Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

Science Desk: Landscape Ecology -- What Does It Have To Do With The Boundary Waters Wilderness?

On Tuesday, April 19, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a bold statement. Her speech laid out a vision for the next 100 years of American conservation policy, one that includes modern science and larger scale thinking to help solve our most complex conservation challenges. One line stood out: “What we need is smart planning, on a landscape-level, irrespective of manmade lines on a map.” Secretary Jewell continued to describe what landscape-level planning looks like, and she included Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a prime example of a special place “where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development.” But what does landscape-level planning mean for the Boundary Waters Wilderness?

Landscape-level planning draws on a scientific discipline called landscape ecology. Though Secretary Jewell’s announcement makes it sound like cutting edge science, landscape ecology has a long pedigree and has been a useful tool for conservation scientists and land managers since the 1980s. Now that it is has infiltrated to the highest levels of the public land management agencies, landscape ecology can be used more pervasively to better deal with the large scale conservation problems we face today.

Landscape ecology cuts to the heart of what is difficult about studying the natural environment: spatial scale. Natural scientists must set boundaries on their studies to avoid the overwhelming complexity that is the natural world. Instead of considering all predator-prey interactions in the Superior National Forest, for instance, a Canada lynx biologist might only consider the interaction between lynx and snowshoe hares in a region inhabited by a particular group of lynx. Similarly, an ecologist looking into the history of species composition of the Boundary Waters Wilderness forest must first determine the spatial extent of her study so she does not end up investigating all of Minnesota. The discipline of landscape ecology gives ecologists tools to discuss the impact of spatial scale on the natural patterns and processes that affect the pieces of the environment--from underlying rocks to individual organisms to population size of threatened species.

Landscape ecology also provides an crucial framework and common language to understand the interconnection of different types of land. As Secretary Jewell noted in her speech, today’s United States is a patchwork (ecologists might call it a “mosaic”) of urban, suburban, agricultural, industrial, and more natural lands. Even those more natural lands fall along a spectrum of “wildness” -- from city parks planted with shade trees to the remotest parts of federally designated Wilderness Areas. Landscape ecologists seek to incorporate the whole landscape--patchiness and all--in their efforts to understand the natural and human-caused dynamics that affect places such as the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

Armed with the landscape perspective, an ecologist is no longer limited to focus solely within a Wilderness Area’s boundaries to understand how it functions. Instead, she can think about how large-scale patterns of land use, development, atmospheric pollution, climate change, human visitorship, shifts in vegetation species composition, or wildlife migrations can play dramatic roles in affecting a protected place. In other words, landscape ecology properly acknowledges that no place is an island -- even literal islands.

This why landscape-level planning is crucially important for both the future of American conservation policy and for the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Scientists know so much more in 2016 about watersheds and the interconnectivity of a landscape than they did in 1966 when the Bureau of Land Management first issued mineral leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The Boundary Waters Wilderness does not exist in isolation from its surrounding environment. From fluxes of wolves and moose and Canada lynx moving across the Wilderness boundary to water that pours into the Wilderness area from outside of it, the Boundary Waters Wilderness depends on its larger landscape. In order to make the best possible decision, responsible action by the land management agencies requires the consideration of the impacts of proposed sulfide-ore mining at a watershed scale.

That’s why we are working for permanent protection for the Boundary Waters by protecting its watershed. And we need your help to make it happen.

Please tell Minnesota’s Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Representative Nolan that you agree with Secretary Jewell that Boundary Waters Wilderness deserves the best, modern science to be used in decision-making at a landscape scale by taking action here.

For further reading, here are some foundational pieces on landscape ecology (plus one specific to the Boundary Waters Wilderness):

Baker, W.L. 1989. Landscape ecology and nature reserve design in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota. Ecology: 70(1): 23-35.

Forman, R.T. 1995. Some general principles of landscape and regional ecology. Landscape Ecology 10: 133-142.

Turner, M.G., R.H. Gardner, and R.V. O’Neill. 1995. Ecological dynamics at broad scales. BioScience 45: S29-S35.

Turner, M.G. 1989. Landscape ecology: The effect of pattern on process. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20: 171-197.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.