Not all visitors at Sunken Meadow State Park on Saturday brought their picnic baskets, radios and lawn chairs. A select group came to do dirty work.
They trudged through muddy marsh along Sunken Meadow Creek, holding shovels and clad in knee-high rubber boots and dingy gloves.
Save the Sound, an organization that aims to protect and improve the land, air and water of Connecticut and Long Island Sound, kicked off its $2.5 million restoration project by planting grass in the struggling marsh beside the creek.
The marsh's habitat was depleted by a dam installed in the 1950s that cut off natural tidal flow and prevented fish from traveling downstream, officials said. The area was also damaged in 2012 when superstorm Sandy took out the dam and culverts and uprooted a lot of vegetation.
By planting smooth cordgrass Saturday, Save the Sound hoped to revitalize the area's habitat.
Suzanne Paton, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the grass serves as a nursery for fish, is eaten by a variety of species, filters pollutants flowing downstream and can help the land sustain several feet of flooding.
"I'm excited that we're doing a marsh planting," she said. "Once the culvert was blown out during Sandy, a lot of the soil was exposed and wasn't vegetated. We're trying to jump-start the process to get the vegetation back on the marsh."
Beth Cartwright, a volunteer from Stony Brook, said this was her first time helping with plant restoration.
"I'm at this park and all parks on the North Shore all the time," she said, "And I've seen some of the grass plantings that worked, and I wanted to help contribute."
The creek is the first of four projects Save the Sound has planned for its Habitat Restoration Program, whose funding comes from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Sandy relief grants.
Save the Sound plans to implement various green infrastructure techniques on a nearby 12-acre parking lot, which will prevent flooding and runoff into the creek. It will also fund research into alternative fish passages on the creek, as well as outreach programs improving public knowledge about the park's ecological communities.
"You guys are like a ray of hope because you're coming out here and actually doing something," Curtis Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound, told volunteers. "All we have to do is give nature what she needs, and she'll do her job."