A Proposal for Ecological Restoration, Improved Water Quality, and Community Engagement in the Spring Creek Watershed
In our initial proposal we presented a plan for Google to consider as it invests in conservation initiatives associated with its newest data center in Clarksville, Montgomery Co., Tennessee. We noted how the loss of the historical prairies that once existed in the region are tied to such issues as water quality degradation and wildlife loss. We laid out a vision for a community-based approach that incorporates ecosystem services (water quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and pollinator health), community health, education and outreach, and cultural history, all of which can be accomplished under the umbrella of ecosystem restoration. If we work together to heal our broken ecosystem, then we achieve so much more than just planting a few plants or restoring a creekbank. We can use it as a teaching moment, to heal our community, to change lives, to grow, to educate, and to bring back a forgotten part of our heritage. We broke that proposal down into several major elements. Here, we continue to focus in to offer a more digestible plan for Google to consider.
IF ONLY GOOGLE COULD INVENT TIME TRAVEL
“It would be difficult to imagine anything more beautiful. Far as the eye could reach, they seemed one vast deep-green meadow, adorned with countless numbers of bright flowers springing up in all directions ... only a few clumps of trees and now and then a solitary post oak were to be seen...Here I first saw the prairie bird, or barren-hen…. Here the wild strawberries grew in such profusion as to stain the horses hoofs a deep red color.” (Reuben Ross ca. 1812)
The eloquent quote above by Reuben Ross is not from the Great Plains of Kansas, rather it is from the area where Google’s newest data center in Clarksville, Tennessee, now stands. Contrary to popular belief, the eastern U.S. was not covered in a continuous forest at the time of European settlement. In reality there were tens of millions of acres of natural grasslands across the Southern landscape. The giant prairie that once covered the area around the Google property, known historically as the Big Barrens, once covered 3.7 million-acres of Tennessee and Kentucky. In fact, Reuben’s home once stood at Google’s western boundary above Spring Creek. His grave is still evident today, surrounded by new housing developments.
During his lifetime, Reuben saw more ecological change than our current generations can fathom. The boundless meadows full of bright flowers that he so eloquently described in 1812 as a man of his mid-thirties were still lush and verdant as they had been for thousands of years. But by his early sixties, in the span of just 25 years, the prairie died due to an earth-changing invention—John Deere’s steel plow. And when 12,000 Cherokee marched to Oklahoma against their will during the Trail of Tears, just two miles from Google’s northeast corner, they would have seen through sorrowful eyes the lands their elders and ancestors once hunted 50 years earlier being plowed under for the first time. Their march signified not only the death of their way of life but it sounded the death knell of the prairie. With their passage nothing would ever be the same. Undoubtedly, as the Cherokee trudged onward, curious children of recently transplanted settlers would have gawked in bewilderment. By the time these children reached their elderly years, around the turn of the 20th century, some 40 years after Reuben’s death, the prairies would have been only a distant memory.
If Reuben were to come back to life and stand at the front entrance of the data center gazing upon the valley of Spring Creek, he would scarcely recognize the view before him. The prairie grasses and flowers have been replaced with monotonous fields of corn and soybeans; the once vibrant prairie extinguished long ago. Roads and parking lots have replaced the former network of game trails. Powerlines and buildings mar the view of the incredible prairie sunset. The constant hum of vehicles on Interstate 24 and the discordant sounds of progress from the nearby industrial park have long since replaced the pounding and splashing hooves of buffalo crossing Spring Creek, the booming calls of prairie chickens dancing at dawn, and the soft footsteps of hunters from more than a half dozen Native American tribes stalking game through the endless tall grass, as their ancestors had done for 13,000 years before them.
