie and wetlands situation will have unique aspects to factor in during the planning process. She says, “It’s not easier to burn a wetland. You still must consider the air temperature, humidity, soil moisture, wind direction and speed, and the time of day and how all those factors might interact. We’re always aware of the unpredictable nature of fire. The people on our fire lines are trained and properly equipped. A Kawasaki Mule, equipped with a 60-gallon tank and a small pump, is our traveling water source.”

Part of Transition Ecology’s work involves educating clients on incorporating sound ecological principles into their lawn and landscape beautification projects. Maas expands that through the environmental science class she teaches at the Iowa City campus of Kirkwood Community College. Kirkwood also offers the basic NWCG-prescribed class of wildfire training.

Maas says, “This type of training at the community level points to the need for prescribed fire to become part of the overall dialog for property improvement with developers, HOAs, municipalities and the general public. Prescribed fire can be a tool in making otherwise unusable ground an ecological asset. We’ve been able to combine it with vital wetlands preservation and mitigation to turn these ‘leftover’ areas into havens of biodiversity that are not only beautiful, but also enrich the quality of life throughout the community.”

Transition Ecology’s business is growing primarily through word-of-mouth advertising. Maas says, “It’s the domino effect. When one person does something a bit unusual with a wetlands or prairie it will attract the attention of friends and neighbors. Often, two or three others are inspired to be more adventurous on their own properties and to work more closely with the natural environment and they’ll contact us. It’s a great fit for them and for our company.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.