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Steady Hand Creates Reno's Swan Lake Nature Study Area

by April Conway, Nevada state public affairs officer, Nevada National Guard

Tundra swan fly over Swan Lake. The lake is home to more than 130 species of birds. Photo by Bob Goodman.

Within the city limits of Reno, Nevada is a wetland that has attracted migrating birds for centuries. Tundra swans and more than 130 other species of birds use the marsh and ponds as part of the Pacific flyway, the main migration route for birds traveling between Canada and South and Central America.

Through extraordinary cooperation, several public agencies and non-profit organizations, including the Nevada Army National Guard, have worked together over 10 years to save 1,800 acres of land from development and changed what was viewed as an over-looked patch of marshy land into a first-class outdoor educational center for Reno’s schoolchildren: the Swan Lake Nature Study Area.

The Nevada Army National Guard served as the lead agency on the project—more than 360 acres of Guard property comprise the Swan Lake Nature Study Area. By saving the acreage the Guard is helping people to understand and respect the desert ecosystems.

“If you are looking for a blueprint on how to save a natural area and reproduce the process, then you have to look to the marsh and how groups came together over a decade. The story here is the unique expertise of the people involved and the willingness of the community to work together. We probably could not have accomplished what we have if we did not have the expertise from so many dedicated people, including the Nevada Army National Guard,” Bob Goodman said.

Through extraordinary cooperation, several public agencies and non-profit organizations, including the Nevada Army National Guard, have worked together over 10 years to save 1,800 acres of land from development and changed what was viewed as an over-looked patch of marshy land into a first-class outdoor educational center for Reno’s schoolchildren: the Swan Lake Nature Study Area.

Goodman is a retired federal employee, a professional photographer and a member of the Lahontan Chapter of the National Audubon Society who has been working with the Army National Guard from the project’s start.

The group includes Ken Pulver, Lahontan Audubon Society, who has contacts with government officials at all levels; Becky Stock, Nevada Land Conservancy, who offered her knowledge of land acquisition; Bill Gardner, Washoe County Parks and Recreation, who shared his skills in grant writing and designing interpretative displays; Dan Jaquet, Bureau of Land Management, who provided access to Land and Water Conservation funds; and Goodman, who spoke to the public and gave slide presentations about the marsh.

“Saving Swan Lake was none too soon. The marsh could have been filled in and developed into homes. We caught it just in time,” Goodman said. He said that the Swan Lake advisory board is working closely with one of the major home developers so the sense of place can be retained along side the housing. The home developer is active in the preservation effort, another example of cooperation and balance.

Doyle Hanks, environmental program manager for the Nevada Army National Guard, said the National Guard has developed a master plan for the wetlands. “Our first objective for the master plan of the wetland ecosystem is to maintain it in as natural state as possible. Any management of the system is not of the system, but of the
people who come to the wetland, and to contain encroachment from outside development,” he said.

Getting Started
When Hanks and his colleagues started to save Swan Lake the site was used as a dumping ground for household garbage, old furniture, tires, and other junk. There was a lot of indiscriminate use by dirt bikes, which disturbed the birds.

“The idea started with Loren Brazell, the environmental program manager for the Nevada Army National Guard from 1988 to 1998. He saw the value of providing some management for the wetland area that we call Swan Lake. He contacted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who is the other major landowner about starting a management program. From there a group of interested people starting meeting together and got the ball rolling. I came to work for Loren in December 1992 and worked with him during the early development stages. When Loren retired in 1998, I took over the Army Guard environmental program,” Hanks said.

Washoe County Parks and Recreation Department installed a boardwalk through the marsh for visitors. Photo by Bob Goldman.

Asked if he was the "glue" that kept the project on target, Hanks deflected any credit. “There were two or three people who worked together at being the glue. I was elected the first chairman of the Swan Lake Nature Study Area Advisory Board and guided the board through its first year and half of development. During this time we adopted by-laws, wrote a master plan and laid the ground work for much of the work that is presently going on,” he explained.

As for the seven years it took to complete, it is still a work in progress. “We will still be working on improvements for several years to come. As withprojects that have several agencies and organizations working together, it takes time to do the coordination and to arrange for the funding,” Hanks said.

