June 13, 2013

Oakland trash boss wants to bring butterfly effect to town's landfill

Johnny Thomas, 62, believes topping dump with wildflowers will aid migrating monarchs, hummingbirds

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Johnny Thomas stands with some native flowers growing on top of the dump at the Oakland transfer station on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Johnny Thomas stands with some native flowers next to a methane vent on top of the landfill at the Oakland transfer station on Wednesday. Thomas is spearheading a special habitat for migrating monarch butterflies and hummingbirds on the grassy dump mounds, with a $1,000 donation from the Lions Club.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

Thomas said state testing shows salt from the food buried beneath the grass still leaches into a nearby brook. At odd spots in the lush grass, there are brown patches where the methane has seeped up, poisoning the plants atop it.

An unlikely dreamer

By some measure, Johnny Thomas, a blue-collar worker with deep ties to the area, doesn't seem like the sort to have butterfly dreams.

Not quite comfortable in the digital space inside his computer, he said, he keeps his boot-clad feet firmly planted on real soil. His wristwatch has real arms that crawl through real space, powered by the same kinds of gears he sees in the crushers and heavy machinery he and his workers use to process the town's garbage.

When talking Thursday, Thomas often gestured with both hands, as if wanting to grasp and fiddle with the abstract concepts he was describing.

Born and raised in Oakland, his speech is thick with the Maine accent of his grandfather, Milo Standish Thomas, a notorious bootlegger who fed the family with game, including does and fawns. Thomas hunts, but he said he inherited a soft spot from his father, John E. Thomas, who taught him not to kill does when furnishing the table.

That soft spot for animals, it seems, is the answer to what has pushed Thomas to take on the task of spreading flowers where they have not grown before. For him, it is a moral question.

"We can give something back instead of take, take, take," he said.

After seven years alongside the dump, Thomas has trained his kind, gray eyes to scan the landfill for visiting foxes, turkeys, porcupines, hawks, rabbits and woodchucks.

Deer use the landfill as a nursery, he said, taking advantage of the long grass to hide their young. The grass also provides nesting sites for sparrows, one of many species of birds — seagulls, thrushes, redwing blackbirds, starlings, pigeons, and more — that visit or make a living by feasting on the bugs.

Thomas watches over the animals that make their home on or near the landfill. Every year, when young birds fall from nesting sites in the eaves of the transfer station, the workers carefully carry them to wildlife sanctuaries.

He also worries about the bluebirds, which aren't as common as they were when they had a lot of old farm fence posts to nest in.

The state won't allow birdhouse posts, which would penetrate the clay cap, so Thomas spent some of his free time welding old bed frames and signposts into heavy bases for four birdhouses that sit on the grass. On Thursday, just days after installing them, a bluebird already had moved into one.

Thomas also asked the town to postpone its annual mowing from early July to late August, after the goldenrod has blossomed and the rabbits and small creatures with nests in the grass have had a chance to rear young.

Now Thomas would like to help the butterflies and hummingbirds, too.

"A monarch coming from Aroostook, headed to Mexico, needs feeding stations," Thomas said.

Herb Wilson, who teaches ornithology at Colby College, is one of many biologists working to produce a Maine Butterfly Atlas.

Wilson said a floral-topped landfill would help not only migrating monarchs, but also the large majority of butterfly species that live and die within 100 yards of their birthplace.

"They would be more than happy to stop in this cafeteria," he said. "In terms of flowers, the more the better."

He said he had heard of butterfly gardens before, but not on a landfill.

A floral experiment

In order for anything to be done on top of a landfill, the state has to be satisfied that it won't release the contaminants trapped beneath the clay cap.

(Continued on page 3)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Johnny Thomas inspects a methane vent pipe on top of the dump at the Oakland transfer station on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


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