Testing a passive revegetation approach for restoring coastal plain depression wetlands
Restoration of coastal plain depressions, a biologically significant and threatened wetland type of the southeastern United States, has received little systematic research. Within the context of an experimental project designed to evaluate several restoration approaches, we tested whether successful revegetation can be achieved by passive methods (recruitment from seed banks or seed dispersal) that allow for wetland ‘‘self-design’’ in response to hydrologic recovery. For 16 forested depressions that historically had been drained and altered, drainage ditches were plugged to reestablish natural ponding regimes, and the successional forest was harvested to open the sites and promote establishment of emergent wetland vegetation. We sampled seed bank and vegetation composition 1 year before restoration and monitored vegetation response for 3 years after. Following forest removal and ditch plugging, the restored wetlands quickly developed a dense cover of herbaceous plant species, of which roughly half were wetland species. Seed banks were a major source of wetland species for early revegetation. However, hydrologic recovery was slowed by a prolonged drought, which allowed nonwetland plant species to establish from seed banks and dispersal or to regrow after site harvest. Some nonwetland species were later suppressed by ponded conditions in the third year, but resprouting woody plants persisted and could alter the future trajectory of revegetation. Some characteristic wetland species were largely absent in the restored sites, indicating that passive methods may not fully replicate the composition of reference systems. Passive revegetation was partially successful, but regional droughts present inherent challenges to restoring depressional wetlands whose hydrologic regimes are strongly controlled by rainfall variability.