Long before he counted his 72nd bird species at an overgrown pond on the edge of Levi Carter Park, Omaha birder Jim Ducey knew he'd found something special.
Obscured by a shrubby border on one side and a small woods on the other, the pond had become a perfect haven for birds.
A solitary great blue heron fished in its shadowy depths. Cardinals, catbirds and wrens sheltered in the shrubs. Warblers flitted tree to tree, and finches nibbled on thistle seeds.
So Ducey persuaded the Omaha Parks and Recreation advisory board and Parks Director Brook Bench to designate the 2 to 3 acres near 13th Street and Grand Avenue as a natural habitat area.
In July, the signs went up: Natural Wildlife Area Do Not Disturb.
Then came August.
Over a few weeks, successive contract crews from Union Pacific Railroad, the Omaha Public Power District and the Omaha Public Works Department cleared most of the vegetation around half the pond, with the most extensive removal done by the city itself.
No sooner would Ducey notify city parks officials about one round of clearing than another would begin.
“It seemed like everybody ignored it until it was a wildlife area,” said Ducey, whose master's degree in biology emphasized the effects of habitat management on nongame birds. “Now a significant portion of the pond's edge is barren.”
The pond and its ill-fated designation serve as a lesson in the limitations of protecting habitat in Omaha, even in city parks, and to collateral damage from miscommunication.
Bench said the well-intended designation isn't backed by the force of a city ordinance and was trumped by other needs.
“Nature Area” signs have been posted at a handful of sites in parks to let people know the area has a special purpose and to discourage abuse. Such was the case at this site, where illegal dumping and four-wheeler riding had occurred.
The designation, Bench said, did not protect the pond from these higher ranking needs:
» A U.P. rail line on the pond's west side delivers coal to OPPD's north Omaha plant, and the railroad has the right of way along the line. U.P. sprayed the thistle between its rail line and the pond to maintain good sight lines; thistle is a designated noxious weed.
» An OPPD high-voltage line crosses the pond to deliver electricity from the coal plant to downtown and midtown, so OPPD has the right of way across the pond. OPPD cleared vegetation to make it easier for workers to reach the line for maintenance and in emergencies, and to reduce outages when lines sag or sway during extreme weather.
» The City of Omaha built the pond in the 1990s to hold storm runoff, and that use had been compromised by the overgrowth resulting from a lack of maintenance. Trees and shrubs were removed to reduce the vegetation that could clog the drainage culvert, to make more room in the pond for water and to facilitate dredging.
Public works official Marty Grate said “overzealous” work by a city contractor led to more aggressive clearing than was stipulated in the contract. He said the work was the result of miscommunication between the city and Action Contracting.
Grate said Action Contracting will clean up problems related to its clearing and will plant the bank in oats to stabilize it. The company also will provide the city with native grass seed for planting this fall.
Native grasses are a more wildlife-friendly choice than the brome grass the city initially considered. To further improve habitat, the city will limit mowing at the pond to once a year.
Action Contracting owner Jake Sibbernsen said the company did not knowingly violate its contract. Before starting, he walked the site with a Public Works employee.
And the “Natural Wildlife Area Do Not Disturb” signs?
Yes, he said, he saw them.
“When you get directions from a city contract, that overrides whatever signs are there,” he said. “The main point I want to make is there was never any talk of preserving a wildlife wetlands.”
Ducey is encouraged by the city's willingness to have the area planted with native grasses and to limit mowing, and by an offer from a Public Works employee to join Ducey in harvesting seeds from other native plantings in the city.
“If we lose in the short term but in the long term it's better?” he said. “That's the perspective that I hope will guide management decisions going forward.”