The morning air was cool and crisp. Volunteers for this year's Mississippi River Revival bundled up in stocking caps, work gloves and layers upon layers of shirts and coats. But after hauling dozens of 200-pound railroad ties out of the woods, the layers were coming off.
Saturday marked three decades for the nonprofit corporation, and this year's crew in the annual cleanup did more than just pick up trash. About 40 volunteers lugged dozens of polluting railroad ties stranded in wetlands along the Mississippi to clear habitats of Blanding's turtles, red-shouldered hawks and rusty blackbirds.
"By helping these (species), you help everything in habitat," said local environmentalist and cleanup coordinator Richie Swanson. "And hopefully, you improve the water quality in the river a little bit."
Swanson said red-shouldered hawks hunt frogs where the land is littered with the soggy railroad ties. Rusty blackbirds also feed on aquatic insects in the affected land.
Last week, Swanson flagged spots scattered with the 200-pound wood slabs, which are coated in the preservative creosote. High water had pulled ties from the tracks and floated them down from Sam Gordy's Slough. And as levels decreased, the ties became wrecked in the wetlands.
"If these were just untreated logs, there would be no problem," said environmental consultant Scott Carney of the Emergency Management and Response in Duluth, Minn. "But these have creosote in them. That's a pollutant."
With no trace of a dated nail in the ties, there's no telling how old they may be.
"Who knows how long these have been here?" he said. "But this is the natural collecting point for them. It's the primary reason we're doing this today."
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