Know the Land You Call Home
The woodlands on the Hunt Utilities Campus are dominated by pine and oak trees, with scattered birch, red maple, and aspen. But they are much more than an assemblage of trees. This forest evolved under specific conditions, such as soils, climate, and disturbance regimes (such as fire, wind, and flooding), that supported not only these tree species, but the shrubs, forbs, grasses and other organisms found there. These conditions create native plant communities that are unique to that region.
The dominant native plant community found on the Hunt Utilities Group campus was identified to be a FDc34 Central Dry-Mesic Pine-Hardwood Forest. It is described in the MN DNR Native Plant Community Field Guide as a “Dry-mesic pine, hardwood, or pine-hardwood forests on hummocky glacial moraines, often adjacent to outwash plains. Crown fires and mild surface fires were common historically.” It goes on to describe the historical disturbance pattern, stating, “An analysis of Public Land Survey records indicates that the rotation of catastrophic fires was about 110 years, and the rotation of mild surface fires about 30 years. The rotation of all fires combined is estimated to be 23 years.”
MN DNR describes native plant communities as a group of native plants that interact with each other and with their environment in ways not greatly altered by modern human activity or by introduced organisms. They are the smallest subset of a hierarchical ecological classification system (ECS).
Ecological classification systems start with broad scale systems, like forests, wetlands, and prairies. Then they are further divided into small subgroups, like wet, mesic, or dry woodlands. Eventually they break down to the smallest unit, typically called a native plant community.
In the mid 1990s, while attending Central Lakes College, I was fortunate to land an internship with the Aitkin County Land Department. I was enrolled in the Natural Resources Management program, and was interested in a career in forestry. I’d always loved spending time in the woods: hunting, collecting syrup, or making firewood, and I was excited about building a career around that. I’d also seen a lot of what I considered poor forestry–monospecies pine plantations and large aspen clearcuts–and wanted to learn more about alternatives.
My internship with the land department happened to coincide with a grant they had received to become green certified, meaning the timber they harvested met established sustainability goals and could be marketed as such. They were one of two counties in the U.S. to go through the process of becoming green certified. As part of this program, they needed to establish an ecological classification system, and use that information to guide their forestry management.
I found this science fascinating. It was encouraging to hear the foresters at the land department describe their success in using an ECS to mimic natural systems and better manage for a more diverse forest, with longer periods between harvests and relying on natural regeneration. Several years later, working as a forestry technician for the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District, I was able to attend an 80 hour Certificate Course in Ecological Silviculture hosted by the University of Minnesota Sustainable Forests Educational Cooperative.
It was an incredible learning experience for me, with at least a couple of major epiphanies on the interconnectedness within nature. I spent hours in the woods identifying plants and trying to understand how they fit into their “community,” and how those communities fit into the larger landscape.
There are many different systems used in ecological classification, some fairly simple and others that go into great detail on different aspects of plant communities. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has developed an ecological classification system. It breaks the state down into increasingly smaller land units: three major provinces, eleven sections, 26 subsections and 291 land type associations. The final classification is land types which are defined using the pre-European settlement vegetation (PDF), historic disturbance regime, and associations of native plant communities.
Using ECS as a Tool for Stewardship
There is a lot of science behind ecological classification, and it is impractical for most people to have more than a basic understanding of the concepts. But it’s important that we use the best science we can when making land management decisions, and ECS can help us do that. By better understanding the historical disturbance regimes of a specific plant community, and the succession patterns that followed, foresters and wildlife managers can make informed choices when setting up logging operations or wildlife habitat improvement projects.
From a private landowners perspective, having a basic knowledge of what native plant communities you have on your property can give you a better idea of what species are in your woods, and help you be a better steward.
It can help bring greater awareness and significance to the uniqueness of your property and the larger landscape.
For me, I look for ways to incorporate ECS into food production Agroforestry allows farmers to do this through practices like forest farming for products like maple syrup and mushrooms, or alley cropping with grains or vegetables between rows of highly productive cultivars of woody trees and shrubs that are found in the area's native plant communities.
More to Understand
What is the future of ECS? I wonder how it stays relevant as we see shifting vegetation and wildlife patterns due to changing climate. Can ECS allow us to better understand these shifts and help to mitigate the impacts?
Typical of most efforts to understand nature, most ECS’s fall short of including the historical impact of native animals on the landscape. Some people argue that ECS should include historical herbivore disturbance regimes, to better understand the impact migratory ruminant’s had on the landscape prior to European settlement.
We are part of the natural systems that surround us. We need to embrace the natural systems around us to become better stewards and create more stable and resilient systems for the future. ECS is another tool that can help us do that.