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Ecology of a Bicycle Commute: Pedaling the South Platte River Greenway

The Niver Creek Trail passes through suburban Thornton parallel to stormwater infrastructure.

The Niver Creek Trail passes through suburban Thornton parallel to stormwater infrastructure. Photo by Chris Loftus.

Chris Loftus, RLA

I held a smartphone in one hand, the left handlebar grip with the other, and navigated the streets of suburban Thornton, Colorado at 7:00 am. The neighborhood streets led to Niver Creek trail, which crossed into an easement between agricultural properties. As I passed farm fields, prairie dogs scurried across the concrete trail. Along Niver Creek I spotted an egret downstream from a raft of ducks. Willows and cottonwoods shaded portions of the creek near its confluence with the South Platte River. Along the South Platte River Greenway, rabbits appeared from piles of brush and darted across the trail toward the river below. A Great Blue Heron stood stoically at the river’s edge. All of this occurred within a patchwork of residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial land uses.

A mix of native and non-native vegetation grows along the edge of Niver Creek trail near its confluence with the South Platte River.

A mix of native and non-native vegetation grows along the edge of Niver Creek trail near its confluence with the South Platte River. Photo by Chris Loftus.

In an increasingly urbanized world, greenways like the South Platte River corridor play an important ecological role. Greenways – multipurpose corridors that include vegetation, recreational trails, and oftentimes waterways and urban infrastructure – hold the potential to connect parks, open space, and other habitat nodes and create expansive networks of green space. Small mammals, numerous bird species, and fish inhabit or migrate through rivers, tributaries, and riparian vegetation. Riparian greenways provide habitat, improve air quality, and reduce sedimentation and pollution of adjacent waterways. When implemented at a sufficiently large scale, greenways reduce urban heat islands and improve watershed and aquifer health. Greenways also improve air quality by encouraging non-motorized transportation, thereby reducing vehicular emissions.

The South Platte River Greenway between Thornton and Denver.

The South Platte River Greenway between Thornton and Denver. Photo by Chris Loftus.

As I continued to pedal toward Denver’s urban edge, I took a rapid inventory of the greenway’s condition and found environments of variable quality. Stretches of the trail wove through a mosaic of agricultural and industrial landscapes. An array of olfactory hues, from the ammonia-heavy stench of chicken houses, to oil refinery emissions and the scent of wastewater treatment, wafted over the trail at various locations. The quantity and quality of riparian habitat varied along these heavily impacted zones, and non-native species dominated in places.

Despite the greenway’s varying conditions, the South Platte has come a long way in the past forty years. Prior to major cleanup efforts initiated in 1974, some termed the South Platte “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” In 1965, a major flood, compounded by decades of degradation from unregulated industrial and agricultural land use caused $325 million in damages. The event motivated City officials to take action. In 1974, the City of Denver formed the Platte River Development Committee to strategize reclamation of the river corridor. The committee evolved into the non-profit Greenway Foundation in 1976, and continues to play an instrumental role in coordinating planning efforts and funding sources for the vital community amenity.

Cyclists enjoy a ride on the South Platte River Greenway trail north of Denver.

Cyclists enjoy a ride on the South Platte River Greenway trail north of Denver. Photo by Chris Loftus.

The Greenway Foundation and its partners have made substantial improvements since the initial efforts began, including over 100 miles of trails, over 100 acres of park land, and significant water quality and riparian habitat enhancements. Along its most traveled sections through Denver’s core, the greenway is a vibrant urban corridor embraced by the community. The Greenway Foundation’s South Platte River Master Plan outlines additional improvements to be implemented in the future, including upgrades to existing parks, construction of new parks, riparian buffer and wetland enhancements, increased ecological connectivity, additional public access points, and the incorporation of public art projects.

A cyclist rides through one of the greenway’s heavily industrialized zones.

A cyclist rides through one of the greenway’s heavily industrialized zones. Photo by Chris Loftus.

Pedaling through areas identified for future improvements in the Master Plan, I took a hairpin turn and rode up a steep switchback, leaving behind the relative serenity of the greenway’s underutilized northern segment. I emerged between a McDonald’s and a gas station, negotiated a few Denver streets, and arrived at the office. While my commute took me through some raw industrial zones, there were also thriving natural areas along the way. The potential for enhanced habitat connectivity and better community access was clear. As the greenway evolves and improves through the implementation of additional restoration and revitalization projects, the City of Denver, surrounding communities, and the region’s urban ecology will continue to reap its many benefits.

And for anyone concerned for the safety of a phone wielding bicycle commuter, I’m happy to report that I only needed the smartphone’s map on the first of many commutes.

The greenway trail passes below railroad infrastructure on Denver’s north side.

A multitude of trails and greenways form an extensive network throughout the Denver metropolitan area. The South Platte River Greenway serves as the primary north-south corridor.  Photo Courtesy of Sandcreekgreenway.org.



Smith, D. S. and Hellmund, P. C., Ecology of Greenways: Design and Function of Linear Conservation Areas, 1993

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Where’s the Beef?

