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Ken Brunswick Bringing Devastated Marshland Back to Life


Ken Brunswick is dedicated to repairing one small link in a broken environmental chain that has left the United States with only about half of the number of songbirds it had just 50 years ago. Part of the reason for the decline is the loss of habitat. Deforestation in Central and South America has affected migratory species that spend half the year south of the equator. But here in the United States, changing agricultural practices and increasing levels of forest fragmentation are also to blame. As once large blocks of unbroken suburban forest are carved into smaller and smaller fragments, predators like raccoons, crows and feral cats can more easily raid once-secure nests. And as swamps and marshes are drained and filled for farms or housing developments, birds that need wetlands to survive are driven away. Sam Hendren has the story of Ken Brunswick and his work to save the marsh that is home to the birds he loves.

When Ken Brunswick was a kid, he wanted to study birds. Brunswick grew up near the western Ohio town of St. Henry in the 1950s. He says it didn't take long to read all the books about birds in the local library.

"I knew exactly where all the bird books were, because at that time, that's what I had my heart set on, being an ornithologist," Brunswick says.

One of the books that inspired Brunswick was written by Gene Stratton-Porter.She was a popular novelist in the early 1900s. Stratton-Porter was best known for her fictional accounts set in and around an Indiana swamp called the Limberlost. She was also an amateur naturalist and wrote several books about birds.

"I was in the eighth grade in that little two-room schoolhouse reading 'What I Have Done With Birds' by Gene Stratton-Porter, and the teacher walked up to see what book I was reading, and looked at it and the teacher said, 'You know that place isn't very far from here.' And I didn't know what she was talking about."

The Limberlost actually was only a few miles west across the state line. Stratton-Porter moved to the area in 1888. But to the locals, the trees were valuable lumber and the swamp was a waste of land. Stratton-Porter wrote that commerce attacked the Limberlost and began, she said, its usual process of devastation. By 1910, two decades of destruction were complete.

"This Loblolly Marsh was what I consider the heart of the Limberlost area and this marsh was actually the last thing that was drained in this area so the farmers could start farming it," says Brunswick.

Brunswick became a farmer himself. He started a dairy only a mile from Loblolly Marsh. Through the years he learned more about the swamp and the birds that lived there.

Later he formed the Limberlost Remembered project. The group's mission: to bring Loblolly Marsh back to life. And they've made a lot of headway.

Brunswick, who's 63, is retired from farming. He's now an ecologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Its Division of Nature Preserves oversees the Limberlost restoration.

A path near the edge of the marsh is thick with prairie cord grass, switch grass and blue stem. Some of the grasses have been planted here; the seeds of other plants have lain dormant for decades and are now reclaiming the ground on their own.

Out in the marsh the water is a gentle sea of green, and wildflowers abound around the edges. And the birds are coming back. Brunswick is thrilled to see them returning to their marsh home.

"This is the area where we see American Bittern once in a while," he says, pointing across the water. "There's been Virginia rail; we hear Sora rail in here also. Sora is just a real little bird that has just the dandiest sound when it makes its call."

These birds and others like them are in trouble. Most of the wetlands and prairies where birds once thrived have disappeared.

Brunswick's dream of becoming an ornithologist never happened. But his work to save the Limberlost has been his way of doing something for the birds he loves.

"Actually when I think about this work I'm doing it takes me back to that dream I had when I was a kid in that two room schoolhouse. That dream of being an ornithologist was taken away and here, about 30 years later, seeing this land flooding, I'm seeing birds that, some of them, I never saw before."

And the work of an old farmer has restored the wetlands and natural areas that farmers before him destroyed.

Support for the Environment Report comes from the Park Foundation, the USDA's Cooperative Extension Service and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

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