Example #1: Bloomington, MN’s Minnesota River Corridor Master Plan
In January 0f 2015, I wrote a letter to the editorof the MN Sun targeting the discussion concerning Bloomington’s Minnesota River Corridor (MNRC) Master Plan. It is narrowly focused on trail surface type and location, while completely ignoring the catastrophic state of the land the trails travel through.
Although the corridor’s undeveloped lands are often viewed as “natural”, a closer examination reveals only devastation, and just how “unnatural” these lands actually are. I question the merit of debating several acres of trail while several thousand acres lay in ruin. By focusing on the whole instead of the parts, we see how the pieces fit together, and how shifting the discussion towards restoring the corridor’s ecological integrity will allow us to strategically design a trail system that facilitates both recreation and restoration. A successful plan at this scale will require humans as active stewards, just as the American Indians were before us, and not as passive managers. The trail system should be designed in ways that allow humans to effectively manage the landscape while still offering a unique recreational experience. Bloomington has the opportunity to showcase a model for how conservation can be expanded across the Midwest in ways which improve habitat, water quality, aesthetics, and recreational opportunities, while also providing a variety of ecosystem services and creating market-based employment opportunities. Best of all, this approach is economically viable, technically feasible and scientifically valid. The question is, can we shift our focus from the parts, and rather consider the whole so we can do what’s best for the integrity of the MNRC?
The current wooded state of the corridor creates an impression of “forest”, but the forest perception is dangerously incorrect and has facilitated a century of mismanagement. True forest is Cretaceous in origin, emerging in the shadows of dinosaurs. True forest still exists, and can be found in scattered localities from Southeast Minnesota and down through the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains. It’s limited to fireproof patches, typically on steep northeast aspects, especially in association of creeks, streams, and rivers. True forest is beautiful, yet primitive, supporting small delicate isolated creatures with primitive characteristics.
The current wooded state is far from forest, and never will be forest. Instead, the current state is symptomatic of a catastrophic shift from a highly functional ecosystem to a highly dysfunctional ecosystem. There’s no aesthetic quality associated with the current state, in fact, proper perception should cause feelings of illness, disorientation, confusion and frustration. What we erroneously call forest is merely an overgrown mess of weedy, non-edible and rotting vegetation that provides few, if any, benefits to wildlife, humans, and the biosphere. Indeed, we can view the current state as a threat to the biosphere, as it rapidly sloughs nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and CO2 that negatively impacts water quality and violates climate self-regulation. The current state of the corridor warrants a reprioritization of what we should be discussing during the master planning process; trail surface type and location, or restoration.
The dominant vegetation of the corridor, and for that matter the planet, was savanna-grassland (from hereon, savanna). Savanna, like forest, is also beautiful, but unlike forest, savanna is highly advanced, supporting large herds of endothermic populations. More importantly, savanna represents the most provisional terrestrial ecosystem to ever exist, far more provisional than primitive forest. Savanna builds soil, purifies water, regulates nutrients, and provides a bounty of food like no other terrestrial ecosystem, ever. Savanna vegetation is highly edible, including open canopy nut trees (e.g. oak & walnut), understory fruit trees (e.g. plum & apple), berry shrubs (e.g. raspberry & service berry), herbaceous forage (e.g. prairie hay), winter browse (e.g. aspen, & dogwood) and nectar and pollen. In-turn, the animals that feed on the vegetation are also highly edible, allowing efficient food chains to emerge, and longer food chains equate to more functional ecosystems. 30 million years ago, savanna had become the most functional terrestrial ecosystem to exist, ever. Tragically, over the past century most of Earth’s savannas have been lost, some to urbanization, some to intensive agriculture, and paradoxically, a significant amount of savanna has been lost to neglect of our public lands and natural areas. The loss of savanna locally and globally equates to a decrease in Earth’s life support systems. If we value life, the discussion over trail surface and location becomes secondary to the discussion on how we restore the ecological integrity of the corridor.
