06 May 2009

Mitigation Project by Highway Department Creates Wetlands on Western Niobrara

A wetland mitigation project by the Nebraska Department of Roads is creating a few acres of wetlands on the floodplain terrace of the Niobrara River in western Cherry County, Nebraska.

About 7.5+ acres of wetlands are expected to develop adjacent to an oxbow of the river, according to information from the state agency. Mitigation was required - based on Section 404 regulations administered by the Army Corps of Engineers - for the placement of fill in ca. 2-3 acres of wetlands associated with an eastward shift in the alignment of Highway 61, when the bridge across the river was replaced for safety reasons as part of the Merriman South Bridge Project.

There were 11.02 acres purchased at the project site in 2006 for a total cost of $19,936, according to NDOR information. The overall cost of this project was about $5 million, for work on improving the highway.

Final grading of the mitigation site occurred in the fall of 2008, according to agency officials. The site hydrology was later confirmed, though any growth of the seeded plants is expected to be sparse this spring, according to agency officials. As the water table drops going into the summer and fall, vegetation is expected to be better established, they said in an email.

Mechanical removal of soil to create wetland conditions to different depths was done for the project, so a variety of shallow-water wetlands are projected to develop. Two types of classified wetlands are expected to be established:

PEMC, or palustrine emergent seasonally flooded
PEMA, or palustrine emergent temporarily flooded

A seed-planting plan, approved by the NDOR and ACE, includes a number of species for which seeds have been spread, appropriate for each type of wetland.

An initial evaluation of the mitigation wetlands will occur late this spring or early summer, and be done by staff of the Environmental Permits Unit of the NDOR. The Army Corps of Engineers, which issued a permit to allow the placement of fill in wetlands to the east of the former right-of-way, requiring the mitigation for the filling of wetlands, also added the stipulation for a five-year monitoring period to evaluate how the wetland becomes established.

Although most of the former Highway 61 roadway was left in place, a portion nearest the river was lowered to normal grade at the request of the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to comply with National River inventory requirements, in particular the view shed issue, Nebraska officials said.

Upon reaching the valley rim while traveling along the highway, there is a dramatic presentation of the local environs and it is a very scenic perspective of the Niobrara River and its valley environs, especially from the north approach.

The mitigation wetland site will remain under NDOR ownership, agency officials said.

This publicly-owned tract extends from the western side of the new highway right-of-way to the western edge of the mitigation area, and is prominently marked by a fence and boundary markers indicating the boundary, according to NDOR officials.

Adjacent private property is accessible only with specific permission from the landowner.

This is the only public land along the Niobrara River in the western portion of Cherry county. Because of the oxbow wetland, there are already a few interesting records of birds from the locale, when birders stopped on the highway shoulder and made some observations. Additional species' details are available for specific surveys made to the east and west of the highway in wetlands on the adjacent private property, done in different seasons during recent years, with the landowner's permission. With an expected increase in wetlands habitat, the site may attract more different bird species and perhaps be a more interesting place to look for birds in the valley.

For bird records' consistency, there is an obvious need for a suitable geographic name for the locale. It has been formerly identified as the Jim Gray Place when designating the site for bird records, in recognition of the pioneer ranch man, according to a former owner of the ranchland.

Even prior to this, there was a historic settler log cabin sold from the project site. Associated homestead structures are now gone - the cabin was sold and taken away - with the shift in the highway alignment.

With the change in land ownership as the project-site had to be sold to the NDOR with the resulting publicly owner mitigation wetlands, and as the adjacent ranch itself was sold by the owner to a member of the family, and other influential considerations, a new geographic place-name is appropriate. Jim Gray Place has been used most recently for the private land at the river crossing. Merriman South Bridge wetland mitigation site is the name parlance by the state department of roads.

Any particular names are not known in the prior historic record, though there were certainly some that have been lost in the dim history unknown.

There were Frenchmen along the Niobrara Valley in its earliest European history, who called the flowing waters the Quicourt River. It was the Running Water in the language of the local Indians.

It would be appropriate for the place to be known as the Running Water Wetlands, referring to the marsh and oxbows, generally visible from a vantage point adjacent to the highway. The name refers not only to the ceaseless flow of water down the river channel, but also to the subtle spring flows along the lower slope on the south side of the valley.

Adjacent parcels of property could be known as Niobrara River, Churn Ranch, especially to the west at the marsh south of the oxbow, and towards the Twisted Pine Ranch perched above, on the south bluff. And if needed, a further refinement in local geography would be to designate the east oxbows as Niobrara Oxbows, Churn Ranch. These place names suitably include the mitigation wetland area, the adjacent oxbow on private ranch land but also viewable from the highway, as well as the bit of oxbow on the east side of the road which is now part of the Shadbolt's Churn Ranch property.

This mitigation wetland is among the several mitigation sites owned by the Nebraska Department of Roads in the Nebraska Sandhills region, each developed during recent years:

Roads Pond - Lakeside; two miles east of Lakeside
Roads Ponds - Antioch; west of Lakeside
Roads Wetland - Bassett; four miles east of Bassett
Roads Wetland - Linscott; in northwest Custer county
Roads Wetland - O'Neill; eight miles south of O'Neill
Roads Wetland - Thedford; three miles east of Thedford

These tracts of publicly-owned property are open for public access, with obvious caveats that certainly need to be considered. There is no parking allowed on the highway shoulder, according to officials of the Nebraska Department of Roads, and any stopping should occur only off the highway right-of-way, in a safe location away from traffic and in a manner that does not impede travel along the roadway. Access by foot-traffic only is allowed. And do not litter, or even better, if you do make a visit, leave the place cleaner than when you arrived.

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