Mapping miniature, unspoiled plots of land

Before the bulldozers arrive, states are rushing to preserve small ecology outposts and create a public-private database

The little patch of central Minnesota doesn't look like much. It's flat, largely treeless. It supports weeds that nearby farmers are trying to kill.

But to field botanist Mike Lee, it represents a rare find. The surrounding area used to abound with golden Alexander in bud, wood lily's flame-orange flowers, stalks of delicate white camass, purple and white prairie clover, kalm's brome, prairie cord grass, and rare species such as the orange and brown poweshiek skipper butterfly and the ground-nesting upland sand piper. Now they're hard to find in such abundance outside this 40-acre plot, the Sedan Brook Scientific and Natural Area, near Belgrade, Minn. Mr. Lee calls it the finest example of moist (or mesic) prairie between here and the Iowa border, 120 miles away.

Sedan illustrates how a two-decade effort to find and preserve the last remnants of the nation's most pristine ecosystems is becoming increasingly urgent. Unlike federal efforts to protect vast tracts of untouched land, states are involved in discovering and mapping miniature tracts that remain unspoiled by human interference. Increasingly, biologists are finding these remnants of ecosystems just ahead of the bulldozers.

"There are getting to be fewer and fewer places left to protect," says Lee, of the Minnesota County Biological Survey (MCBS). "It only takes a few days to degrade a high- quality wood, prairie, or swamp to the point [where] it will never completely recover." An adjoining piece of virgin mesic prairie was plowed the year Lee first came to Sedan Brook. Weeds grow there now.

There are 53 state natural-heritage programs in the United States, one for each state and one each for the Navajo Nation, Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. All the Canadian provinces have programs as well. The programs methodically search out rare species and vestiges of unspoiled ecosystems. Then biologists map them and load the maps into what has become a massive computerized bio- library - a key resource for preservationists.

"If you don't know where it is and what it is, you can't make an informed decision on whether to save it or not," says Bruce Stein, author of a book on biological diversity and a scientist at NatureServe, which acts as head librarian, technical assistant, and cheerleader for the database.

Consider the experience of Monticello, Minn. The Mississippi River community is part of the corridor linking Minnesota's Twin Cities and the smaller city of St. Cloud, which is projected to increase in population by 60 percent in the next 25 years. A developer proposed building a 213-acre housing complex on the wooded bluffs of the river across from the city.

MCBS biologists had only recently mapped the site and entered it with the other 13,000 ecosystem remnant maps in their computerized database. Since county zoning ordinances required the developer to prepare a plat, or map, of their development and have it reviewed by county agencies before construction, it caught the eye of Sherburne County Forest Resource Specialist Tim Edgeton.

"When reviewing plats, I check to see whether the MCBS documented any rare features for the area," he says. "In this case, it had. The map identified the forest as a high-quality oak woodland/brushland. I noted it in my report, expressing concern about fragmentation of the site, and its significance as one of the few natural areas remaining in Sherburne County that typify what this area looked like."

Concern about the development soon spread to include citizens and other public agencies. With the MCBS information, an advocacy group coalesced and was able to make a strong case for the bluff's protection. The result was that the developer donated 29 acres of the land, including half the area mapped by MCBS, to the county to establish a county preserve. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees MCBS, contributed $180,000 to manage the preserve, and the county convened a committee to write a management plan. The plan focuses on light uses, such as environmental education and working with the housing development to create buffers between private land and the preserve.

Besides preserving one of the last pieces of original forest land in the county, the plan also delivers ecological benefits, notes Mr. Stein of NatureServe. The woodland, and other forests on the river bank, retain soil that would otherwise enter the river, keeping the water clean for the millions of people downstream who drink it. "Sometimes it's cheaper to maintain green infrastructure than it is to build new gray infrastructure like water treatment plants," he says.

Even some developers support the effort. "It is possible to use tools such as the biological surveys and natural-heritage data bases to actually add value to a development," says Bob Engstrom, who heads his own real estate development firm in the Twin Cities. But not in all cases, he adds. If land values are already so high, adding this kind of value may actually make buyers think twice before accepting the added value of preserved natural features.

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