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Environmental Managers Restore Ancient Ecosystems
NASA Glenn's Plum Brook Station is the home of space simulation chambers that test roaring engines and put payloads through bone crushing pressure tests. But while the noisy work of advancing space technology goes forward, attention is also being paid to the quiet tones of the natural world on the 6,400-acre campus.

The test facilities at Plum Brook, nestled in the Lake Erie shore community of Sandusky, Ohio, are surrounded by diverse ecosystems such as ancient prairies, oak savannahs, wetlands, open meadows, flowing streams and wild oak forests. And while some of the landscape looks the same as 200 years ago, there are several areas that need some help. Today they are being restored and managed thanks to an environmental management plan adopted by NASA.

The Michigan Lily wildflower growing at  NASA Glenn's Plum Brook Station.The Michigan Lily is a rare wildflower growing in the meadows of NASA Glenn's Plum Brook Station. It is being restored to healthier numbers because of prescribed field burning methods. Image credit: NASA "The character of Plum Brook's natural areas are unique," says Bob Lallier, environmental manager. "After a survey found that several areas of the facility had threatened plant and animal species, NASA Glenn made a commitment to restore and maintain the ecosystems. This is good land stewardship that ultimately results in savings through reduced landscape maintenance costs."

The most significant challenge today is the proliferation of invasive, non-native plants. Brought in decades ago as either ornamental garden plants or to resist erosion, non-native plants spread at will, killing off native and rare wildflowers such as the Michigan Lily, rare Blazingstars and Rough Rattlesnake Root.

"Invasive species are a modern phenomenon," says Rosemary Walker, environmental scientist. "It's getting worse everywhere and while there are natural ways that seeds spread from birds for example, the speed at which the modern world spreads invasive species through transportation and mowing along highways plus people planting non-native plants in their yards, is creating a staggering crisis."

And it has a domino effect. For example, Ohio has been severely impacted by emerald ash borer, an invasive bug, which has killed off large tracts of ash forests in the state. When those forests die, it opens up space for invasive plants to proliferate such as Japanese barberry. Walker says it's that cascade of events that can degrade ecosystems.

Prenanthes aspera, also known as Rough Rattlesnake RootPrenanthes aspera, also known as Rough Rattlesnake Root, is on the Ohio endangered plant list. It grows in the open prairies of Plum Brook. Image credit: NASA One of the more troublesome invaders is garlic mustard, a plant spreading freely in Plum Brook's oak forests and wetlands. "This plant spreads in the understory of the forest choking off native wildflowers and changing an ecosystem that species such as frogs and salamanders depend on," says Walker. "We are using two techniques to eradicate garlic mustard- frequent hand pulling and controlled burns approximately every five years."

According to Walker, Native Americans, who populated this area centuries ago, used controlled burns to keep forests and landscapes open for easy travel, food gathering and hunting. Today, with permits from the U.S. Department of Forestry and the Environmental Protection Agency, managers at Plum Brook conduct burns in select areas to control invasive plants and weeds and allow the sun to penetrate the soil to germinate native species.

In addition to engaging the Plum Brook grounds crew, Lallier and Walker also involve the community in restoration efforts. Recently, 75 students from a local high school career center collected the seeds of native Indiangrass and Prairie Coneflower. The seeds are being dried and stored and will be spread on prairie areas in the spring after a controlled burn.

In some of the open meadows and prairies, Black Locust, a shrub native to the southern United States, is creating dense thickets of thorny shrubs, which choke native plants preferred by rare birds for nesting grounds. Mechanical brush removal takes care of this invader, but it must be done regularly.

oak savanna at Plum Brook - a mixture of grassland and oak forestThis oak savanna at Plum Brook is a mixture of grassland and oak forest and is typically inhabited by more plant and animal species than grasslands and other forests. Image credit: NASA Meanwhile phragmites, an Asian ornamental grass, is threatening to take over meadows and ditches that drain and filter water from the land to the local watershed. Spread by mowing equipment over the years, the grass blocks natural drainage to the waters of Pipe Creek. Walker is working with grounds crews to take aggressive action in ridding the station of this invader.

Plum Brook is also home to several species of state-protected animals such as bald eagles, Blandings turtles, bats, rare snakes and migrating birds. Just this year, two eaglets were born in a nesting ground used by eagles for several years. Employees also see coyotes, wild turkey, pheasants, hawks, fox and owls. However, deer have grown to such large numbers that they are destroying plants and crowding out other animals. Each year, licensed hunters are allowed to thin the deer population. Otherwise, the deer will starve from lack of resources because of their large numbers.

All of these efforts are carefully recorded, analyzed and maintained according to the standards of various federal and state organizations. "It's part of our responsibility as a federal agency to fulfill our requirements under the Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife," says Lallier. "Anytime we do construction or demolition at Plum Brook, we need to know if we are going to affect any animals, wetlands and other ecosystems."

The goals of the environmental management plan at NASA Glenn are to have sustained, self-renewing native plant and animal populations and minimized environmental threats. Because of NASA's commitment to environmental stewardship, thousands of acres have been restored to healthy prairies, meadows and high quality hardwood/oak forests.

Nancy Smith Kilkenny, SGT Inc.
NASA's Glenn Research Center