The work to date includes building bird and wildlife viewing trails, encouraging students on the educational benefits of visiting the marsh, and installing boardwalks and interpretive signs.

Obtaining Water Rights
Early on Hanks and his group realized that to make the marsh last, they needed water, including the recreational reuse of water from sewer plants (water could be piped off site to use on golf courses).

However, competing interests and requirements among the agencies delayed the project. With help from former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, the board was successful in 1999 in working with Reno officials and Washoe County commissioners to provide a minimum of 490 acre-feet of reclaimed water to the marsh from the Reno/Stead Sewage Treatment Plant. The water, treated to remove any harmful chemicals or substances, is the same as that used to water the Sierra Sage Golf Course. In dry years, the flow of water would be enough to maintain wildlife populations in the area. Hanks said the estimated dollar value of the water involved is significant: about $3 million.

Horse Ravine supplies water to the marsh. Photo by Bob Goodman.

Outdoor School Laboratory
“The Nevada Army Guard, Washoe County Parks and Recreation Department, and the BLM have joined together to provide access roads to accommodate school busses, wildlife viewing trails, boardwalks, and interpretative displays,” Hanks said.

The Nevada Army Guard supports the use of their portion of Swan Lake for outdoor education by students from Reno’s Washoe County School District. The school district has developed courses that use the Nevada Army Guard land. Hanks said at one time the schoolchildren had to travel great distances to view wildlife. Now the children frequently use Swan Lake to watch the birds, coyotes, and other wildlife that call the wetland home.

“This marsh is a miniature version of the entire Great Basin, said George Ochs, the science program coordinator for Washoe County schools. “It is the perfect place for our students to learn about the high-desert ecosystem. But the best part about it is that it is so close to the city. There’s not another city in the United States that has a high-desert playa marsh like this so close.”

Students, Ochs said, will have the opportunity to study everything from water quality issues to aquatic life to the burrowing owls that live there.

Playas are shallow, short-lived lakes that form where water drains into basins with no outlet to the sea and quickly evaporates. Playas are common features in arid (desert) regions and are among the flattest landforms in the world.

At Swan Lake snowy Peavine Peak provides a scenic backdrop to the marsh and contributes to its flows in wet years. Harrier hawks loop through the air hunting for mice and voles. Below the cattails wrens and quail can be seen darting about. When you walk out into the marsh on the boardwalks ducks are within arm’s reach. Interpretive signs tell parents and children alike what to see among the plants. The place is alive even in winter.

A cultural resources study sponsored by the Nevada National Guard in 1995 indicates that the Swan Lake area has been used for human habitation for many hundreds of years, dating back to possibly A.D. 400. Artifacts found in and around Swan Lake identify it as inhabited by early Washoe Indians as a wintering site. Projectile points indicate that waterfowl hunting may have been a part of the winter survival process, which means that there was more likely than not water in Swan Lake as far back as that period.

The Nevada Army National Guard has also developed a water resources management plan for Stead Training Site-Swan Lake Nature Study Area to identify water issues associated with what is needed for healthy bird populations and water of a high enough quality to avoid human health problems. They also completed a natural resource management plan and conducted an environmental assessment of the training site.

Spirit of Cooperation
Eight diverse organizations have come together to support marsh habitat and to provide outdoor education opportunities for local school children. The eight present organizations are: Nevada Army National Guard, the Lahontan Audubon Society, Washoe County School District, Bureau of Land Management, the City of Reno, Nevada Division of Wildlife, Washoe County Parks and Recreation Department, and the Nevada Land Conservancy.

According to Ken Pulver of the Lahontan Audubon Society, “Even if you come out here in the middle of winter, you can find hundreds of birds. The birds must know something that we don’t.”

“As our knowledge about the area grows, our interpretive opportunities are expected to grow and mature as well,” Hanks said.

As with projects that have several agencies and organizations working together, it takes time to coordinate and arrange for funding. The National Guard provided funding for the initial studies that took place. The BLM donated money and staff time, and the land and water conservation funds were equally involved. Home developers were also active and sold land along the shore for below market value in order to keep the nature area perimeter together.

