Written by Darrell Randall
Have you ever looked at the sign at Peers Wetland and wondered how that long list of project partners got together to make this publicly accessible green space happen? There were many people and groups involved but here is how I remember it.
In May of 2001 I started to work for Ducks Unlimited Canada and a major repair of the Peers berm along Otter Creek was already underway. The concept was simple. Repair the berm to capture the flood stage water from the creek into the wetland Much of the berm was adequate for this purpose already so only the really bad sections needed work. Kent Stewardship and Ducks Unlimited Canada had undertaken the work and had the conservation agreement with Francis Peers.
About a year later Kent Stewardship held a bus tour of their numerous project sites. On the bus were board members, project landowners, funding representatives, politicians, project partners and other agency representatives. The first site we looked at was the Peers Wetland. While those on the bus looked around at the wetland property, Mark Emery the Kent Stewardship coordinator and I went to get Francis Peers who wanted to speak to the group.
His health was failing but I have a clear memory of Francis standing in the field with his walker. He told those of us assembled there, that he hopes the property would become a place where people would be able to experience nature and learn about plant and animal habitat requirements. It did make an impression on me. Francis passed away a short while afterwards.
Water levels at that time were low and some years the creek did not rise enough to recharge the marsh. In addition, the “adequate” part of the existing berm deteriorated and failed to hold water. The fact is that the marsh was too shallow to hold enough water. Despite attempts to make other repairs it turned into a dense phragmites australis (phrag) monoculture.
Friends of the St Clair River was working to improve habitat on projects that are in the St Clair watershed. They resolved to take some action on the phrag at Peers. A licensed contractor was engaged to eradicate the stand of this invasive plant. All of it was sprayed in August of 2009 and any phrag that was still green in September was sprayed again. Then it was rolled flat. The recommendation was to also burn the site and eliminate a lot of the seed on site. No one wished to assume the liability for a prescribed burn, so this step was not taken.
It should be noted here that controlling phrag is an ongoing maintenance issue. In my opinion it should not be done without that commitment. The other option is to alter the shallow water conditions that allowed the phrag to become so dominant. But in the spring of 2010 the marsh did contain water that could be seen, and many birds could again use the wetland.
My belief is that the Friends group demonstrated that positive action in managing phrag can be achieved. Without that action, I doubt that many partners would have gotten involved with the acquisition of the property and the restoration of the marsh. The reforestation and tall grass prairie planting rounded out the habitat diversity.
Late in 2011 the landowner made it known that he was now able to sell the property and would prefer it to go as a conservation property. Make no mistake here, the land could have been drained and farmed or could have been a residential property, but the owner stood by the decision to see it go for conservation.
There was a great deal of discussion and negotiation with interested parties as to how to achieve what in my mind had been the expressed hope of Francis Peers. It became clear that the St Clair Region Conservation Authority (SCRCA) was best positioned to take ownership and provide routine maintenance. A significant effort to raise funds would be required to not only purchase the property but also to have funds for the capital improvements that were needed.
It was a pledge from Friends of St Clair River right at the beginning to contribute nearly 30% of the land cost that kicked off the campaign. But it was the Sydenham Field Naturalists (SFN) who really stepped up, championed the fundraising, and made it happen.
Once the land could be purchased SFN continued right on with the funding appeals to afford the work that had to be completed to establish it as a proper functioning wetland.
Staff at the SCRCA also pulled on many strings to get funds from Provincial, Federal, and municipal sources, as well as getting a donation from their own conservation foundation. Spending time getting any required permits is also a sizable commitment to the site. The project could not have come together without SCRCA’s active participation.
Ducks Unlimited Canada did the design specifications for the rebuilt berm and for the pumping system. At the time DUC was in the middle another large, high priority land acquisition and had no remaining budget to contribute. However, the engineering design was something none of the other partners had experience doing and the value of the DUC time donated to Peers Wetland was considerable.
The construction work started late in 2012 with some of the brushing and berm rebuilding occurring in the winter. The pump system was installed during late spring of 2013. Water levels could now be managed to ensure that it does not go dry and to limit phragmites establishment and create quality habitat.
The St Clair Region Conservation Authority held a well-attended dedication event on June 27, 2013. It was a great pleasure to see so many people celebrate this important project which took years to see through to completion. To me it is the best example of many partners collaborating to make a great thing happen.
The public use of the trail and critter-dipping dock, as well as the good condition of the marsh itself is what Francis Peers had in mind back in 2002.
The high water levels of the past few years have caused some problems for the trail around the marsh. There were several places where the low areas of the trail became flooded. Those flooded areas could not be mowed and this allowed woody plants and shrubs opportunity to establish on the trail and sides of the trail. It was quickly becoming impassable to people on foot. Also the spillway channel where surplus water could flow back to Otter Creek was washed out and needed repair. SFN and the SCRCA have collaborated to have the brushing done, the spillway replaced with a culvert to ensure drier hiking, and the low areas of the trail raised to an adequate grade that will no longer flood, even in times of high water levels.
SFN will continue to work with the SCRCA in a stewardship role, sharing some costs and organizing volunteer stewardship activities in which members and the public can participate. With the old snowmobile clubhouse gone now, plans are being considered for additional features to the wildlife viewing, the accessibility to make it even more availble and safe for all members of the public.
The repaired trail is a quite mucky in places right now but the spring of 2021 will see it in good shape for the public.