Devin O’Dea

The average American consumes about 270 pounds of beef every year, happily patronizing an industry that has grown dramatically over the last century. In the Western United States 70% of land is grazed by livestock–that’s approximately 270 million acres of public land, including wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national forests, and even national parks. If you have hiked even some of the most remote wilderness areas of the Western United States, you have probably noticed the tell-tale signs of cattle ranching. Unfortunately, the effects from cattle grazing on public lands have exacerbated the threat to endangered plant and animal species and have polluted a huge portion of water sources in the West. The lush ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests that covered a great portion of the Western United States, and the species that rely on this habitat to survive are literally being trampled by domestic livestock. Meanwhile, cattle ranchers and law men have become embroiled in an armed old-western standoff over the issue.

A hungry cow stands over trampled earth. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

A hungry cow stands over trampled earth. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The recent court ruling and subsequent civil dispute between Clive Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in U.S. v. Bundy, highlights the contentious nature of the debate regarding the rights to livestock grazing on public land. Currently in the United States, livestock are permitted to roam free and graze on a huge portion of public land, providing the cattle rancher pay a permitting fee of $1.35 per cow, per month (a figure which has hardly changed since its inception in 1978). That’s less than it would cost the average pet owner to feed their goldfish, and 7 times less than the cost of feeding a house cat for a month. Mr. Bundy, however, refused to pay these fees and after nearly 20 years of court proceedings the BLM finally notified Mr. Bundy of the intent to remove his cattle from public lands, sparking the armed standoff between authorities and supporters of free-roaming cattle. Endangered species, such as the desert tortoise, which have been threatened by Mr. Bundy’s cattle grazing, represent a microcosm of this larger macro problem of livestock-induced habitat degradation across the Western United States.

Cattle and Desertification

Livestock ranching is the most potent force behind desertification in the U.S. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

So what are the measurable effects of livestock grazing, and why is this an important issue for species protection and restoration ecology efforts? “Grazing has contributed to the demise of 22% of federal threatened and endangered species.” (Wilcove et al.) That’s the same as the detrimental effects of logging and mining combined. Livestock grazing affects 33% of endangered plants and results in the consumption of 88% of available forage food. Ranching in the 20th century has all but eliminated prairie dog towns and threatened the 170 species who depended on them and their burrows. In addition to species loss, domestic livestock ranching is the most potent desertification source, with 225 million acres reported in the U.S.

Domestic livestock waste and disease has also contaminated 80% of streams in the arid West. Beyond the pathogenic bacteria introduced into streams and water sources, there exists a litany of other negative impacts to streambed hydrology, morphology, vegetation, aquatic life, and riparian ecosystems.

One of the hunted predators wrongly accused of decimating livestock populations

One of the hunted predators accused of decimating livestock populations. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

Furthermore, tens of millions of dollars are spent every year to kill predators, such as bobcats, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and bears, which are deemed threatening to the existence of livestock. This is ironic given that the fact that only 4.7% of cattle and calf losses are attributed to predation, and domestic dogs kill as many livestock as mountain lions, bobcats, bears, and wolves combined.

Although some studies have shown that livestock grazing can help to eliminate chaparral (shrubland plant) growth and therefore reduce fire danger, there are other studies to show that the invasive growth and weeds which follow livestock grazing also contribute to higher fuel loads.

The debate rages on regarding grazing and its impacts on wildfires. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The debate rages on – livestock grazing and its impacts on wildfires. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Another argument sites the efficacy of livestock grazing to control invasive species, such as the introduction of goats to eat Kudzu (Pueria lobata) in the South Eastern United States, but this argument is also a double edged sword as invasive species often flourish in over-grazed lands. Conservation grazing is an initiative that attempts to find middle ground amidst the opposing debaters, and it is often cited by ranchers as proof that free range cattle can be beneficial to the environment. This particular approach regulates the amount of grazing allowed in a particular area, controlling the height and density of grasses which allows many shorter wildflower species the opportunity to flourish. This process requires careful controls over the duration, quantity, and range of grazing in order to succeed.

Over 100 million federal taxpayer dollars are spent every year to directly subsidize cattle ranching on public lands. But, how much money will need to be spent to restore our rapidly degrading ecosystems? The propagation of livestock for personal and commercial purposes is an American tradition that dates back well before the revolutionary war. Yet, will our insatiable appetite for beef contribute to the loss of thousands of native species? The U.S. government currently spends over a billion dollars on endangered species protection and millions on ecological restoration, but the source of destruction must be addressed first if restoration efforts are to hold any ground in the future.


Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J Dubow, A Phillips, E. Losos. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States: assessing the relative importance of habitat destruction, alien species, pollution, overexploitation and disease. BioScience 48(8): 610.

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Rapid Growth: How We Tackled Growing Pains

“It’s a fact: Growth costs money” – The Zweig Letter

Great Ecology knows this well. As we’ve grown from a 2 person firm in New York City to 34 employees in 6 office locations in just 13 years, we’ve had to overcome a number of “growing pains”.

As a 2014 ZweigWhite Hot Firm List awardee, Great Ecology’s President, Dr. Mark Laska, shares our challenges and strategies associated with rapid growth in The Zweig Letter’s Growth Issue. One challenge we faced, maintaining one, unified firm culture across multiple time zones and locations.