What happened? Savanna vegetation is dependent upon grazing, that’s why it’s edible. (The word “grazing” here is implicit to all herbivore forms including grazers, browsers, frugivores, nectarivores, granivores, and so forth.) Savanna vegetation needs to be consumed by grazing animals or it will disappear. The relationship between savanna vegetation and the herbivore is a 35 million year coevolutionary process. More recently, Homo sapiens showed up and employed fire to maximize savanna and grazing. Grazing animals and humans using fire became the “biotic-controls” which maximized savanna. Early settlers continued to practice grazing and used fire to maintain native pastures. Some farmers overgrazed and damaged the land, but this was the exception, why would you destroy the resource that sustained your livelihood? But as usual, a few bad farmers gave the entire practice of grazing a bad name. Conservation soon became the practice of removing humans and their herbivores from the land. Bambi’s mother, in the 1942 Walt Disney classic, does an excellent job summarizing our current conservation paradigm, in the scene where she sniffs the air and exclaims, “Man is in the forest”, a quote which helped facilitate and reinforces our thinking “if we can remove man from the forest, nature will take care of herself”. Instead, by removing the “biotic controls”, herbivores grooming savanna and humans using fire to maximize grazing, nature spun out of control and soon crashed into the dysfunctional state we see today.
I dare you to walk through the Minnesota River corridor today and not see the land differently from yesterday. Notice the ancient oaks, trees that knew bison, elk, passenger pigeons, and Amerindians. The oaks are now in the stranglehold of fast growing weedy trees, stressed by lack of sunlight and high humilities, they’ve become susceptible to pestilence and disease, and we are but one windstorm away from losing the majestic keystones of the corridor. The resulting intense shade has eliminated the once diverse groundlayer vegetation composed of grasses and wildflowers, and now 80% of the soils are bare and eroding, filling and defiling aquatic communities. The vegetation that does persist is primarily non-edible, which in turn facilitates a trophic cascade, or the loss of food chains, and thus the elimination of almost all wildlife. The excessive amount of dead down wood, wood that would have been consumed by Amerindian fire, now rots and fills the soil with excess nitrogen. The shade, bare soil, and excess nitrogen creates a perfect storm for invasion by a shade tolerant, nitrogen loving species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard. In essence, buckthorn and garlic mustard are not invasive, but rather we have created their perfect environment. The transition is complete, and the highly functional, provisional, edible savanna has now been replaced by a dysfunctional, non-provisional, non-edible, rotting vegetation that offers few, if any, benefits to wildlife and humans.
A holistic master plan will prioritize ecological integrity over trial surface type and location. That said, the plan must include a well-designed trail system that promotes both recreation and restoration. Trail surface type and location needs to target the most critical component of the restoration process; the restoration of keystone processes that reinforce the desirable state, and that means restoring grazing, humans using fire to maximize grazing, and humans using wood for construction and firewood. If we fail to restore these keystone processes, we will enter into an unsustainable battle of chemical warfare and hand to hand combat to achieve a semblance of the former vegetation but without any of the former function. We cannot spray our way out buckthorn, garlic mustard or reed canary grass, but instead we need to restore the processes that reinforce a desirable biotic configuration. A well-designed trail system is critical for success.
The land needs to be grazed and the land needs humans as active participants. The MNRC offers us an opportunity to showcase a model master plan that improves ecological health, provides humans with quality food and fibers, and creates an economic incentive for more restoration. This type of restoration is linked directly to emerging markets for locally produced, value-added products including craft dairy, meat, wool and leather products. Branding these products green will help increase sales and provide an economic incentive to expand this type of restoration to other communities along the MNRC and elsewhere. Demand for high quality products produced in ways that improve ecosystem health, help fuel a new economic engine that increases vitality, autonomy and resilience for rural communities. Technical colleges will develop new programs in livestock husbandry and culinary sciences, while universities gain research opportunities examining grazing impacts on ecosystem integrity. Restoration will come full circle when we can place on our tables and backs products produced in ways that improve the ecological health of our land, and thousands of people are fruitfully employed in jobs linked to the supply side of restoration.
This vision of how we could restore the ecological integrity MNRC is different from how we currently conduct conservation. Instead of idling land, we now empower it. Instead of being a tax burden, conservation becomes a tax base, at very least off-setting management costs, at very least providing incentives for maintaining the land in a healthy state. If we can brand and market this type of conservation, then we can attract producers, processors and consumers seeking quality products produced in ways that enhance social ecological systems. It’s a win-win for the ecology and the economy, providing us aesthetically beautiful, functional ecosystem, good jobs, and high quality foods and fibers.
And so, while the environmentalist and planners debate trial surface type and location, the old oaks moan with grief at paradise lost, and we as a community are losing an opportunity to develop a showcase model for the world on how we can restore ecological integrity, provide healthy foods and fibers and create jobs.