Negative Impacts of Construction Projects on Arboretum–Deja Vu All Over Again

A new fiber optic cable to give the Arboretum  faster and more reliable internet service was laid through the Curtis Prairie starting over the Holidays. You may have seen the large spool of orange cable and the trucks, trailers, and trenching machines near the Visitor Center and wondered what was going on.  Well, that was the project.

Why be concerned about this?  Let me explain.  But first, some background.

Restorations (yes, the Arboretum is a restoration project despite a public perception that it is just another park) are influenced by the sociocultural setting in which they are conducted.  People are a major disturbance agent within, and outside of,  restorations.  Thus, a restoration is just as likely to be affected by activities occurring in the community and landscape beyond its administrative boundary–that is cross-boundary influences–as by on site user impacts, such as the actions of tourists, local visitors, contractors, utility agencies, and restoration operations.  For more on unintended negative impacts of construction projects on the Arboretum see post from September 11, 2011.

So, what’s the bid deal about digging a cable trench in Curtis Prairie?  The project proponents apparently did not see any problem.  They argue that the disruption will be minor, or that the site is already disturbed, or that there are already other kinds of underground structures that are not visible and apparently not causing a problem.  And, the project proponents go on, the contractor will be “careful” (perhaps only when an Arboretum staff member is looking?), and that they will “restore” the site (whatever that means) when the work is finished.  And, at any rate, improved internet service is a good thing and will outweigh any negative impacts, they might argue.

Well, here are just a few reasons why the project, as implemented,  will likely have unintended negative impacts on the Arboretum:

First off, the cable path could have followed Arboretum Drive and the trench dug in the grass turf, totally avoiding Curtis Prairie.  Curtis Prairie at just over 77 years of age is the world’s first restored prairie.  Think about that a minute!

Secondly, the presence of machinery in Curtis Prairie may send the message to visitors (and staff) that the prairie is neither restored, conserved, or protected, let alone valued.

Thirdly, excavation projects and their vehicles are notorious for introducing seeds of weed species when they bring in soil from off-site.  This impact has been documented in many places in the Arboretum.

And fourthly, weed invasions are the Arboretum’s worst management headache.  Most of the Arboretum’s management time and money is spent on weed control.  All year long, staff, students, and volunteers, spend time on fighting weeds; in addition, researchers spend time measuring the effectiveness of these efforts and searching for new and improved weed control methods.

Among unknown, but possible, impacts of the newly-laid cable are how groundwater flow is affected by buried structures; or how underground structures influence migration pathways of invertebrate species.

As we stressed in that post and in Arboretum Leaflet 23, experience has shown that if visitor impacts (and in this case the cable installers were visitors) are allowed to happen, ignored, not appreciated, or addressed early in the planning stages, restoration goals will be more difficult to do.  As Leaflet #23 makes clear, here are the reasons why:

Impacts happen quickly at either the first use or very low levels of use.

Impacts are cumulative, building up gradually to degrade the resource over time.

Restoration goals and objectives are compromised; managers may be unable to fulfill their responsibilities and resource protection mandates.

Impacts create other user problems, such as visitor dissatisfaction.

Overuse can make it difficult to meet the social and cultural goals the restoration is designed to support.  This may lead to reduced community participation  and financial support.

If you’ve ever wondered about the condition of the Arboretum, its project such as this one that have have contributed, incrementally, over the years to its gradual degradation.

Next time you are out to Curtis Prairie, take a look at the cable trench along the Curtis Prairie fire lane and follow the likely weed invasion over the next season.

Next time


About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Cross-boundary influences, Ecological restoration, Human impacts on restorations, invasive plants, Negotiated landscape and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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