For more articles visit The Zweig Letter.

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Growing Concerns for Coral Reefs

Devin O’Dea

Bleached Coral Reef

This dead coral reef has little hope of sustaining life. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

One often hears that ecology and the environment hold intrinsic value for the human race. Economists have now quantified that figure and can say with relative certainty that we are flushing billions down the drain. Coral reefs are some of the most abundant ecosystems on the planet whose services are worth an estimated $375 billion per year to the global economy. Reefs provide a habitat for approximately 4000 different species of fish, and they are the backbone of our modern fishing industry. Currently 75% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by a variety of stress factors, and in some regions up to 95% of reefs have died off completely. Reef regeneration is a creative and exciting process attempting to restore and revitalize the valuable ecosystems across the globe.

bleached coral

The exposed skeleton of a bleached coral. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

The factors precipitating the decline of our world’s coral reefs are diverse and catastrophic. Coral reefs have the incredible ability to survive and self-regenerate following catastrophic natural events such as hurricanes and huge ocean swells, however the multitude and frequency of factors facilitating their recent decline have led scientists to deem their recovery unlikely if no action is taken. Although climate change, bringing warmer and more acidic waters, is predicted to be one of coral’s greatest threats in the future, anthropogenic acts are primarily responsible for decimating global reefs in our lifetimes. The high-level synopsis of these acts posits coastal development, watershed based pollution, marine-based pollution and damage, dredging, and overfishing or destructive fishing as the major threats to coral reef systems.

Invasive Lionfish

The lionfish, a new delicacy for spear fishers and conservationists alike. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

As a result of anthropogenic effects on reefs, massive die-outs have occurred, which has disrupted homeostasis and allowed invasive species to thrive. Algae and lionfish are two invasive organisms that pose a large threat to current reefs. Coral bleaching allows algae to cover the nutrient rich skeletons of hard corals, and over fishing coupled with the massive loss of urchins has reduced the species that once kept the algae in check. This has contributed to the rapid growth of algae on living corals, which prevents coral photosynthesis and leads to greater species loss. Lionfish have also invaded and flourished in many reef ecosystems consuming small fish species before they have a chance to reproduce, further exacerbating the over fishing problem.

It is at this global juncture, on the brink of losing 75% of our coral reefs  in the ensuing decades that marine biologists, activists, and ecologists have teamed up to take matters in their own hands. The movement to restore and regenerate coral reefs has sprouted simultaneously in distinct geospatial locations in recent years.  While there are a variety of different approaches to coral restoration, the guiding principles are the same. Groups are propagating corals in aquaculture labs, open ocean nurseries, shipwrecks, and man-made reef structures to increase the genetic diversity of coral and catalyze their recovery.

angel azul coral reef

Coral Fragments grow from a sunken sculpture depicted in the new documentary, Angel Azul. Photo courtesy of Jason deCaires Taylor.

As many corals reproduce asexually, hundreds of thousands of coral fragments are harvested and strapped, glued, wedged, wired, and tied to a number of reef structures in order to restore bleached or destroyed reef ecosystems. One coral, Acropora cervicornis, also known as the staghorn coral, can grow up to 15 cm linearly per branch per year. This has given researchers and activists hope and momentum as significant progress can be seen after only a few years.

Restoration efforts differ between structural, biological, and physical restoration depending on the needs of the local ecosystem and varying success factors. Structural restoration is necessary in areas where the reef has been degraded due to blast fishing, boat grounding, dredging, landslides or other areas where corals will not have a solid structure to attach to. This has been the advent of various man-made reef structures including shipwrecks, wire frames, and even life-size sculptures are sunk to create artificial reefs. Rigs to reefs is another example where retired oil rigs are re-purposed and converted into thriving reef ecosystems.

Gametes Released from Coral

Gametes are released from corals only once a year. Photo courtesy of New Heaven dive school

Biological restoration is necessary in areas with low connectivity to other reefs, coral populations with low reproductive capabilities, or where gametes (coral larvae) are unable to settle due to grazing, algae, and other factors. As gametes are only released once a year, due to coral’s synchronous spawning habits, divers attempt to collect them as they float to the surface in the middle of the night. These fertilized corals are then grown in controlled settings and released back into the ocean once they are large enough to attach to a reef structure.

Physical restoration is the most recent and experimental approach as it attempts to address the conditions surrounding the fecundity, or reproductive capacity of reefs. One approach is to create mid-water nurseries where corals have clear water (critical for photosynthesis), and a lack of predators, pollution, and eutrophication. These open ocean restoration efforts generally have higher survival rates and grow faster than similar colonies on natural reef. In addition, scientists have even experimented with using “biorock,” and other mineral accretion devices to create favorable conditions for coral development. These devices change the water chemistry around the (coral) structure using low voltage electrical energy. As a result of the electrolysis, pH levels are increased and carbonate salts are precipitated out of the water. This allows corals to devote less energy to skeletal formation and more resources to reproduction, tissue growth/repair, and immune system strength. Corals growing on mineral accretion devices grow 3-5 times faster than normal corals.

biorock structure

Divers carefully monitor a biorock structure at the Hin Fai restoration site in Thailand. Photo courtesy of New Heaven dive school

Although huge strides are being made in coral restoration, adaptation, and the use of designer corals to combat changing ocean conditions, the factors that threaten the existence of coral reefs still need to be addressed. The success of coral restoration efforts can be undermined by the continuation of detrimental practices that degrade our marine ecosystems. The fate of coral reefs and the world’s most-traded food commodity, fish, could be decided in our lifetime.

