Crow’s Nest: Build it and they will come

June 6, 2019

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager.

A lot of what we do as land managers on Natural Lands preserves is to create the conditions under which the desired plant and animal communities thrive. There is a parallel with the medical field, where doctors say they didn’t heal the patient, they just created the conditions in which the body could heal itself.

The title above is a reference to the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, and I believe it is a fair metaphor, though our “building” activity in land stewardship is a gentle manipulation of only certain conditions to achieve our habitat goals.

We have a few success stories here: where nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum) started showing up in the woods near the visitor center after we undertook a multi-year effort to remove the invasive garlic mustard. (I’m not saying we can prove causation, only correlation, in this case though.)

Some species require little intervention and some plant communities at Crow’s Nest are robust and dynamic and yet no less valuable. I still thrill at seeing cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinals) in the wild here, after only seeing it in gardens before coming here. It’s a short-lived perennial and depends on natural disturbances, openings in sunny wet meadows and streamside forest for germination. Change the conditions too much, onsite or upstream, and it will drop out.

The plant community which we assist (or at least manage the stressors on) then supports the insect community and indeed all other life as we know it on earth. No point thinking small here. These plant and animal communities provide us with clean water, pollination of crops, materials we eat and with which we build our homes.

Here’s another surprise that occurred as a result of management activity: a group of native blue flag iris (Iris versicolor, above) showed up in a sunny wetland where we are managing aggressive tree colonization and invasive multiflora rose. That’s just one species but an indicator that we’re creating the conditions that a community of tussock sedges and other full-sun dependent wetland plants—and the wildlife species that depend on them—need to survive.

Are the stressors to these communities growing in number? Almost certainly, yes. We live in an anthropogenic world; the impact from human activities around the preserve is likely greater now than in past decades or centuries. Even though the forest has returned to our region—the Hopewell Big Woods is the dominant feature of our local landscape—there are more people living in and having impact on our natural resources. There are more impervious surfaces, a greater number of non-native plants escaping from neighboring yards, less physical space for natural communities to grow. There are changing patterns of climate and the species changes associated with them (last year’s outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in local deer, and the changes that created the conditions for the virus and the midge that spreads it, comes to mind). And there are new pressures from introduced pests such as emerald ash borer—which is removing a major canopy tree from our floodplain woods—or spotted lanternfly, the impact of which we don’t yet know.

So there’s an argument for more stewardship, the activity of applying what we know about species’ and communities’ needs, in an effort to give them the physical space and conditions to continue to support us. I guess the converse of “build it and they will come” is “neglect it and they will go.”