Facing a Changing Climate
Seeking resilience through conservation
by Abby Henkel, Communications Director
This article originally appeared in the winter/spring 2020 issue of The Twig, our member newsletter. To see more articles and past issues, click here.
There is a place in the woods behind our office at Cedar Crest where the trail meets the creek. When I need to clear my mind, I head out the back door and take a lap on the loop trail.
I like how the water dries up in the summer and allows me to walk the creekbed and pick up fossils. It reminds me of creek-stomping in Brown County as a kid, back when screentime meant opening the windows and being a good steward of nature amounted to recycling.
Now I, and an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s population, am aware that it will take much more effort to properly care for this earth that nourishes and sustains our families. But we find hope and grounding in the conservation movement.
We are doing this hard work together because we know it’s making a difference. We see firsthand the bobcats, woodcocks, prairie grasses, and oaks repopulating places that were, for a time, uninhabitable to these native species of southern Indiana. Neighbors are trading in lawns and fertilizers for native sedges and bird baths. Kids are rediscovering the joys of dirt under their nails and stargazing on a clear winter’s night.
This regeneration of life and the hope it inspires were the impetus for this issue of The Twig: The Climate Issue. Here are the facts about our changing climate, and how Sycamore staff, members, and volunteers are preparing southern Indiana and its residents for a resilient future. We’ll need your help to continue this work, and are deeply grateful for your involvement!
A warming climate means drier soil. Combined with hotter summers and more severe storms and flooding, this will burden farmers as they seek ways to keep their crops properly irrigated without washing away. Dry soils will push many plant species to shift their ranges to higher elevations and more northern latitudes. Over time, we could see changes in the species composition of forests, resulting in:
- decreased regeneration of trees due to more competition among seedlings
- decline or extinction of plant species that are unable to adapt or migrate
- decline in the herbivore species that depend on certain plants and forest structures
- cascading effects throughout the food web/chain as predator and prey relationships are altered
In a conversation with Dr. Jennifer Lau, a biologist specializing in invasive species at IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI), she outlined the three ways an organism could respond to a changing climate: adapt, migrate, or shift their behavior to mitigate the effects. So far, most species tend to migrate, she says.
“If you look at the big causes of extinction, it’s habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. Preserving land is the number-one thing you can do.”
Dr. Lau emphasizes that the land must be available, either contiguous or nearby, for anything to have a shot at migrating successfully. This is why Sycamore is concentrating our land acquisitions on building habitat corridors; read more in this accompanying article.
According to a report from Birdlife International and the National Audubon Society, a majority of species are expected to experience shrinking ranges and will be unable to merely move north. The report predicts 53% of species could lose more than 50% of their habitat, and 40% of those species will be entirely unable to shift their livable range.
Data show that birds are already responding to changes. A few specific threats to birds include unpredictable seasons upending instinctual migration patterns; warmer springs endangering young birds in the nest; heavy rainfall flooding nests and impeding feeding; pesticide use killing insect populations; and urbanization destroying habitat.
Aside from performing crucial ecological services like seed dispersal and pollination, birds are inherently valuable, charismatic creatures. As Myriam Wood said to me in a conversation about her land protected by a Sycamore conservation easement, “Something I’m acquiring more and more is a greater respect for the other members of the world. They are not there just to make me happy, but because they belong.”
By preserving bird habitat at nature preserves across southern Indiana, Sycamore is stimulating positive effects across the ecosystem. We do this by planting and preserving exceptionally beneficial trees such as oaks, removing harmful invasive plants, minimizing chemical use to preserve insect populations, and creating prairies for grassland nesting birds. Join us for an upcoming birding hike.
Historically, there were no prairies in southern Indiana. This hilly land was once covered in forests and seasonal wetlands. But as Indiana’s few remaining grasslands are converted to urban areas and monoculture farms, the species that depend on them have nowhere to go. In response, Sycamore is building new prairie habitat to give these plants, animals, and insects a home. For instance:
Amy Weingartner Branigin Peninsula Preserve (Monroe County)
Replacing the lawn by the parking lot with a one-acre native prairie featuring wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, along with educational signage funded by the Raymond Foundation and Lucky’s Market.
Columbia Mine Preserve (Pike & Gibson counties)
Land that was surface mined has great potential for prairie restoration. Invasive tree removal and controlled burns stimulated the native grass seeds that lay dormant in the soil at Columbia Mine Preserve, which had been replanted but then left to be overtaken by invasives before Sycamore took ownership. Rare and endangered species like the bobwhite quail, American woodcock, and dickcissel have returned here. Read more in our Summer 2019 issue of The Twig.
