CORTLAND, Ohio – Can plastic help birds, bees, butterflies, and bass?
It can, if the plastic is part of a process called solarization, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ staff at Mosquito Creek Lake are using it to improve the entire regional watershed.
Solarization is an eco-friendly pest-control method that uses sun rays rather than chemicals to kill soil-born plant pathogens without harming the soil. The process works by placing a piece of plastic or other material on the ground. Sunlight then raises the temperature beneath the plastic, killing invasive plant roots while seeding the soil.
“Normally, you have two options: you could use herbicides that kill off all the vegetation but can cause health issues for animals and damage indigenous plants,” said Jamison Conley, a park ranger at Mosquito Creek Lake. “The other option is to plow the area, but that can actually strip nutrients from the soil and may not kill the harmful vegetation – plowing just relocates it.”
Solarization offers a third, more cost-effective and simpler alternative.
“We had the plastic for ground coverage and bricks to weigh it down,” said Conley. “It took us about an hour to cover the 350-foot stretch and we’ll pick the plastic back up in November.”
The staff started the project near the Lakeview recreation area in early August. The project’s goal is to prepare the soil and add new pollinator plots next spring.
Pollinator plots play a significant role in the corps’ environmental-stewardship mission. The populations of vital ecosystem contributors such as birds, bees and butterflies have declined in recent years.
Pollinators play an important role in everyday life. For instance, commercial honeybees are responsible for a third of the food we eat, and annually contribute $15 billion in agricultural value.
Since 2016, the corps has worked to develop plans enhancing pollinator habitats across more than 12 million acres of land and water. To date, pollinator plots have been built at three Pittsburgh District reservoirs: Tygart, Shenango River and Mosquito Creek lakes.
According to Mosquito Creek Lake Resource Manager Tim Hough, building pollinator plots has a butterfly effect for both ends of the food chain, from insects to recreators.
“We're creating a space where some of those insects can come here and say, ‘okay, cool, I'm a blue bottle fly. I can come here and hit these plants that I do not normally hit – great. I'm gonna go and maybe get eaten by a largemouth bass.’ Well, that sucks for the fly, but it helps the bass,” said Hough. “By doing our part to increase the biodiversity of the landscape, we're providing areas where the ecosystem has higher levels of resiliency. Pollinators help support ecosystems from the ground up.”
In addition to helping local plant and animal habitats thrive, solarization supports the whole watershed. Lakes can be subject to ‘nutrient loading’ where minerals found in fertilizers, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, make their way into the water cycle. These added minerals contribute to harmful vegetation that can grow in lakes, such as hydrilla.
Fortunately for the community, solarizing an area of land is not a difficult or complicated process.
“We're using solarization for pollinator plots, but people can be doing this for flowers, produce, anything like that in their own backyards,” said Conley. “You can use this technique for whatever your needs are. Even if you pull the plastic tarp up early or decide you're not going to use solarization at all, eventually your grass will grow back. You haven't lost anything.”
While Mosquito Creek Lake staff says they hope recreators and campers will see the difference in the lake and wildlife throughout the coming years, they say the most exciting aspect of solarization is an opportunity to teach the community about the technique and how small changes can impact large ecosystems.
“Even though this project helps us in our mission as environmental stewards, it’s also an education,” said Hough. “It's one of those ‘visible-invisibles,’ let’s call it. People can do these things for the ecosystem, the landscape, for our community which other folks may benefit from and not realize. By enriching the biodiversity at home, they can help enrich the biodiversity for the whole community.”