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The Eco-Tech Revolution

Zachary Lehmann

Robotics and ecology are not two terms you see used together often; however in the last few years, advances in robotics technology and a dramatic drop in prices of hobby grade electronics have led to a revolution in the applied ecology field. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPAs), more commonly referred to as drones, have been in the headlines a lot in recent years, most notably for their involvement in modern warfare. A recent spike in public interest in the hobby aviation industry has caused radios, helicopters, planes, and a myriad of other electronic devices to become more common place and easily accessible. As a result the cost for remote controlled flying machines has plummeted, and many ecologists and other traditionally low-tech industries have begun adopting the technology for their work.

The agricultural industry has used remote controlled planes fitted with infrared cameras to monitor the productivity of their crops for years. Multi-rotor UAS’s have been used to generate 3-dimensional models of remote areas and conduct vegetation surveys of small islands in Long Island Sound. UAS technology is even being used to track and help combat poaching in Africa and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor climate change in the arctic.

UAS deters poaching in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.dronezine.it/2144/elefante-spaventato-elefante-salvato/

UAS combats poaching in Africa. Photo courtesy of dronezine.it

ConservationDrones.org is a community focused on promoting the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for environmental conservation. Their website features an impressive list of applications that the new UAS technology is already being used for.

The recent Ecological Society of America (ESA) article, Lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Will Revolutionize Spatial Ecology, describes exactly why the technology is so applicable to ecology:

“Ecologists require spatially explicit data to relate structure to function. UAVs offer ecologists new opportunities for scale-appropriate measurements of ecological phenomena.”

Ecology and UAS technologies – they seem like such a perfect fit! UAS technology is cheaper than traditional methods, easier to maintain, and more efficient.

So where’s the catch?

FAA is under rising pressure to regulate this booming industry. Photo Courtesy of: http://theenterprisereport.typepad.com/news/2010/05/exclusive-safety-second-thomas-stuckey-former-top-faa-safety-official-removed-for-safety-lapses-back.html

FAA is under rising pressure to regulate the booming UAS industry.
Photo courtesy of

As a new, unprecedented technology with mass applications, regulations have not yet caught up to the technology and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still deliberating UAS regulations. Up until about 2012 UAS’s weren’t very common outside of a few specialized clubs nor did they have mass market appeal. Now Google, Amazon, and Domino’s Pizza have unveiled plans to start delivering goods via UAS technologies. The FAA is under substantial pressure to update the outdated regulations as the UAS industry shows no sign of slowing down and is projected to reach $83 billion by 2025.

Current FAA regulations prohibit the use of UAS technology for commercial use. Their argument is that the airspace used by commercial drones is publically owned and therefore should not be used for profit. In the absence of better defined air spaces and new regulations, all commercial uses, even non-profit university programs, are being shut down since current regulations consider any flying contraption to be subject to FAA regulations (if interpreted literally, paper airplanes would fall under this jurisdiction). The current regulations impose severe fines running up to $10,000 for those found using UAS technology for commercial purposes.

There are a number of real issues to be addressed to ensure the safety and privacy of everyone. For example, should a certificate or commercial insurance be required to operate a UAS? Should new regulations stipulate that you can fly up to 500 feet (above) on any land you own? As they stand now, anyone can buy and fly these devices and without enforceable privacy regulations, a number of issues can come up.

Nation divided over ethical use of drones in society. Photo courtesy of: Palmbeachcoast.com

UAS takes flight over Florida’s wetlands.
Photo courtesy of: Palmbeachcoast.com

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is the leading model aircraft organization in the US. Currently, they have filed a petition for review of the FAA’s most recent interpretive rule claiming the FAA’s ruling contradicts language they included in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 by adding new rules and regulations regarding model aircraft

All these issues may explain why the international UAS industries are booming while UAS is lagging behind in the US. Europe has a robust UAS industry for both hobby grade fliers and professionals. There, commercial use of UAS technology is common and they’re being used for everything from scientific research, to the film industry, and even in real estate and government applications. Stateside we can only hope that the stakeholders and industry leaders can work with the FAA to solidify the regulations and allow commercial interests to start utilizing this game changing technology.
Wolfgang, Ben. Drone Industry Predicts Explosive Economic Boost. Washington Times. The Washington Times, 03 Dec. 2013.

 About the Author
Zak LehmannZak is one of Great Ecology’s Associate Ecologists and GIS specialists based in the New York area.  Zak has always had two passions in constant conflict ever since he was young. He was an outdoorsy kid that was obsessed with technology. And, anything with a motor or a circuit board would be dissected in the pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, putting it back together was never quite as successful as taking it apart. Zak originally went off to school for electrical engineering hoping to work in the robotics industry, but ended up transferring to a remote school in Maine to get his degree in wildlife conservation. Zak can’t wait for the regulations to get sorted out and take to the skies!