The effort to tame “the Barrens,” as Reuben and other early settlers called them, has come at a great cost to the environment. The prairie wetlands that once filled the valley of Spring Creek, referred to in 1787 land surveys as “The Meadows,” have largely been eliminated by draining, conversion to cropland, or succession to forest. The desire to increase acreage of tillable land has led to the gradual removal of natural vegetation along streams, resulting in bank erosion, stream siltation, and deterioration of aquatic habitat. Without the prairie, canebrakes, and riparian woodlands to act as a buffer, the fertilizers and herbicides used to maintain cropland in the 20th and 21st centuries, washed freely into the creek and nearby springs. Even far away from the creek, pollutants are still able to enter the water system via hundreds of sinkholes, which provide a direct conduit to underground aquifers that feed Spring Creek. The extensive agricultural production and development in the watershed also have led to topsoil erosion. With each heavy rain, Spring Creek turns brown as it carries away precious topsoil. These sediments eventually settle, smothering the rocky stream bottom, obliterating populations of sensitive stream species such as small fish, aquatic snails and mussels, stream salamanders, and aquatic insects. Eventually, the burdened waters make their way downstream to the West Fork, Red River, the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Mississippi, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Each year, like so many other imperiled streams in America’s heartland, the waters of Spring Creek contribute their fair share of fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants to the Gulf Coast Dead Zone, a lifeless area of ocean off the coast of Louisiana, now the size of New Jersey, that causes $80 million in economic losses annually.
Such pollution has rendered the groundwater-fed Spring Creek unsafe. The nearby town of Guthrie, Kentucky, once relied upon the stream for its drinking water. Today Spring Creek, like nearly all streams in the region, is polluted and is listed by the State of Tennessee as an imperiled waterway. Some local streams are not safe for basic recreation, such as swimming and fishing, due to high levels of E. coli and pesticides. It is sad that the waters that once heard the laughter of splashing children and baptized thousands of early settlers, now often run brown with silt and carry the invisible pollutants washed from surrounding agricultural and industrial land.
It is our goal to keep the waters of Spring Creek and so many others in the southeastern U.S. flowing forever and to keep them clean for generations to come. It starts by investing in restoration, followed by a long-term commitment to improving whole watersheds. Restoration, if planned properly, can be done in a way that meets the needs of local biodiversity, is aesthetically pleasing, saves money, sequesters carbon, and offers opportunities for education and training. The prevailing paradigm in wetland and stream restoration has been to plant trees and restore forests and forested wetlands. However, in many regions, the historical vegetation was grassland and to restore to forest or forested wetlands would be inappropriate and further contribute to the loss of rare grassland-dependent biodiversity.
THE SOUTHEASTERN GRASSLANDS INITIATIVE: CHARTING A NEW COURSE FOR CONSERVATION
The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (www.segrasslands.org) (SGI) is a new conservation organization based out of Austin Peay State University’s Center of Excellence for Field Biology in Clarksville, Tennessee. SGI launched officially in January 2018. For more information, see our website www.segrasslands.org and watch our mini-documentary video: https://www.segrasslands.org/sgi-video/. SGI grew out of a need to address the greatest threat to eastern North American biodiversity, the loss of southeastern U.S. grasslands.
Why are grasslands of the Southeast a big deal?
We have garnered the support of dozens of state and federal agencies and NGOs as we launch efforts to work across a 23 state region of the eastern U.S. In 2017, we gained the support of the BAND Foundation (Washington D.C.) who issued SGI a $250,000 challenge grant in August 2017. In December 2017, we met that challenge by receiving part of a $4.5 million grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), based out of Austin Peay State University’s Center of Excellence for Field Biology (Clarksville, Tennessee), seeks the partnership of Google and asks for funding to help restore grasslands in select regions across the southeastern U.S. Our strategy tackles local, regional, and national-scale issues of water quality while also helping to address the greatest conservation threat facing the biodiversity of eastern North America—the loss of grassland habitat.
The plan presented here is still part of the larger vision but, if funded, will allow for immediate on-the-ground action and community involvement. Citizens from the Clarksville-area community, including Google employees (via Corporate Sustainability Responsibility programs), can participate in all phases of the project, from initial data collection and planning to implementation. The end result of this small-scale project will be to create a natural area where Google employees and area/or citizens (e.g. children from nearby Oakland Elementary School) can enjoy nature study, relaxation, and recreation.
