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Volunteers pitch in to ‘float’ wetlands at Frances Slocum State Park
It may take a village to raise a child, but how many “villagers” does it take to raise an island? Or, more specifically, float an island—two islands, to be exact—in the waters of Frances Slocum Lake?

The answer came May 13 when about 50 members of a volunteer community ranging from elementary students to retirees pitched in for the betterment of lake waters. It was no walk in the park on this day when the calendar said spring, the weather said winter: temperatures in the low forties numbed helpers’ hands, and sleet and snow pelted their faces.

They hauled specially selected aquatic plants, topsoil, fencing and stakes. They planted, tamped, watered and fenced; pushed, tugged and sloshed. And four hours later they let go with a collective cheer as the first of two mini-land masses slid into the chilled waters of Frances Slocum Lake. Now, visitors who come to the state park in northeastern Luzerne County may notice a subtle change in lakeside topography -- two small islands sprouting virtually, and literally, overnight.

Measuring 15 by 12 feet, the artificial islands are designed as a best management practice (BMP) to reduce nutrients in the lake, where a long past history of past farming practices have affected bottom sediment. Already initiated at three other state parks, the islands are designed to mitigate nutrient and sediment runoff that impede natural vegetation growth and spur algal blooms.

“The Bureau of State Parks really appreciates the interest and commitment of all you volunteers,” Park Manager Fawn Kearns told her group of eager helpers at the outset of the planting and launching effort. “It should be a great educational experience for all involved.”

Dallas Elementary School “Team Green” members intend to incorporate the islands’ progress into their weekly, park-based lesson plans.
“Please don’t come just today to work hard and not return,’ said Kearns, who spearheaded the project as part of her bureau Resources Management Section duties. “I would ask that you come back to the park at a later date—when the islands are established—and see what you have accomplished.

Sharon Molyneux said she’ll be back. Of course, it seems she never really left.

A recently retired bureau employee who worked more than 20 years at Ricketts Glen State Park and, most recently, Frances Slocum, Molyneaux said she volunteered because Frances Slocum is very close to her heart. When she heard former park coworkers discussing island plans, she marked May 13 on the calendar; when she heard the weather forecast early that day she broke out the winter hat, gloves, fleece jacket and vest.

“I truly love this park and its lake, and the lake has to be protected,” said Molyneaux, taking a break from plugging aquatic plants into soil-filled, pre-drilled holes. “When I first heard of this project the first folks I thought of were the fishermen. I know the islands will be popular with fish—and fishermen.”

Funny thing: Kearns didn’t have to ask twice for Kristy Taylor’s class to come back, either. The fifth-graders comprising the teacher’s “Team Green” at Dallas Elementary School are regular visitors to Frances Slocum State Park. Wetlands studies, cleanups and recycling efforts often are based at the park as part of the environmental club’s weekly activities.

“We are here a lot but today’s activities were the best for hands-on learning and a feeling of accomplishment,” Taylor said. “The students were loving it!”

Nanticoke Conservation Club President Gary Gronkowski (kneeling at right) oversees the latest of his group’s improvement projects at Frances Slocum State Park.

Another valuable element of Kearns’ workforce was no stranger to Frances Slocum, either.

Think basking platforms that benefit turtles; underwater structure that benefits fish and other aquatic life, and you hear the Nanticoke Conservation Club mentioned often. Park improvement projects always have been what one of its 100 members said was “one way of paying the park back for all the enjoyment this little gem has given us.”

“This was a very good project, something in which we could learn something and also feel that we were helping make a difference,” said club President Gary Gronkowski, who took a day off from work to pitch in. “The islands effort was definitely a new venture for our club. No one had ever heard of it before.”

Both the conservation club members and Dallas Elementary students were singled out by Frances Slocum State Park Manager Rex Bradish for their recognition of “the importance of our lake as a vital natural resource.”

"The Nanticoke Conservation Club is a great example of an organization that not only utilizes the lake for recreational pursuits, but actively partners with us to enhance it,” Bradish said. “They have provided steadfast support over the years in efforts to add valuable fish and turtle habitat.

“Meanwhile, the environmental club students have been enthusiastic participants of the park’s environmental education programs. This fall, they will continue to monitor the islands for plant growth and wildlife use.  It will be an exciting opportunity for these young naturalists to follow up on this ‘real world’ science project.”

Floating islands already have been established at Raccoon Creek State Park, Beaver County; Shawnee in Bedford County; and Mt. Pisgah in Bradford County. In theory, once established the islands’ plantings send extensive root systems into the depths, drawing nutrients from lake water. It is estimated one 250-square-foot, fully grown island is equivalent to one wetland acre in terms of nutrient uptake.

The wetland islands are a unique and innovative water-quality stewardship tool distributed by Floating Island Southeast in North Carolina.

A little sleet and snow did not deter Shavertown resident Sharon Molyneux from her volunteer planting duties.
BioHaven islands, comprised of a recycled plastic matrix, float on top of the water. Planted with native wetland plants, including iris, sedges, rushes, pickerelweed, and arrow arum, they provide habitat for birds and animals. Meanwhile, under the surface, a dynamic process takes place: as the plants grow, their roots extend through the matrix and into the water. They, and the microbes that develop around them, effectively remove nutrients from the water.

“By the end of the summer, it is our hope that the plants placed on the floating artificial islands would grow, mature and spread across the island,” said Matt Azeles, chief of the bureau’s Resources Management Section.

“To the visitor, what should be seen by summer’s end would appear to be a vegetated, natural, small island in the lake, complete with wildlife using it as habitat,” Azeles said.

Because this is a new initiative for state parks, the bureau is evaluating effectiveness and fine-tuning aspects of planting and employment.

“It is a study in progress, so to speak, with fine-tuning and adjustments made as we proceed,” Azeles said. “We keep learning as we do more of these islands.”

Already learned: they serve as a Canada goose magnet. Fencing now is incorporated into the planting scheme to deter hungry honkers.

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June 12, 2013

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