Ask any carpenter; the best tools have a certain beauty to them. It’s a combination of things: quality of materials, workmanship, elements of design that together make the tool work better. It might require more of an investment on the front end, but such a tool is a pleasure to use, it gets the job done, and if you treat it right, will likely last long enough to pass along to the next generation.
The native plant communities of the St. Croix Valley are like that. They are scenic, yes. But the valley’s cliff communities, forests, seepage swamps, barrens, savannas and prairies have a kind of beauty that goes beyond appearance. Simply put, they work. The raw materials of particular native species, their relative abundance, the physical structure of their arrangement on this landscape with its topography and geologic history—these are the elements of a “working beauty” that sets this place apart, even from many parks and designated open spaces.
The greatest evidence of this working beauty is the diversity of wildlife able to survive and reproduce here, whether native brook trout or other game fish, raptors or songbirds, rare turtles or mussels. As appropriate habitat continues to be whittled away in surrounding areas, the remaining native plant communities in the river corridor have only increased in importance for many of these species. Consider a migratory songbird that departed from the St. Croix Valley in autumn and is returning from its winter in the tropics. Will it find the particular environment that it needs for successful nesting? From one year to the next, the answer to that question can change.
While we can protect existing native plant communities in the river corridor, we can’t create more—at least not with the complexity of those established over the centuries. But we can make improvements to adjacent lands through thoughtful restoration. It may be surprising, given the valley’s legacy as a giant in the white pine logging industry, but one of our best opportunities for habitat improvement may involve taking a fresh look at the role of pines in the St. Croix Valley landscape.
This time, the focus is on pines that did not occur naturally, but were planted with good intentions.
According to the National Park Service, there are 65 stands and a total of 200 acres of red pine plantation on public lands within the designated boundaries of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Most are planted in long rows with little diversity in the understory, sometimes with only a blanket of dried needles on the forest floor. They provide some shade, certainly some cover in the canopy, but relatively little in the way of habitat for birds and other wildlife. What they lack most is structure: the inviting layers of vegetation such as flowering plants, woody shrubs, and young trees that would otherwise be sources of food in the form of insects and berries, as well as nest material and cover for wildlife.
Pine plantations are monocultures—an environment dominated by a single species. As such, they are less resilient than more diverse native plant communities; less productive (in terms of the ability to efficiently translate the sun’s energy into growth, or bio-mass); less able to cope with stresses such as drought and disease; less able to support a diversity of life. Without purchasing a single additional acre of land for our local national park, we can vastly improve its habitat value by transforming these veritable deserts into a welcoming place for wildlife.
Many of us have grown up appreciating trees. Could it be that we can look beyond our appreciation of any one tree, even a stand of planted trees, in deference to a working beauty? What would it take to make a red pine plantation more inviting to wildlife? Will some red pines need to come down, to let in more light so that the understory can develop? Can we plant native seeds or plants to help it along?
In the coming months and years, we can witness—even participate in—the process of making this landscape increasingly valuable to wildlife. Sounds like a privilege to me.