Wetlands study: SU professor, students present findings to George Mason

Professor Woodward Bousquet, left center, and ecologist Gary Fleming, right center, identify Abrams Creek Wetlands plants with Shenandoah University students, left to right, Daniel Cooper, Brandon Ridgeway, Joshua Walker and Samantha Kochman. Courtesy photo by Environmental Studies Program, Shenandoah University.

A Shenandoah University professor of environmental studies and biology and two of his former students will be presenting more than 300 plant specimens to George Mason University on Friday, culminating a three-year study of the Abrams Creek Wetlands in Winchester.

Woodward Bousquet has been studying the Abrams Creek Wetlands since 1998. His study on the diversity of plants in the wetlands was recently accepted for publication in the southern Appalachian botanical journal Castanea. He estimates that the study will be published in September or December.

Bousquet described the presentation of plant specimens as routine and the “last step in the process.” Environmental scientists are frequently required to preserve plant specimens so that scientists can analyze plants in a study years after its publication, he said.

“We’re simply boxing things up and taking them along,” he said.

The research itself, Bousquet said, has been far more interesting.

Shenandoah University environmental studies students Jessica Miller, left, and Ashley Landes, right, and ecologist Gary Fleming, center, are shown at work studying a portion of the Abrams Creek Wetlands in Frederick County. Courtesy photo by Environmental Studies Program, Shenandoah University.

The Abrams Creek Wetlands has an unusual amount of diversity, and an unusual number of plants rarely seen in Virginia for a wetlands resting on a bed of limestone.

“It’s got more rare state plants than any other wetlands in the entire state,” he said.

That, Bousquet said, is because of the variations in the land itself. Parts of the water are at a low depth; other parts are deeper. Parts of the wetlands sit in the shade; others are in the sun.

“Habitat diversity leads to biological diversity,” Bousquet said.

And Abrams Creek Wetlands has an unusual amount of habitat diversity.

“Having that diversity of sunny, shady and partly shady areas as well as (a variety in) topography — that is unusual,” Bousquet said.

In Bousquet’s recent research of plant life in Abrams Creek Wetlands, he found a total of 20 plants that are rarely seen in Virginia. The next highest total, among wetlands of its type, had 13 plants rarely seen in the state.

The Abrams Creek Wetlands also has a large number and variety of plants for a wetlands of its type.

But Bousquet warned that without preservation and conservation efforts, the diversity in the Abrams Creek Wetlands could change. In his research, Bousquet found some plants that are not native to the area. That, Bousquet said, is a sign that people have been planting non-native plants into the area and that those plants have been encroaching on and changing native wildlife.

Bousquet also found some trees, like the Sycamore tree, encroaching upon the wetlands. He said those trees are likely moving into the wetlands because there have not been fires in the area.

“The problem is that the Abrams Creek Wetlands used to burn every 20 to 40 years and that would knock back the Sycamore trees and the other trees that would grow in the wetlands,” Bousquet said. “But fires don’t burn in the Abrams Creek Wetlands the way they used to.”

Instead, local fire departments, wanting to stop fires from consuming shopping centers, have stopped fires from spreading. Highways and railroads have made it harder for fires to spread.

Those human factors have been changing the Abrams Creek Wetlands.

Without conservation and preservation efforts, Bousquet fears the wetlands could lose their unique quality.

“This isn’t life-threatening,” Bousquet said. “This is something that threatens our spirit, this is something that challenges us to try to minimize our impact on the world around us.”

But Bousquet is hopeful that Winchester and Frederick County, both of which house parts of the Abrams Creek Wetlands, will make efforts to preserve them. Winchester manages roughly one-third of the Abrams Creek Wetlands 60 acres.

Bousquet said that Winchester should cut the trees that are encroaching into the wetlands.