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Transforming Liberty State Park Brownfield

Joseph Cherichello, PLA

In this post-industrial age many opportunities present themselves to convert urban brownfields into open green spaces. Liberty State Park, a complex brownfield site in New Jersey, provides a case study of the crucial integration of ecology and design to redevelop the site and reintroduce public access.

Many sites developed for human use have relied on mechanical techniques to redirect and manipulate physical and biological processes for the benefit of fitting structures such as buildings and parking lots into the landscape. Water has been collected from impervious surfaces, forced into pipes (increasing rate of flow), and released into nearby streams (increasing temperature and volume compared to pre-development). However, if the environmental structure is overpowered, the impacts can be damaging – an increase of downstream flooding frequency and volume, and an increase in temperature and nutrient levels within the stream, can negatively affect wildlife and human activity in a number of ways.

Site Background
Located on the west bank of Upper New York Bay, along with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Liberty State Park was an intertidal mud flat and salt marsh before it was developed by the Central Rail Road of New Jersey beginning in the 1860s (NJ Division of Parks and Forestry 2001). As New York became more industrialized and immigration increased dramatically, people began to view the natural resources in terms of technology and transportation (NJ Division of Parks and Forestry 2001).


Two views of downtown Manhattan and open meadow along proposed trail location.
Photos courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

The construction of the rail yard required the existing salt marsh to be filled with materials from various places, most of which came from construction projects in Manhattan and refuse from the surrounding areas. By 1967, use of the rail yard was discontinued and removal of infrastructure within the park began (NJ Division of Parks and Forestry 2001). Site features such as the Terminal Building, which has been refurbished and currently in use, and the attached rail shed are reminders of the site’s rich history.

Since the rail yard was abandoned, the interior section of Liberty State Park was left, and continues to be unused. Fenced off from the public because of soil contamination, plant communities tolerant of the soil conditions began to regenerate and have grown for the last 40+ years (NJ Division of Parks and Forestry 2001).

Liberty Park Vegetation

Two views of the varying vegetative communities within the interior section of Liberty State Park dominated by Populus, Betula, and Rhus species tolerant of the high metal contamination in the soil.
Photos courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

Project Purpose
The main goal of restoring Liberty State Park is to provide the public safe access to the Park’s interior section through a trail system offering educational and passive recreational opportunities while maintaining the site’s existing plant communities and ecological functions. In a brownfield project such as this, the initial challenge is to provide the public as much access to nature as possible while protecting their safety.

One redevelopment option is to clear the entire area of all vegetation and cover the contaminated soil with fill material that is considered ‘clean’. Although this would provide an open expanse ready for almost any type of development, it would also eliminate many educational opportunities as well as any habitat for wildlife that has taken refuge in this environment.

The option developed in the Master Plan (prepared by Wallace, Roberts & Todd) is to leave the existing vegetation and soil in their current state and provide limited public access with environmental education opportunities through a trail system.


trail system

Proposed trail design by WRT.

The ‘Hydrologic Trail’, which leads to the proposed constructed wetlands is the focus of the project’s trail system. Three nodes located along the hydrologic trail (with information and educational opportunities) demonstrates the blending of ecological principles with the art of designing an engaging experience through a series of successional plant assemblages.

Node 1 – The Trailhead
‘The Trailhead’ provides a shaded gathering space surrounded by a bioretention swale to collect stormwater runoff. It will not only provide information about the trails and history of the site, but it will also demonstrate the process of capturing rainwater in a bioretention swale to allow for infiltration back into the soil. This important stormwater management technique is a useful ecological design principle particularly in the urban environment to help filter the rainwater, recharge aquifers, and prevent flooding.

node 1 for web

Graphics courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

An elevation change of approximately five feet occurs from street level to the gathering space. Graphic Courtesy of WRT.

An elevation change of approximately five feet occurs from street level to the gathering space. Graphics courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

Node 2 – Succession and Space
‘Succession and Space’ engages the visitor by displaying the spatial significance of emerging from a forested area to an open meadow through various sub-nodes. The intent of this design sequence is to give the visitor a varying sense of space that is created by the construction of varying sized viewing platforms.

node 2 succession

Graphics courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

node 2 section

Varied viewing platforms display the spatial significance of differing habitats.
Graphics courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

Node 3 – The Crossroads
‘The Crossroads’ is the convergence of many trails with information and views of nearby constructed wetlands. Future phases will include a ‘wetland and rail trails’ which will intersect the hydrologic trail at the crossroads. A bioretention basin will be constructed for the study of the success of various plant species used in rain gardens or to study plants that may help in the collection of particulate matter from stormwater runoff. An elevated landform will also be constructed to compare the effects of the typically hot and dry southern aspect versus more shaded and moist northern aspects on native plant species. Lastly, an area will be dedicated to conventional rectilinear experimentation plots to continue the research being conducted on site.

node 3

Graphics courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

node 3 crossroads

Graphics courtesy of Joseph Cherichello, PLA.