- Baseline Biological / Ecological Inventory of Spring Creek Watershed & Report
- Improve Water Quality by Restoring Part of the Spring Creek Riparian Zone
- Management & Volunteer Outreach Component
- This project will serve as a model for larger-scale community-based prairie/ecological restoration in the region
Study Area Overview
- Map of Pennyroyal Grasslands with Google pin-pointed
- Map showing in relation to Fort Campbell / Dunbar Cave /Ed White/The Swamps
- Map showing the close up Google property
- photo slide show of Google property landscape photos
I. Baseline Biological/Ecological Inventory of the Spring Creek Watershed
The first phase of this project would include a preliminary study of the Google property and surrounding areas of the Spring Creek watershed. This effort would be led by SGI's recently hired Regional Coordinator (funded for 5 years by BAND Foundation and grant from USDA NRCS) working in conjunction with volunteers, citizen scientists, master naturalists, local school children, and community groups. Teams would be assembled to:
- inventory and map the natural features of the Google property (e.g. sinkholes, wetlands, riparian corridors, populations of rare species, and other significant natural features)
- collect and summarize baseline water quality data to measure improvements in aquatic ecosystem health resulting from riparian grassland/wetland/woodland restoration
- collect data pertaining to biodiversity in the larger Spring Creek watershed (e.g. species and natural communities present, land use metrics, etc.)
- iNaturalist/citizen science
II. Restoration of Floodplain Prairie, Wetlands, and Riparian Woodlands
We will begin a 45 acre restoration of floodplain prairie, wetlands, and riparian woodlands on the Google property, along the north bank of Spring Creek (Fig. 1) immediately adjacent to Google's main entrance and along the west side of Solar Way. This will entail preparing the site and planting a locally sourced seed mix of species found historically in floodplain grasslands, wetlands, and open riparian woodlands in the region. Following planting, competing weeds will be controlled by periodic mowing and targeted removal of non-native invasive species. Existing riparian vegetation will be managed by selective removal of invasive species using volunteers coordinated by SGI regional coordinator.
This area of the Google property was selected for both its location and for the ecological benefits that a restoration will provide. It is situated near an existing public access point (the end of Current Rd.) and is in close proximity to the new Oakland Elementary School and surrounding rapidly growing neighborhoods. The location of the site near this population center provides excellent public outreach opportunities and volunteer recruitment. In addition, a future greenway trail a long Spring Creek would offer public health benefits in the way of hiking, biking, jogging, and just spending time outdoors and close to nature. Increasing native riparian vegetation in the area will improve water quality in Spring Creek while enhancing wildlife habitat.
III. Management/Volunteer Program
We will work with Fort Campbell Army Base to continue to collect seed from nearby prairie remnants in the region. Collected seeds will be used to be “overseeded” into the initial planting over time. Overseeding is a proven method used to increase overall species diversity and include rare species that are not available commercially. Volunteer teams can begin to collect seeds from these remnants as they ripen, to be cleaned and banked for seeding in the future. Seeds will be cleaned and stored in the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative’s headquarters on APSU’s Campus .
IV. Developing a Model for Implementation of Larger Vision
The coordinator would conduct a feasibility study and multi-year plan to assess how:
- Google can restore more of its property over 3, 5, and 10 years to improve ecosystem services, preserve and interpret cultural history, enhance education, outreach, and community health (see larger visionary proposal).
- Google can work with local farmers and other landowners, corporations, and municipalities to lead the way in restoring the larger Spring Creek Watershed and beyond.
- larger regional partnerships
MAINTAINING INTO THE FUTURE
LEVERAGING ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
A grant from Google will leverage additional funding from our partners with the BAND Foundation (Washington, D.C.) who recently awarded us a $250,000 challenge grant but who also have expressed interest in supporting SGI with a multi-year commitment. Additionally, we currently have a pending grant with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for $4.5 million. If funded it will allow us to use federal incentives to bolster conservation efforts on the ground in the Spring Creek watershed. We ask Google to join SGI and our partners with the BAND Foundation to leverage their investment to achieve meaningful on-the-ground conservation and community involvement.
PCA Coordinator funded by APSU and a grant TDOT
BAND core support, increased staff, challenge grant
Dunbar Cave Site and TDOT prairies
Additional partners and collaborators
All three facets of this program--ecosystem restoration, the Conservation Center, and public recreation access—will provide the basis for an integrated Education and Community Outreach program that focuses on:
•experiential learning through a site-based environmental education program;
•a competitive internship program, to build the next generation of ecosystem restoration experts and entrepreneurs;
•a volunteer and public outreach program designed to get the community outside, experiencing nature, and involved in and supporting the project;
•access to a beautiful native prairie and its attendant wildlife, which a growing body of research is showing will provide numerous direct and indirect health benefits;
•a landowner outreach program designed to provide technical assistance and incentives that encourage sustainable farming and livestock practices in the greater watershed and region