Our Stories

Suzanne Torre: Wild for Wetlands

Playing in the mud makes her happy. That's what Willamette University biology major Suzanne Torre found out when she traded her calculator and dress shoes for a shovel and rubber boots.

Five years ago, Torre made a difficult decision. After 12 successful years in the business world working in benefits and payroll administration, she decided to return to school. "I didn't feel that I was doing the work I was put here to do," she says. "I was good at what I did, but, in my heart, I'm an environmentalist. It sounds corny, but I wanted to make a difference."

She'd always been interested in wetlands, so she was delighted when one of her biology class labs studied a wetland in a Salem, Ore., industrial site that formerly housed the old Fairview Training Center. "Wetlands are a vital part of the Willamette Valley," she explains. "They are important because they help prevent floods, purify water and provide many ecosystem services we tend to take for granted. This whole region was wetland and wet prairie before settlers came in and developed the land for homes, businesses and agriculture."

The Fairview wetland, which runs along Pringle Creek, is a mitigated wetland. That means a developer or government agency drained or filled in a natural wetland and built a wetland to compensate for the habitat lost to development. "The mitigated wetland we're working on was degraded agricultural land. Ten or 12 years ago, the City of Salem bought the land to encourage business development. As part of that sale, they agreed to take on the responsibility of mitigating for the wetland."

Mitigated wetlands are built using original soil from a natural wetland that is planted with traditional wetland plants -- grasses, sedges and rushes. While these plants are important for the hydrology of the wetland habitat, oftentimes flowering plants - what biologists call "forbes" -- are overlooked. "Flowering plants are a big component of natural wetlands, but they usually don't get planted much in mitigated wetlands. They're not considered as important. However, reintroducing these native plants increases the biodiversity of the site, which increases the invertebrates and food for animals like birds and other vertebrae predators. Wetlands with flowering plants are more complete, functioning wetlands."

Torre wanted to find out if a native flowering plant could be successfully introduced into a man-made wetland like Fairview. To fund her research, she applied for and received a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant. The $3,000 Carson stipend supports original student research or study outside the classroom.

She introduced two species of camas, a bulb traditionally used by native tribes in the valley for food. "Camas is a staple of intact wetlands," says Torre. "This wetland plant was here before the settlers. Lewis and Clark drew pictures of camas and took samples of it when they came here. The plant has historical importance in the Willamette Valley."

Braving wet, cold February days, Torre and volunteers planted 672 camas bulbs. She came back the following October and planted another 800-plus, for a total of 1500 bulbs. In the fall, she slogged back out into the wetland to see how many of her spring bulbs had survived. She was thrilled with the results. "The survival of the camas is high. Of those bulbs that survived, the reproduction rate is high too. Our preliminary results suggest that camas can be reintroduced into mitigated wetlands. "

She also found a number of the bulbs were being eaten by moles and other animals, but she's philosophical about finding holes instead of bulbs. "We're also contributing to the diet of these animals."

One of the biggest challenges Torre found in restoring a mitigated wetland is controlling invasive plant species like tansy, Canadian thistle and Himalayan blackberry. "If these invasive plants aren't controlled, they can take over and destroy the wetland. The question is, do you weed or control the strongly invasive species so the wetland can continue to be functional? Or does the wetland then become a park? Of course, once the invasive species are removed and the wetland and wet prairie plants are more established, hopefully the invasive plants become less of an issue."

Another challenge for Torre was the large size of her research project. "I always knew that research was going to be time consuming. However, until you design a research project and are out there in the field 12 to 16 hours a day, you don't know how it can consume your life."

Her Carson project has also taken on dimensions Torre never expected. One of the most enjoyable has been introducing school age children to wetlands. "I brought 35 kids from the Heritage School out to the wetland site. They saw a gopher, found a couple of snakes and a bunch of birds, and got to get dirty and wet. They loved it."

Torre and Willamette biology professor, Susan Kephart, have also won a City of Salem environmental grant to continue and expand work on the Fairview Mitigation Wetland. Torre hopes to continue working in wetland restoration when she graduates this spring and would like to see a hiking trail and an interpretative center built at the Fairview wetland. "It's a slow process, but maybe we can get the kids and the community involved. This project is like throwing a rock in a pond; it just keeps rippling outward."