This Issue: Our Place in the Country
Everyone who lives in a city ought to have a place in the country--a sort of second home where you can show up unannounced and always feel welcome. For many Minnesotans, state parks have become that haven.
State parks make great getaways not only because they’re homey, but also because they’re wild. In this issue devoted to parks, you’ll get a feel for both the comfortable and the adventurous nature of state parks. In one story, a whitewater kayaker finds the wildness he seeks; in another, a backpacker explores quiet trails. "Best Picks" collects experts’ favorite parks for everything from butterfly watching to rock climbing.
Like any home, state parks hold our history, and this issue touches on that too. "Geological Wonders" goes back 2 billion years for a glimpse of what you’d learn if the rocks could talk.
Behind all of these stories are the natural resources themselves. In many ways we’re just beginning to discover the biological riches protected in parks. Systematic inventories provide the surest way to learn what’s in a place. Take, for instance, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited national park. In 1999 more than 100 scientists began combing the half-million-acre park to identify its flora and fauna. "This is the best-studied place in eastern North America," said entomologist John Pickering, "and we know only 10 percent of the species." No wonder what they’re uncovering is astonishing: 18 species of copepod crustaceans new to science, 37 newly described spider species, and much more. Pickering expects to confirm 2,500 wasp species, with perhaps 300 new to science.
What unforeseen riches might our state parks’ nearly quarter-million acres hold? Inventories will tell. Birder Bob Janssen is examining bird inventories at all 66 state parks to determine where we need to gather more information. Every year about 40 scientists apply for and receive permits to conduct research in parks. For example, in Scenic’s old-growth forest, a professor studied abundance and ecology of fungi. The DNR Minnesota County Biological Survey includes parks in its search for uncommon species.
At 1,300 park locations, researchers have found rare resources, including 157 plant species, 78 animal species, 77 natural communities, and 27 geologic features. This past summer a researcher at Camden, Split Rock Creek, and Glacial Lakes found two species of butterflies never documented in these state parks. Four caddisfly species new to the state were also observed in state parks.
As well as rare species, we need to know about common ones. Documenting their presence or absence, abundance, and range provides a baseline for monitoring global change and resource use. "What is common today may become rare in the future," says DNR parks resource management coordinator Ed Quinn, "just as the passenger pigeon did."
Research helps answer management questions, Quinn says. At Soudan Underground Mine State Park, managers installed a bat gate to keep people out and let bats into an open shaft that leads to Minnesota’s largest bat hibernaculum. At Great River Bluffs, managers restricted use in two areas to protect state-threatened timber rattlesnakes and other rare species. In prairie parks, managers keep butterflies in mind when mapping and timing controlled burns to restore native grasses and wildflowers.
In state parks, outdoor recreation and natural resources management come together, says Quinn. Touring parks and talking with naturalists, visitors can see this. Every park offers a window into the past, a chance to see wildlife today, and insight into efforts to restore and perpetuate our natural heritage.