Woodlawn Beach Science


(This 1012th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 15, 2010.)


Charlotte Roehm partly hidden at beaver dam


It is sad to see that Woodlawn Beach, one of this area's prime bathing areas, is closed to swimming this summer. That one of the Great Lakes has areas so polluted and that a state is in such poor fiscal shape that lifeguards cannot be hired are testament to our abuse of the resources with which we have been blessed.


This beautiful mile-long natural sand beach is a prime regional attraction and people continue to sun themselves there, a few even venturing into the warm water. They take advantage of the cool breezes that mitigate this overheated summer and the lovely lake view with the Canada shoreline a hazy gray in the distance.


For birders Woodlawn has other attractions. In spring it serves with Tifft Nature Preserve and Times Beach as migrant "traps", places where birds flying north accumulate along the lake barrier before proceeding. Several rare birds have been seen there in recent years. I made special trips to see two of them: a least tern and a blue grosbeak, both hundreds of miles from where they are normally found.


More important, the northern section of the parklands is now serving as a study area for faculty and students from Buffalo State College. I joined Professors Stephen Vermette and Charlotte Roehm to visit this interesting enclave earlier this summer.


Vermette and Roehm led me to an area where I had never been and one to which I plan to return often. Remarkably, within a few acres they have been able to identify three distinct wetland types by their vegetation and the chemistry of their water and surrounding land. One of the areas is dominated by cattails, another by duckweed and the other grasses and flowers that inhabit standing water and slow-flowing streams. The third section is shaded by tall trees; the others are more open marsh and grasslands.


These three sections are partly separated and in one case bisected by the branches of Blasdell Creek, whose meandering narrow waterways drain a restricted region west of Lakeshore Boulevard. This creek and the surrounding lands the researchers have found to be remarkably dynamic, flooding and then rapidly draining after every heavy rain.


This is a perfect study area for students because it serves as a filter for the pollutants the stream has acquired from the more "civilized" sections through which it has passed. Here the very slow moving water is aerated and at least partly purified by sunlight and it drops some of its sediment load before entering the lake. This is an important role of marshlands that too few of us understand and still fewer appreciate. "Drain them wastelands," is too often our mantra.


Vermette pointed out where beavers had built a dam across one of the waterways, thus raising the water level behind it significantly. In many areas beavers can be problem animals, but here their dam slows the water flow still more, thus enhancing the marsh's role in improving water quality. I had been warned to wear knee boots and, as one result of this dam, I needed them to walk along normally dry trails that on that day were a foot under water.


Department of Transportation officials have concerns with beaver dams because they worry about flooding and they regularly remove them to protect upstream residential communities. This represents one of those conflicts of interest that beset modern living and the Buffalo State researchers are seeking an exemption to retain this small dam.


Woodlawn Beach is a state park that is currently developing a master plan to which the work of Vermette and Roehm will make significant contributions. Their two grants, one funded by the Great Lakes Research Consortium, the other by New York State Water Resources, support not only the work of these researchers, but another Department of Geography and Planning faculty member, Veryan Vermette, as well as graduate students Joseph Petre and Thomas Reeverts and undergraduate Andrew Panczykowski.


When our walk took us to an open area overlooking Lake Erie, we had a wonderful view of the lake to the west and the open beach to the south, but to the north this lovely area is bounded by a violently sculpted moonscape shorn of all vegetation.-- Gerry Rising