Just the Facts

Little Tennessee bank, wetland restoration underway

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Christopher Hedden

Three Canada geese soared high above a barren wetland on the morning of Feb. 1 during a meeting involving an ecological and historical restoration project. Along the Upper Little Tennessee River in Otto, three scientists from different conservation organizations met onsite to evaluate the progress of a river bank restoration, as well as the resurrection of a wetland that precedes it. Jason Meador, aquatics program manager with Mainspring Conservation Trust in Franklin, alongside biologist Laura Fogo, with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Services, and biologist Scott Loftis, with N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), began the physical work on a project that has been in the planning stages since 2021.

In 2017, Mainspring bought a tract of once-submerged wetland situated between Georgia Road and the Bartram Trailhead on Hickory Knoll Road. At the edge of the property, the Little Tennessee River runs between the wetland and Coweeta Bottoms, an adjacent NCWRC game land. With the two properties adjoining each other, it has allowed the three organizations to pursue common goals of biostabilization and creating habitats for aquatic species.

“I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that we would destroy our rivers, streams, and natural resources,” said Fogo.

For the trio of professionals, conservation and restoration is at the forefront of every effort expended.

LEAD SCIENTISTS for a conservation effort currently underway in Macon County are, from left, Scott Loftis (NCWRC), Jason Meador (Mainspring), and Laura Fogo (USFWS). They recently took a break to sit on a part of the restored shoreline of the Little Tennessee River and discuss their progress.

Loftis added, “The wildlife commission is fortunate to have partners like Mainspring and the Fish and Wildlife Service to facilitate these mutually beneficial projects for the enhancement of our natural resources.”

The threefold project includes habitat conservation, wetland restoration, and river bank restoration. All work is being contracted by Fluvial Solutions of Raleigh, N.C., by way of local grader, Neal Owens. For the realization of the restoration efforts, the N.C. Land and Water Fund provided monies accumulated from the purchase of vanity license plates as well as from a portion of North Carolina sales tax.

Ancient discovery

In an unfinished section of the river bank, ancient soil can be seen with the naked eye. Meador gave historical insight.

“About three feet under the lightly colored soil, you can see a dark layer, which is prehistoric soil. Around 1870, when the Cherokee were here, that dark layer is their native soil. It’s organically rich and black; that is because there was not as much erosion and deposition until we started clearing out mountains in the early 1900s. We augured until we hit river gravel and found a piece of wood. We dated the wood, finding it to be 5,000 years old.”

A PROJECT involving Little Tennessee River bank restoration as well as the recovery of a wetland is expected to be completed by month’s end.

The three feet of lightly colored soil was deposited over the last 200 years, unlike the stable ancient soil that has been there for thousands of years.

Prior to this project, river banks on both sides were carved out by rapid moving water creating ragged cliff-like edges. Of the 1,000 linear feet of stream bank, 600 feet is now sloped and stabilized by the utility of various bioengineering techniques. First, the banks are sloped to a 30-degree incline, which is considerably flatter than the original 90-degree cliff. Excavators and a tracked dump truck carry the removed dirt to an onsite area away from the river.

During the dry months of last fall, water levels decreased, creating ideal conditions for the construction of a brush toe, which is a collection of small cut brush that is driven into the base of a river bank in order to protect it from erosion. Brush toes also offer a habitat for fish and other aquatic species. All brush that was utilized came from existing trees onsite.

Along with brush toes, live stakes and grass are being planted along the newly sloped banks. Live stakes are stems of small trees that are harvested in the tree’s dormant season. The live stake is then driven directly into the river bank and will eventually establish a root system in the soil, preventing further erosion. Roughly 400 feet of river bank is left to restore. Depending on weather, restoration is expected to be completed by month’s end.

Wetland restoration

Wetlands are not commonly thought of as a geological aspect of the Appalachian Mountains, explained Meador. “There’s nobody alive today that could remember what a wetland used to look like … they’ve been lost for that long.” 

Fogo further confirmed the rarity of this project by adding, “This is the only wetland restoration project, where organizations, with the help of archeologists, are restoring historical channels that date back to 10,000 years ago.”

Pink flags mark the path where the current creek will be moved to feed an ancient Oxbow Channel. The previous landowner redirected the creek and added a culvert in an effort to drain the wetland. Crews will remove the culvert and reinstate the creek to meander in its original fashion through the plain. Downstream waters will reap benefits from the newly restored wetland.

“The wetlands are a natural filter that will filter sediments, and other pollutants; wetlands are a natural sponge for water quality,” said Fogo.

In addition to the wetland becoming functional again, a backwater slough will be added to promote fish habitats and spawning zones. A backwater slough is a shallow body of water, acting as an off-shoot to a larger river. “If you’re a fish, and the water is flooding and moving fast; where do you get off of the treadmill?” posed Meador.

A backwater slough will offer fish a chance to get off the “treadmill,” in addition to providing habitat for amphibians, reptiles, and insects. The bog turtle is one of many “at risk” species that might return as an effect. The completion of the wetland is expected to take at least two weeks, depending on weather conditions.

HEAVY EQUIPMENT has been required to handle a local conservation project that has been in the planning stages since 2021.

The scientists note that the local ecosystem will benefit as a whole by completion of both projects. Migratory birds, songbirds, wading birds, insects, and bats will especially benefit.

Mainspring will be hosting an open-to-the-public educational Wetland Field Trip on April 5, hosted by Meador. For more information visit: https://www.mainspringconserves.org/events/double-feature-wetland-field-trip.