Lessons Learned
There are many dimensions to creating a successful project which combines both science and design. A Landscape Architect’s role in any design, including a restoration project such as this, starts with sufficient site analysis and the design of usable space and ecosystem services. The goal is to provide stimulating experiences for visitors throughout the landscape while maintaining the integrity and increasing ecological function. Determining the project site’s climate and microclimate, understanding its unique hydrologic functions and its relationship to the watershed, researching its specific soil properties and understanding the ecological dynamics between vegetation and wildlife are the first steps in the ecological design of any land development.

Similar to Great Ecology’s brownfield restoration projects, Liberty State Park demonstrates the benefit of thinking creatively about what otherwise may be considered a blight to the community and repurposing it to conserve or enhance the ecosystem services on site. It shows the complexity involved in the preparation and incorporation of a comprehensive site analysis to ensure the desired outcome with regards to the design of space and ecology.

About the author
Joe CherichelloJoseph Cherichello PLA is one of Great Ecology’s Landscape Architects. He focused his master’s thesis on Liberty State Park while attending Rutgers University.


Burger, Joanna, Michael Gochfeld, and Larry J. Niles. “Ecotourism and Birds in Coastal New Jersey. Contrasting Responses of Birds, Tourists, and Managers.” Environmental Conservation, 1995: 56-65.

Department of Justice. Standards for Accessible Design. 1991. http://www.ada.gov/reg3a.html#Anchor-17516 (accessed April 4, 2011).

Gallagher, F.J., I. Penchmann, C. Holzapfel, and J. Grabosky. “Altered vegetative assemblage trajectories within an urban brownfield.” Environmental Polllution, 2011: 1159-1166.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “N.J.A.C. 7:8, Stormwater Management.” April 19, 2010. http://www.nj.gov/dep/rules/rules/njac7_8.pdf (accessed March 16, 2011).

NJ Division of Parks and Forestry. “The Future of Liberty State Park.” 2001. http://www.gallaghergreen.com/lsp%20GMP%20Interior.pdf (accessed June 2011).

Van Der Ryn, Sim, and Stuart Cowan. Ecological Design. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996.

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Great Ecology Recognized for Stellar Growth

inc5000websiteGreat Ecology is thrilled to announce the company is recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the nation’s fastest growing private firms for the third consecutive year —a true accomplishment for a small business solving big ecological challenges.

According to the 2014 Inc. 500 | 5000 statistics, the Environmental Services industry is the fastest growing economic sector in America, and Great Ecology ranks 17th in the nation and number 2073 across all industries with a 3-year growth rate of 194% and the creation of 21 new jobs.

ZweigWhite Hot Firm 2014Additionally, Great Ecology is listed on the 2014 ZweigWhite Hot Firms List as number 67 of the nation’s top 100 architecture, engineering, and environmental firms – an outstanding achievement within the nation’s fastest growing economic sector.

In the words of Company President and CEO, Dr. Mark Laska, “We are honored to receive these prestigious awards and celebrate our continued growth. The success and growth of the past 3 years are a testament to this firm’s expert staff and collective resiliency. Great Ecology has and continues to demonstrate its value to public and private organizations nationwide with a practice rooted in science and driven by excellence in design.”

In addition to the prestigious national and industry awards, 2014 has been an incredibly successful year. Expanding the firm’s nationwide presence, Great Ecology opened three new offices in Sacramento, California; Lexington, Kentucky; and Salt Lake City, Utah. Furthering the firm’s growth and progress is the incredible staff of industry experts – 75% have advanced degrees and expertise in specialized fields, ranging from riparian ecology and forensic chemistry to landscape architecture and design.

To learn more about Great Ecology and how to enhance your project, contact Sarah Stevens at (858) 750-3201

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Water Under Your Feet

By: Alejandro Baladron Julian

True or False. Do you know your groundwater? Or are you fooled by the common misconceptions?

  1. Groundwater and surface water are the same.
  2. Groundwater flows in underground rivers.
  3. Groundwater is renewable.
  4. Groundwater is any water occurring below the earth’s surface.
  5. People believe you can find groundwater using supernatural abilities.

How did you do? Find the answers in the blog.

Just 200 years ago, groundwater was a mysterious phenomenon. Today, thanks to hydrology laws explaining the movement of water combined with our knowledge of geology we understand the nature and occurrence of water in the ground. However, the fact that we can only see groundwater in a few notable exceptions – when water seeps from a hillside or when water comes up after digging a well – may explain why many people are confused about how water occurs, moves, and is stored in the ground. Even today, most of the public who rely on this resource know almost nothing about it. There is a tremendous amount of mythology and confusion surrounding the sources of groundwater. This may explain why techniques like dowsing, using supernatural abilities to find water below the ground, are still used today instead of the most basic principles of groundwater science.

Some widespread misconceptions: groundwater and surface water are separate, groundwater flows in underground rivers, and that groundwater is a non-renewable resource. But probably the most common hydrology misconception is to assume that groundwater is any water occurring beneath the earth’s surface.

There's an exception to every rule. 99.9% groundwater does not occur in underground lakes. Saint xx s the exception.