Hanks estimates that the military has spent $200,000 for studies and the loop trail through the wetlands, and that Washoe County has spent $250,000 for interpretative signs, and $7,000 for a plot of land. Another $100,000 has been spent by non-profit groups for land acquisition. Bond money and funds from utilities to offset loss of aesthetic values increased the budget.

Efforts are being made to acquire other parcels of land that are presently in private ownership that lie within the project perimeter. Swan Lake has truly become a neighborhood treasure.

The nature center received a boost from Washoe County Commissioners in September 2000 through passage of a $38 million bond issue, involving construction of an interpretive center with a network of trails, observation platforms and other improvements at the marsh; the nature center received $480,000. It received a second boost in September 2003 from the Reno City Council when they donated $2,450 for materials to build a trail around Swan Lake. The council approved the community project funds for the Nevada Land Conservancy to begin the trail project at the lake, which is situated 14 miles north of Reno between Lemmon Valley Drive and Military Road.

The money was used to mow the trail, purchase geotextile fabric for a weed barrier and gravel for the trail, and bring in dumpsters for debris removal. They also provided refreshments for volunteers who worked on the initial 3/4-mile section on September 20, 2003, which was National Public Lands Day.

The funds were approved as part of the city's Community Pride Grant program through the Ward Four North Valley Neighborhood Advisory Board. Funds are budgeted each year by the city council for each of the city's seven neighborhood advisory boards. The citizen members of each neighborhood advisory board select neighborhood projects that are not included in the city budget, and are short-term and quick to implement for Community Pride Grant funding.

Number of visitors
Both Hanks and Goodman hesitant to estimate the number of visitors to the nature center through 2003. Because the facility is still under construction it hasn’t been publicized, though it is listed on city recreation lists and is popular with nature groups.

“We are not ready for a large influx of people yet,” Hanks said. “We need to build sanitary facilities, and we don’t have a good background on the quality of the water coming out from the sewage treatment plant. We are being cautious until more sampling is accomplished.”

Participation has been under monitored situations for science classes with teachers supervising children. The advisory board is not comfortable with people visiting on a large scale until more of the amenities are in place.

“Right now we are saving the area for sake of saving it,” Hanks said.

Future work at the march will include:

  • Developing an outdoor education curriculum with Reno’s school district.
  • Controlling invasive weeds.
  • Constructing an interpretative center.
  • Continuing to acquire private land.

Looking across Swan Lake to the east at Lemmon Valley. Canada geese and ducks use open water in winter. Photo by Bob Goodman.

Lessons Learned
Both Hanks and Goodman agree that it was a stroke of luck to secure the land in the early 1990s. The city of Reno estimated that in 2000 approximately 1,800 new homes were being built nearby with more development expected. Residents were pressuring the city and county to build recreation facilities, and the under-appreciated marsh was competing for its life.

Hanks said that the project would never have survived had it not been for the level of professional involvement by qualified environmental managers, including the Nevada National Guard. “Without the understanding of the military, the federal agencies, and the land and water non-profit associations, we would never have made it. It took total cooperation by people within land management agencies who understood the many regulations.”

Because the work started with members of the Audubon Society asking what they could do about saving the land, and then approaching the Nevada National Guard and the BLM for support, the Swan Lake Advisory Board was able to seek and receive community buy-in from the neighborhood homeowners associations to support the project. People from surrounding neighborhoods, including the Lemmon Valley Homeowners Association, were asked to serve on the board. They in turn proposed the project to the Reno community and Washoe County Commissioners, and donated $100,000. The communities of Stead and Black Springs areas were also as generous.

By inviting George Ochs of the school district to participate as a member, board members kept the project in the forefront of the county’s mind. “County commissioners heard from all kinds of people,” Goodman said. “We made sure people continued to ask the commissioners about the marsh’s progress.”

“The water comes and goes. What you can do is observe how life comes and goes during the cycle,” said Goodman, who has observed and photographed wildlife and the marsh for a decade.

Funding Agencies:
Washoe County Parks, Lahontan Audubon Society, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Military Department

Cooperating Agencies:
City of Reno, Washoe County School District, Nevada Department of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Nevada Land Conservancy

For more information contact Doyle Hanks, Nevada Army National Guard, (775) 887-7290, e-mail: doyle.hanks@nv.ngb.army.mil.