Most outsiders, asked what they know about Minnesota, would list snow, evergreen trees and heavy sweaters. While northern Minnesota contains those elements, farther south the state ecosystems include hardwood forests, bogs and prairies. Early settlers found timber, grazing land and, most critical, abundant fresh water for humans and animals. Minnesota today, led by its Department of Natural Resources, continues to work on a balance between human activity and nature in each of its ecosystems.
Minnesota Boreal Forest
The evergreen forests of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin mark the southern boundaries of ancient forest extending up into Canada. Although diminished by commercial logging, these forests still contain pine, spruce, cedar and fir trees, along with some deciduous generations. Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources takes an active role in overseeing logging and restoration of damaged areas. It also advocates for natural areas in the face of commercial recreation. Wetlands and bogs are of particular concern, because of commercial peat moss harvesting interests.
Spreading north to south through the state, deciduous forests constitute what pioneers knew as "The Big Woods." Once smaller trees were cleared, houses, farms and even small towns could be established with pioneer skills. Both lowland and upland hardwoods predominate in the Big Woods, along with oak, aspen and birch. Again, water is abundant, and wetland conservation is of great concern, especially in the areas of hunting, fishing and boating. The long-held Midwestern tradition of "going up to the lake" has expanded within the last century to the point of threatening and damaging the quality of once-seemingly-endless fresh water.
Just as Minnesota is the southern tip of great forests, it is the northernmost area of the historic Great Prairie. The Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Native Plant Society work together to maintain, retrieve and restore fragments of the ecosystem that once covered approximately 1/5 of America. Less frigid hardiness zones (areas 3 and 4a) permit the growth of prairie wildflowers, shrubs and trees. The University of Minnesota Extension program makes information on Minnesota ecosystems available to the public, with a particular emphasis on the principles of sustainable coexistence between humans and nature.
Bogs, Fens and Wetlands
Bogs, fens and wetlands are of special concern to the Department of Natural Resources because of the number of different threats to water quality and abundance. Wetlands restoration includes areas that may contain water only at certain times of year, making plants they contain vulnerable to filling-in by residential or recreational expansion. Peat-forming wetlands are monitored because of commercial activities: Consumer demands for peat moss have spiked massively as more Americans begin to use peat moss in their gardens. Once harvested, peat moss takes centuries to renew completely. As commercial harvesters dig deeper and deeper, overall ecosystem changes may become irreversible.
Living on the Buffer
One of the University of Minnesota's Sustainable Urban Landscaping (SULIS) publications focuses on one aspect of Minnesota's overall concerns: human occupation of the borders of historic ecosystems, what it calls "buffer zones." Coordinated work among the Native Plant Society, Dept. of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota expresses the need for consistent policies that respect nature, while making human activity possible in an extraordinarily biodiverse state.