There’s an exception to every rule. 99.9% of the time groundwater does not occur in underground lakes and streams.
Saint Leonard underground lake is the 0.1% exception and an incredible subterranean lake in Switzerland.

Not all the water in the ground is groundwater
It is common to think that groundwater is any water occurring in the ground. This oversimplification of hydrology processes is accepted when we are communicating information about hydrology science to non-scientific groups, but incorrect when used in water resources decision-making. Well informed decisions necessitate making a distinction between groundwater and subsurface water.

Voids, or the spaces between grains of sand and cracks in rocks near the earth’s surface, allow water to move beneath the land surface under the force of gravity. Water moving in soil through void spaces is referred to as underground water.

Underground water occurs in two different zones. One zone, the unsaturated zone, is located immediately beneath the land surface in most areas, and contains both water and air in the voids. This zone is also known as the zone of aeration and vadose zone. The unsaturated zone is almost always underlain by a second zone in which all voids are full of water, the saturated zone (Figure 1).

xx. Image courtesy of xx

Figure 1: Details the 2 different zones where underground water occurs.
Image courtesy of the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

Depending on the flow path that underground water takes, it will be considered subsurface water or groundwater. Subsurface water flow occurs in the unsaturated zone when rain falls faster than it can infiltrate downwards. On the contrary, groundwater is found in the spaces between soil particles and cracks in rocks underground located in the saturated zone – the result of precipitation which seeps down through the land surface until it reaches the saturated zone. Groundwater slowly moves in the saturated area and eventually seeps into streams, lakes, and oceans (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Hydrologic flow path. Figure courtesy of Christine McLaughlin.

Figure 2: Different flow path of subsurface water vs. groundwater.
Figure courtesy of Christine McLaughlin.

To summarize, there are two different types of water occurring beneath the soil’s surface: subsurface flow, which moves in the unsaturated zone located close to the earth’s surface, and groundwater, which occupies the saturated zone. Only the water occupying the saturated zone can be truly considered groundwater.

Why differentiate groundwater from subsurface water matters?
It is important to make a distinction between groundwater and subsurface water because their properties are different and so are their impacts in landscapes. Groundwater typically moves very slowly, creates habitats with low oxygen concentration, affects the chemistry of the ground, and is the source of streams in the absence of rainfall.

On the contrary, subsurface water flowing in the unsaturated zone can move faster than groundwater flow, allows medium to high presence of oxygen, and lacks the potential to feed streams, springs and seeps during the dry season.

So, what does this mean for development projects?
Is it subsurface flow or groundwater what you see seeping out of that hill?

Recently, Great Ecology studied the hydrological conditions on a property to determine if development plans could move forward after the property owners observed saturated patches of soil. As the puddles were located in the proposed development area, they needed to identify the origin of water to understand how these puddles would affect their plans. The study results indicated that the puddles were created by a temporal subsurface flow which was generated by a large and frequent number of rainfall events, the presence of large slopes, and impervious soil layers beneath ground surface…not by groundwater inputs. Why does this matter? As the seeps and puddles were caused by temporal subsurface flow rather than by groundwater inputs, they are just hydrological nuisances and will disappear soon after rainy periods are done and will likely not interfere with the area planned for development. However, had the source been groundwater, it would indicate a constant and consistent water source, forcing the property owners to take additional development actions, which may increase project costs, require moving the proposed development location, or be unable to complete the project.

Understanding the hydrology of a project site is just as critical as choosing the appropriate plants for repairing damaged landscapes. Long-term success of a development depends on accurate diagnosis of hydrological conditions, which requires a specialist’s knowledge, equipment, and ability to manipulate predictive formulas.

Smerdon, Brian and Todd Redding. Groundwater: More Than Water Below the Ground! Streamline Watershed Management Bulletin. Vol. 10/No. 2. 2007.

Hall and Associates, Ruth Dight, and Applied Geotechnology, Inc. Ground Water Resource Protection: A Handbook for Local Planners and Decision Makers in Washington State. King County Planning Division. Washington State, Department of Ecology. 1987.

Schwalbaum, W Jesse. Understanding Groundwater. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. Commack, New York. 1997.

Winkley, Steven. Dispelling Common Ground Water Misconceptions. New York Rural Water Associations. 2005.

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Best Practices: NRD Assessment & Restoration

Beyond the Headlines: Best Practices to Restore Natural Resources Injured by Long-Term Hazardous Waste Releases, Oil Spills and Transport and Other Accidents, published in the Bloomberg BNA, August 2014, presents a series of best practices related to Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA) and associated habitat restoration.

Industry experts, including practitioners, environmental attorneys, and state/federal government representatives, comprised the NRDA Working Group that outline 7 Guiding Principles to effectively restore contaminated environments along with case studies that demonstrate effective and successful applications for various NRD cases nationwide. The Guiding Principles provide a reusable standard for evaluating and restoring impacts to natural resources.

Great Ecology President, Dr. Mark Laska, a member of the NRDA Working Group, served as a contributing author to this report alongside an esteemed list of peers and environmental attorneys. Dr. Laska shared his expertise and Great Ecology’s successful NRD strategy for the Woodbridge Waterfront Redevelopment project. The case study highlights the value of the Best Practice’s Guiding Principal #2, Focus the assessment process on the earliest possible evaluation of restoration options.

