Local Columbia Group Works to Restore Hinkson Creek Wetlands

The Shepard to Rollins Restoration Coalition is steadily working to reinvigorate native ecosystems along the Hinkson Creek in central Columbia in response to invasive grasses that spread following trail construction, among other long-standing issues.

The group formed when the Shepard to Rollins trail construction began in November 2019, after an eight-day tree sit by It’s Our Wild Nature President Sutu Forte. Forte’s protest was an effort to prevent the development along the creek, part of a spiritual prerogative to ensure a wild remnant of untouched nature remains in Columbia.

The coalition has asked for volunteers to assist with weeding and mulching from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday mornings, and with watering freshly planted natives from 5:30 p.m. until dark. Those interested in helping the coalition during their “Back to the Wild” Saturday sessions are encouraged to bring or donate hoses to help water the new natives

A riparian corridor is the floodplain closest to a stream or body of water, and it has profound impacts on water quality and biodiversity. In Missouri, riparian corridors are typically woodlands with a grass and shrub understory. The roots of these plants help prevent erosion and runoff that would otherwise threaten species of plants and animals in streams and rivers. 

Nadia Navarrete-Tindall, a native plant and agroforestry expert at Lincoln University who worked with the restoration coalition in the fall of 2020, said that bush honeysuckles choked off native plants and led to worsening erosion along the Hinkson. Bush honeysuckles are some of the most aggressive invasive species, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, because they so quickly “shade out” natives. They quickly absorb nutrients required to sustain other plants and their fruit is less nutritious for birds.

“No matter what, there has been a lot of damage, and the Hinkson Creek is a very threatened body of water,” she explained. “It’s polluted, and it keeps having all this disturbance and development.”

When erosion occurs along the edges of creeks, it reduces water quality, alters flow and water temperature, increases nutrients (which aren’t always desired) and alters dissolved oxygen levels. Fluctuations in these factors can cause a shift in algae growth and reduce the biodiversity of the creek’s food web. Certain fish can only survive in a creek if the water’s rate of flow is within a specific range. 

Navarrete-Tindall said the coalition’s first step was to establish native grasses to trap more nutrients in the soil and restore part of a prairie in the corridor, which will eventually foster the growth of additional native shrubs and trees. 

Certain “nitrogen-fixing” plants like the partridge pea, Navarrete-Tindall explained, can be used to pull nitrogen from the air into depleted soil. The coalition plans to make use of these techniques in their restoration of the soil. “Some of the plants have a natural relationship with fungi in their roots and they can work to enrich the soil as well. The more organic material you get in the soil, the better it gets,” she said.

So far, the coalition has worked with the parks department to plant elderberries, Drummond’s aster, slender mountain mint, purple coneflower and swamp milkweed, among other plants.

The coalition also built a fence with fallen tree limbs and scavenged-sticks that will eventually bloom with the berries of American bittersweet vines. 

Despite the progress, Mike Snyder, Park Planning and Development Superintendent, emphasized last fall that the restoration process will take several years. 

“You can’t plant plants that require shade until the shade exists,” he said.

The initial plan included walnut trees, swamp white oaks, persimmons, sassafras, redbuds and other native trees that typically thrive in a bottomland setting, Snyder said. He explained that flooding, the natural reproduction of nearby plants and the market availability of natives could all result in modifications of their plans.

Charles Nilon, an Urban Wildlife Ecology and Conservation researcher with MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said riparian corridors are some of the most important places to protect in urban areas. 

“They’re the link between where water is and where land is, which is kind of unique, because it captures lots of different habitats for different species. They’re also one of the more intact places in cities because they’re along streams, where there’s generally less development,” he said. 

Nilon said it’s important that the city considers biodiversity and mitigates the impact of its trail development, noting that the US Forest Service recommends minimizing paved trails near riparian zones when possible. 

“I think they could do a better job with alternatives to the practices they’re using now,” he said. 

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