Restoring Hope One Acre at a Time: The Corkscrew Willow Story

A refreshing success story is emerging at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples. Audubon’s ongoing freshwater marsh and prairie wetlands restoration is producing regional benefits in Southwest Florida and changing the restoration conversation statewide.

Mounting wetland losses and a changing climate are being felt in communities across South Florida. Warmer water and more nitrogen and phosphorus in our fresh and coastal wetlands have made these places more hospitable for harmful algal blooms like blue-green algae in freshwater and red tide in coastal waters. In addition to cleaning nutrient pollution from water, wetlands also help absorb water in times of flood and recharge groundwater. With fewer wetlands to perform these functions and increasing water demands from South Florida communities, we are increasingly seeing human communities suffering from floods during severe weather events and catastrophic fires during time of drought.

Climate change will only amplify these impacts, but wetland restoration and better water policies can help reverse it. We need to make sure that we keep as many wetlands as possible, and that the ones that remain are functioning at their very best.

One threat to our remaining wetlands are forests of dense Carolina willow expanding across the Greater Everglades Ecosystem- swallowing diverse native marshes and wet prairies. Changes in water quantity and quality and a lack of adequate prescribed fire is creating the conditions ideal for the spread of this invasive native. This includes a 7,000-acre increase in willow extent in the Corkscrew watershed alone. Thirsty, deep-rooted willow suck more water from the aquifer in dry-season than the sawgrass and maidencane they replaced. Willows also shade the water beneath them, reducing the extent of helpful periphyton that cleanses carbon and nutrients from the water. The science is clear: If we can push back on the willow and restore these wetlands, we can get water cleaner before it reaches the coast, while also preserving much needed water (3-4 inches) in the entire watershed during the driest period.

At Audubon, we believe change must begin with us, and so in 2018, we embarked on an ambitious campaign: To restore 1,000 acres at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary by 2022 by removing invasive willow. In addition to Audubon’s leadership in finding solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change, Everglades restoration, and water policy, Audubon’s restoration efforts at this important sanctuary are already benefitting the region—and setting an important example of one tool for addressing the region’s red tide tragedy.

Significant support for restoration from the Rathmann Family Foundation was matched last year by Coca-Cola and SeaWorld as they increase their efforts to replenish water for the environment in America’s Everglades. Along with Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, the success of the effort has attracted attention from land managers across the state as Audubon continues to share this best practice wherever we can.

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