By Alexis Heinz

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

Conservation management often focuses on rare and vulnerable ecosystems. Due to human influences on the landscape, these locations have sometimes decreased in prevalence. Benefitting patches located within the fabric of the landscape, human action bolsters the recovery of these areas. In other places, human action may interfere with ecological processes. Understanding the way natural communities comprise the landscape is a logical place to start because the communities include all the relevant ecological components such as plants, wildlife, abiotic aspects, and processes.

To explain, natural communities are human-created categories that facilitate ecological protection, according to Mike Kost, Matthaei-Nichols associate curator. They are the grouping of plant and animals found in a particular physical environment. The Earth houses a multitude of community types. In Michigan, examples include sand dunes, oak openings (critically imperiled at the global level), and wet prairies.

Leaves in an oak-hickory forest

Leaves in an oak-hickory forest, a dry-mesic southern forest natural community, according to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI). Photo credit Alexis Heinz.

Cottonwood snowstorm

A cottonwood “snowstorm” in Seattle represents the ecosystem process of seed dispersal. Photo credit West Seattle Blog.

Natural community descriptions include multiple factors such as vegetative data. Oak openings are one example of a natural community type in Michigan. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, oak openings display an oak-dominated canopy of between 10% and 60% cover with or without a shrub layer. The soils are dry-mesic fertile loams, while the topography is even to rolling, with low to moderate soil water-holding capacity.

Although nearly extirpated from Michigan, oak openings have benefited from restoration efforts in Ohio (The Nature Conservancy, Oak Openings). The current global and state critically imperiled status is likely due to the management practice of fire suppression in the last century. Many of the included plant species depend on frequent low-intensity fire to promote the open canopy. Ant mounds, drought, and windthrow (trees uprooted and tipped due to winds) are additional ecological processes that support the sustenance of oak openings. (Walters; Tepley; Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI)).

Plants and animals alike often influence the environment across natural communities. Through ecosystem processes such as seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, and water movement, species connect habitats into a larger functioning network (University of Michigan Landscape Ecology course, U-M Ecosystem Ecology course).

This has implications for management. Maintenance often refers to keeping an object the same, while management instead implies an adaptable approach that facilitates a dynamically changing landscape. Previously, conservation science focused on discrete patches within the landscape. Currently, land management organizations broaden their perspective to consider processes acting across patches. For this reason, managing natural communities through a landscape perspective is a more sustainable solution than targeting individual natural communities.

To illustrate, preserving genetic diversity at multiple individual patches is one approach to conservation. If a waterway connects the patches, managing for genetic diversity across the entire landscape is more effective because increased populations upstream would benefit locations downstream via dispersal. For another similar example, ecological restoration projects organized across the landscape benefit from a landscape approach where restoring an upstream location expedites the restoration process downstream.


An oak openings in Nichols Arboretum. Photo credit Alexis Heinz.

Both May Watts in Reading the Landscape (Nature Study Guild ) and Ian McHarg in Design with Nature (John Wiley & Sons) imply this concept through their commentary on dune formation. Closest to the water and air currents, plants have some difficulty in establishing. But once a few plants survive, they create a microclimate that facilitates additional species on the leeward side. The pioneer species grow while simultaneously the additional species facilitate continued progress with new species further inland. In sum, the community succeeds with increased vegetative structure and species diversity. Periodically, heightened levels of water or wind from the shore may cause a disturbance to the plant communities. A natural part of ecological processes, disturbance encourages a reshuffling of existing species. Plant succession as a natural landscape process, with the inclusion of an appropriate disturbance regime—such as frequent, low-intensity fires and occasional wild herbivore grazing—is an archetypal example of a way to manage a landscape.

Yet presuming we have the power to effectively manage the environment seems a display of hubris. According to a University of Michigan landscape architecture alumnus involved with prescribed fire management, our best option is to accept and respect natural processes as they occur. Floods, fires, lightning strikes, windthrows—these are all components of the landscape as essential as the rocks, plants, animals, and microbes.


Windthrow damage at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (windthrow refers to trees uprooted and tipped due to wind). Windthrows, along with floods, fires, and lightning strikes, are all components of the landscape as essential as the rocks, plants, animals, and microbes. Photo by GTrain.

Based on this statement, one might conclude humans should sit back and observe the landscape. In some cases, this is probably a wise decision, especially where letting nature progress uninhibited encourages ecological recovery. Yet inaction is equally fallible as humans, too, are part of nature. In locations where humans have already had an effect, causing anthropogenic disturbance, in addition to locations where human settlements have edge effects on the neighboring ecosystems (zones of interaction), human agency appears sensible. E.O. Wilson in Half Earth recommends that humans “need to ramp up the effort dramatically,” in terms of conserving biodiversity on Earth.

Aside from protecting species diversity, conservation management also involves human well-being. Referencing Hippocrates in Designing with Nature, McHarg describes nature as both ally and friend (1967). McHarg further explains the importance of being stewards of nature. As much as humans have experimented with the landscape, healing and restoring locations where actions have caused harm would expedite the reestablishment of ecological integrity.

In conclusion, human management activities would best withstand when implemented in better rhythm with the current landscape pattern.  To illustrate, in many places, preserving nature elicits a subtle approach. If the global ecosystem is a woven cloth, the fabric often reforms without interference. In other locations where human actions have previously had a more pronounced effect on the environment, focusing efforts on areas where the material was torn then seamlessly and gracefully mends the pattern.

Alexis Heinz is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan with a dual Master’s in Conservation Ecology and Landscape Architecture.  As the conservation and ecology intern with the GIS team, she is describing natural communities through plant and landscape field evaluations. She aims to establish a career in conservation based on her abilities in reading the landscape, identifying species, writing/drawing/photographing, and ecological planning/restoring.