Zaagkii Project to restore Native plants along Lake Superior
By Greg Peterson, Today correspondent
BARAGA, Mich. - Concerned by the deaths of billions of bees, adult and teens at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community are creating habitat for butterflies and other pollinators to thrive while repairing a tribal beach ravaged by mining pollution.
In the spring of 2009, the Zaagkii Wings and Seeds Project will restore thousands of native plants to Sand Point, a tribally owned beach along the western shore of Lake Superior;s Keweenaw Bay.
Restoring native plants to Sand Point is the latest chapter in an ongoing effort by the KBIC tribe to restore and beautify the area that was scarred and left barren by industrial copper mining. With help from Zaagkii Project teens, thousands of native seeds were potted this summer at the Hiawatha National Forest greenhouse in Marquette, Mich. Those future seedlings will be planted on Sand Point.
Sand Point was the first tribal Brownfield cleanup site in the Midwest. Brownfield sites are abandoned polluted industrial sites. Over the past 17 years, many sites have been cleaned up or undergone some form of mitigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Forest Service and other federal, state and local agencies.
First some background and history of the region. Northern Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula stretches about 70 miles northeast into Lake Superior. The peninsula and an adjoining area of the Western Upper Peninsula is called ''the Copper Country'' because of the copper mining boom of the 1800s and early 1900s.
Early American Indians mined copper from small pits as early as 3000 B.C. and a French explorer first wrote about the vast copper deposits in 1667, according to several internet Web sites. When Europeans arrived the area was occupied by the Chippewa, who did not mine copper but cherished nuggets they found on the ground and in streams. The pure, malleable copper needed only to be pounded into spearheads and other copper implements, the reports state.
Later mining techniques were not so environmentally friendly, using chemicals and other means to refine the copper by taking advantage of any natural water source like rivers, lakes and streams. Nearby Torch Lake is one of the most polluted and famous federal projects involving mitigation and cleanup of copper processing wastes.
And while there was a time when copper was king 80 - 90 years ago, today Natives are cleaning up some of what was left in the wake of mining by European settlers - and one of those sites is Sand Point.
About 2.5 miles of tribal property was polluted by copper mining processing waste - called stamp sands - by an early 20th century copper producer (the Mass Mill) located about 4 miles north of Sand Point. The Mass Mill sent billions of pounds of stamp sand waste into Keweenaw Bay and currents carried these stamp sands southward to Sand Point.
''We have some money to re-establish native vegetation,'' said Todd Warner, KBIC Natural Resource Department director.
''Sand Point was a Brownfield cleanup site and part of the restoration is to re-establish native vegetation and create wildlife habitat,'' he said. ''The tribe is working in cooperation with Rev. Jon Magnuson, the Zaagkii Project, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help make this process a success.''
Founded by the nonprofit Cedar Tree Institute in Marquette, Mich., the Zaagkii Project involves KIBC youth and other teens planting 26,000 native plants and building dozens of butterfly houses over the next 3 years.
The tribe put a 6 - 10 inch thick soil cap over 35 acres to cover the stamp sands, thus decreasing contamination of Keweenaw Bay by reducing stamp sand erosion and increasing biodiversity and vegetation. Pollinators include bees, butterflies and moths.
''We'd like to see the native plants re-established down there to keep the diversity going and also these are plants that the wildlife are using for here,'' said Evelyn Ravindran, KBIC NRD natural resources specialist. ''Without native plants, we will be losing the wildlife - not only the plants will be affected but [pollinators] will be affected and we will be affected too.''
Using a combination of EPA Brownfields grants, Great Lakes Commission funding, USDA assistance, and tribal funds, the KBIC completed the restoration project - including creating a shoreline walking trail - that's been heralded by many as a prime example of tribal cooperation with federal and local agencies. Other plans for Sand Point include restoring the historic lighthouse, fishing ponds, and camping, boating and picnic areas.
''We capped the stamp sands down there along the walking trails and now we are trying to put the native plants back,'' Ravindran said.
The KBIC pollinator project was created because ''there's been a concern over the past couple of years about the decrease in numbers of the pollinators,'' she said.
No matter where you live, native plants are vital to the lifecycle of pollinators.
For example, there are many species of milkweed but only swamp milkweed is used by monarchs to lay eggs and for larva nutrition. Meanwhile, the tiny blueish white West Virginia White butterfly needs native mustard seed plants to lay eggs and for larva food. However, the butterflies are fooled by lethal non-native Garlic Mustard Seed Plants.
''Unfortunately, these little tiny butterflies lay their eggs on non-native Garlic Mustard, which is in the same family of plants, and the larvae eat that - the larvae die, end of story,'' said Jan Schultz, botany and non-native species program leader for the USFS eastern region in Milwaukee, Wis. ''That's why the native plants are important.''
Americans should consider using native plants in their gardens because ''some of the plants that people landscape with don't have any nectar or pollen in them like some of the cultivars and hybrids - it's kind of a dirty trick,'' Schultz said.
''Bumblebees and others spend a considerable amount of time trying to extract nectar and pollen - and they use up a lot of energy and there is no pollen or nectar in them,'' said an exasperated Shultz, lightly slapping her hands on a picnic table along Lake Superior during an interview with Indian Country Today.
An author and tireless monarch advocate ''personally experienced the devastating loss'' of butterfly habitat shortly after taking photographs ''in a field near the school where I teach.''
''On a sunny, peaceful, Sunday morning, I went out to take more pictures'' and found that bulldozers had leveled the field to build a condominium, said Lynn M. Rosenblatt, adding it's the 10th anniversary of her widely acclaimed book ''Monarch Magic! Butterfly Activities & Nature Discoveries.''
KBIC environment officials said the Sand Point project will inspire others to protect native plants and pollinators.
''It's out in the public view so it would bring awareness to people all around of the trouble that the pollinators are in,'' Ravindran said. ''And what they can be doing to help - the kind of plants that maybe they can be bringing back to their own home gardens.''
The Zaagkii Project is the latest of many partners that are assisting the tribe in the restoration effort including the EPA, the Great Lakes Commission's Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Program, USDA's National Resource Conservation Service, and Upper Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development Council.
The tribe has a number of government departments working on the Sand Point restoration including Planning and Development, CEO Office, Parks and Recreation, the Grants Office, and the NRD.