Read the full article.

Contact Dr. Mark Laska to learn more about his NRD expertise or to discuss potential restoration strategies for your degraded sites.




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Carpe Diem – Seize the Carp

By Rick Black

Utah Lake is an 11,000 year old natural lake remnant of Lake Bonneville that has been modified by man into an operational water supply reservoir – the result of a dam built in 1872 at its natural outlet to the Jordan River in north Utah County. (USFWS, 2010). Historically and today, Utah Lake is the main source of water for the local population. However, today’s Utah Lake barely resembles the healthy ecosystem of the past – overrun by an introduced species, the Common carp. Utah Lake was essential for community and cultural development during the settlement of northern Utah. A thriving unaltered ecosystem supported millions of fish, a multitude of species of birds and animals thrived, as well as the surrounding habitats. (Carter, 2002).

Utah Lake satellite photo reveals the extent of water quality issues.  Photo courtesy of Wikepedia Commons

Satellite photo of Utah Lake reveals water quality concerns. Photo courtesy of Wikepedia Commons

The once pristine and calm lake began to change dramatically with the introduction of the Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) in the 1880s. The U.S. government introduced the carp as a replacement species due to the decline in native species from overfishing. The idea was to replace dwindling numbers of Bonneville cutthroat trout and provide locals with hardy fish that were popular in other areas of the world (Carter, 2002). However, the introduction of carp resulted in a loss of aquatic vegetation from foraging and increased sediment mobilization into the shallow water column. Before the carp were introduced, vegetation prevented lake bed sediments from stirring and plants (from single-celled to large plants) could photosynthesize in the clear water. With the introduction of the carp, nutrients previously sequestered in the sediment were more easily mobilized, creating hyper-nutritious conditions which favor the algal population. Higher algae concentrations increase the possibility for undesirable algal blooms and low oxygen conditions that could contribute to fish kills.

Photo Courtesy of ReelfishingUK

Carp swimming through dead vegetation and turbid water.
Photo Courtesy of ReelfishingUK.

Such conditions were detrimental to the native fish species and further favored the carp population. The water became more turbid from ‘rooting’ of the carp through the bottom sediments and this reduced photosynthesis, plants died and habitats for small fish and insects were lost, the lake transformed from a clear water state rich in biodiversity to one of turbid green dominated by carp. Furthermore, the impacts to the water quality and aquatic ecology were exacerbated by the use of the lake as a receiving body from agricultural, industrial, and municipal activities. From the 1890s to 1950s, raw sewage was also dumped into Utah Lake. Utah Lake became nearly abandoned by locals for recreation as the aesthetics and the water quality decreased.

Tractors remove millions of pounds of carp from beneath thick winter ice

Tractors remove millions of pounds of carp from beneath thick winter ice.
Photo courtesy of Deseret News.

In an effort to restore the lake, in about 2011 the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah Lake Commission began removal of carp (over 13 million pounds to date). In 2013 they conducted an analysis of the removal of Common carp from Utah Lake.  Continued carp removal (need to remove 18 million additional pounds over three years) would require an investment of just over $5 million over the next 20 years (including maintenance costs).  (Ecosystem Valuation of continued carp Removal of Utah Lake” Utah DNR, Utah Lake Commission, March 2013) However, when compared to the value of the increased ecosystem services of carp removal, the results were staggering. Recreational fishing estimated benefits are expected to exceed $90 million discounted over twenty-years from services such as fishing, non-fishing recreation, property values and taxes. These estimated values only consider water quality improvements from carp removal and do not include other benefits that are part of the larger management plan for Utah Lake such as shoreline restoration and improvements to recreational trails, beaches, and other amenities. Also not included in the valuation analysis were: value of restoring T&E habitat for the endangered fish, the June Sucker, water quality improvements in the receiving bodies of the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake and other ecosystem services that would be restored.

Millions more carp will need to be removed to restore Utah Lake to its former pristine environment. Photo courtesy of https://c1.staticflickr.com/7/6051/5881590283_45a1c23893_z.jpg

Millions more carp will need to be removed to restore Utah Lake to its former pristine environment.
Photo courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prarie.

Additional benefits from restoration of these services and local native shoreline vegetation restoration are likely to add significantly more benefits than what were estimated by simply removing 75% of the biomass of one bottom-feeding species, in a shallow fresh water lake. “If we get funding to finish this project, in the next three years we should see a different Utah lake out here,” said Chris Keleher, Deputy Director of Recovery Programs for the Department of Natural Resources. “This is by far and away the biggest project of this type that has ever occurred in the world — and if we’re successful then it’ll be something to be really proud of,” Keleher said.

Introduced species are a problem globally, they can significantly alter the once-pristine system into which they were introduced. They can have great impacts to the local populations who rely on the services derived from the healthy ecosystem. In Utah Lake, the removal has been successful for years, and the funding needed to complete the removal and manage the system is negligible in comparison to the values of the services restored. Utah Lake is a successful example of using the economics of an action to encourage moving forward with solutions.

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