Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Managing Princeton's Open Space--a Nature Conservancy Model

A newsletter from the Pennsylvania chapter of the Nature Conservancy came in the mail. Did I send them money? Who knows. All sorts of newsletters keep coming, and sometimes they get read.

A case study on their recently acquired 640 Brush Mountain Preserve caught my eye. Princeton has similarly substantial preserved lands. The title was "Managing Forest Resources for People and Nature". Note that they put people before nature in the title. One of the higher ups at the Nature Conservancy spoke at Princeton University not long ago, and said they had found that their message went over much better if they emphasize people rather than such aspects as biological diversity.

In addition to emphasizing benefits to people by referring to forests and water as resources, they also call for active management: "The Conservancy is actively working ... to conserve forest and freshwater resources to benefit people and nature. Sustainable forest management is a key strategy to accomplish this goal." If sustainable forest management is a key strategy, what form might it take in Princeton's preserves?

This reciprocal relationship, in which nature sustains people and people help sustain nature, is particularly important given today's realities, when multiple negative human impacts are making nature less self-sustaining. "Protected areas require active management to maintain their natural resiliency--their ability to adapt to changing conditions and rebound from stressors." The stressors, except for the overabundance of deer, remain unidentified. Terms that set some people off, like climate change or invasive species, become "changing conditions" and "competing vegetation". Biodiversity is expressed through the word "resiliency".

Here are their four steps for active management:

  1. Increase light reaching the forest floor by controlling competing vegetation and reintroducing prescribed fire. (The non-native shrubs crowding Princeton's forest understory leaf out early in the spring, depriving the spring ephemeral wildflowers of the sunlight they need to store up energy for the next spring. Prescribed fire is an elegant way to open up the understory without killing the larger trees. In Princeton, we're doing some limited invasive species control, and there was an accidental but beneficial woodland fire at Mountain Lakes a couple years ago. Here's a post on prescribed burning being used elsewhere in NJ.)
  2. Protect priority seedlings by installing deer fencing and controlling deer population. (Deer eat native tree seedlings. Too many deer equals no forest regeneration. Princeton gets high marks for its deer control program instituted back in 2000. Some small sections of Mountain Lakes now are protected by deer fencing.)
  3. Plant as needed--for those species that face more extreme challenges. (American chestnut and butternut are two tree species that have been made rare in Princeton's forests, and need an assist to return. We've been actively growing and reintroducing these species on a small but meaningful scale.)
  4. Record and share results. (Always a nice sentiment, sometimes acted upon.)
The Conservancy's goal is to shift forest composition over time, and they use a very effective graphic to show the change they are aiming for, using the size of font to represent which species would be more prevalent:

For example, the composition in 2010, Chestnut Oak, Scarlet OakPitch Pine, White Pine, Birch, Red Maple, and Striped Maple

would become in 2050 Chestnut Oak, Red Oak, Scarlet Oak, Black OakPitch Pine, White Pine, Birch, Black Cherry, Red Maple, and American Chestnut.

The Nature Conservancy has multiple partners helping to inform this sustainable management: among them Audubon, the American Chestnut Foundation, the Pinchot Institute, universities and the state game commission. 

Looks like a useful model for when Princeton takes on active management to complement the acquisition of open space lands.

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