July 13, 2020 What is ecological restoration and what does it mean to you? Natural Shore is all about ecological restoration, which includes creating and improving a wide variety of Minnesota habitats. It’s really fun to pause and think about what “ecological restoration” is, and how we best define and communicate what this word means to us. In the purest sense, practitioners and enthusiasts may consider “ecological restoration” bringing back vegetation communities in natural areas to pre-settlement conditions. Around the Twin Cities, land types that existed early in European colonization of the region included a mix of forest, oak “savanna” type woodland/prairie mix, river floodplains around waterways, and prairies. While the largest prairie corridors of Minnesota generally lie west of our region, smaller parcels of prairie have always been a part of eastern Minnesota. These land types would have hosted a great variety of plants ranging from tall dry prairie grasses to aquatic emergent plants growing along the banks of our rivers and lakes. According to the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, only about 1% of Minnesota’s original prairie lands remained in 2010. Colonization, farming, and urbanization have changed the face of Minnesota significantly since the 1800’s. We still live in a state with a wonderful mosaic of boreal forest, deciduous forest, prairie, and every landform in between: fens, wet lowland prairie, aspen parklands, and big woods. However, the past 200 years have involved significant changes in how our land is used. Ecological systems have been dramatically impacted by farming and development, and a wide variety of stressors from a growing human population. A real key to what we do and how we go about “ecological restoration” is striking a balance between pre-settlement conditions and what is practical now. When restoring a plant community, we take into consideration what a pristine plant community might have looked like in a particular area. In addition, we also consider where this restoration falls in the landscape. How big is the budget? What sort of invasive species are we dealing with? What is the erosion potential with an urban hydrology? What sort of maintenance are we looking at over the long-term? And how important are aesthetics to the client? For every project that we design, all of these considerations come into play and help to define “ecological restoration” and our overall goals. We strongly believe that all levels of ecological restoration are extremely beneficial, even if you are not bringing back “pure” pre-settlement vegetation communities. As we have written about before, planting even small restoration areas improves habitat for wildlife and can have a positive influence on water and soil quality. In the Twin Cities region, the land has always been a patchwork of forest, prairie, wetland, and shoreline. Since now this mosaic landscape tends to include a lot more roads, buildings, and parking lots, we can help wildlife and build biodiversity by creating and expanding restoration areas. Each one of us can help and contribute. Providing for pollinators, stabilizing shoreline, or simply adding beauty and visual interest are all benefits of ecological restorations supported by native plants. A really fun way to get inspired is to visit natural shorelines, remnants of original prairies, and wetlands that have never been significantly altered. Quickly, it becomes obvious that these areas are teeming with incredible plant and animal diversity. One of the best resources for finding beautiful areas to explore is the Minnesota DNR’s list of Scientific and Natural Areas. These areas are spread throughout the state, displaying an awesome variety of land types from rare mesic prairie and wetlands, to shady Big Woods, to dry prairies and dunes. Two easily accessible SNA areas around the Twin Cities are the Wolsfeld Woods and Wood-Rill, both examples of Big Woods forests that have been populated by maple and basswood trees for hundreds of years. Though these areas are more notable for their trees, the shady forest floors and sunny tree-fall gaps are populated by wonderful native forb and grass species. We take inspiration from Big Woods remnants when selecting shade-tolerant plants to install in shady restoration areas. For example, many of our wonderful species like zig-zag goldenrod and wild ginger are species that can be found growing wild under tree cover. Learning and observing different types of natural habitat in our area and really exploring natural areas definitely helps us to fine-tune our restoration practices. So, for us “ecological restoration” is really about bridging appropriate pre-settlement plant communities with an urban setting. No doubt, this presents a host of challenges along the way. The definition is hard to pin down, because it is dynamic and really varies from project to project. What makes ecological restoration so interesting is that it will never be figured out and solved. We are all definitely learning along the way. We can all support ecological restoration and do our part in creating essential areas of natural habitat. Every patch of native vegetation, big or small, is critical in improving the ecology of our state.