Native Plant Project (Several counties)
With funding from the Vectren Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, Brabson Library and Educational Foundation, and others, our Environmental Education program works with students to learn about and grow native plants in their classrooms, then plant them in gardens and prairies at their schools.
Fish Creek Preserve (Owen County)
Myriam Wood owns this 125-acre preserve protected by a conservation easement with Sycamore. Since purchasing the first tract of 48 acres in 1973, Myriam and her late husband, Jim, added on over the years and took great care stewarding the land and the habitat on it. Detailed prairie plantings, research, and the permanent easement have helped this exhausted farmland revert to a beautiful hardwood forest punctuated by streams and meadows.
In the words of Myriam: “One thing that Jim used to say was, the only reason to justify having this paradise here is to share it. Because really, it is such a blessing that we’ve come across this piece of land, and that we were able to purchase and increase the size. And then that we came across Sycamore.”
CONTROLLING INVASIVE SPECIES
The National Wildlife Federation defines an invasive species as any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm – to the environment, the economy, or human health. All types of organisms can be invasive: plants, fish, insects, fungi, even mammals.
Invasive plants like multiflora rose, Japanese stiltgrass, garlic mustard, and callary pear run rampant on some Sycamore preserves. Their lack of predators causes them to spread easily, take hold over an area, and crowd out other species. This reduces biodiversity and weakens the whole ecosystem.
One big problem caused by invasive species is their power to disrupt the food chain and cause unpredictable cascading effects. Dr. Lau told me about spotted knapweed, which is highly invasive here in Indiana and across the Midwest and Great Plains. In Michigan, officials introduced 13 different biological control agents to try to reduce the population of this pink-purple flowering plant. One was a gall fly that would lay its larvae in the seed head, disrupting the plants’ development. Unfortunately, deer mice were ravenous for the larvae. With an abundant protein source at the ready, the deer mouse population exploded – tripling the number of mice testing positive for the dangerous human disease hantavirus.
Our staff and volunteers are out in all seasons working to remove invasive plants. This spring, we’ll be pulling garlic mustard before it sets seed in the forest understory (see p. 24 for workdays you can join). In summer, we tackle Japanese stiltgrass. From July through September, herbicides applied to multiflora rose are our only hope against this sturdy bush whose seed bank can last 10-20 years. On warmer winter days, we’re looking out for periwinkle, winter creeper, and Japanese honeysuckle.
In 2019, we continued a concerted effort to pull garlic mustard at the Amy Weingartner Branigin Peninsula Preserve on Lake Monroe. Staff, interns, and volunteers went out as often as possible, and it paid off. For the first time since I joined the staff in 2016, I heard these magical words: “I think we pulled all the garlic mustard.” We’ll expect to find some returning plants this spring since the seeds stay in the ground for years, but we also know that we have greatly reduced the population of this rampant plant. Because of this work, native flowers like jack-in-the-pulpit, firepink, and Virginia bluebells stand a chance at strengthening their populations.
You can help this effort too! Be sure to brush off your boots as you enter and leave any nature preserve. If you have a yard, keep watch for any invasive plants, and please opt to plant only natives so that our local pollinators and herbivores can enjoy the myriad benefits they offer. For ideas, tips, and inspiration, see our Plant Natives page.
As the climate changes, some species will be better suited to the new ecosystem than others. A restored forest will look different from the one that had first grown in that spot, hundreds of years ago. In fact, we can never simply recreate a forest or prairie to replicate one that has never been timbered, farmed, drained, or built on. Those practices fundamentally change the land, from the soil microbiome to the interactions of predator and prey.
But we can use this unprecedented opportunity to steward the land in creative and positive ways. We can leverage what we know about the southern species that might migrate to our neck of the woods, and establish a biologically diverse ecosystem that incorporates those new species.
If there’s one key thing we can do to address habitat fragmentation, food shortage for wildlife, erosion, carbon emissions, and biodiversity, it’s planting and protecting trees. As trees grow, they need to consume CO2 to build tissue. The carbon from the atmosphere stays trapped in their biomass for as long as they live – which could be many hundreds of years if they’re preserved and able to live a full life. On Sycamore properties, some common trees include:
- American beech: 300-400 years
- Red oak: 200-400 years
- Sugar maple: 300-400 years
- Sycamore: 250-300 years
Extreme weather events resulting in insect infestations, wildfires, and rampant invasive species will affect forests before the gradual changes in temperature and precipitation are noticeable. Forested wetlands are particularly vulnerable as water becomes scarce. This is why Sycamore is concentrating on habitats like Beanblossom Creek in Ellettsville and Eagle Slough in Evansville. Wetlands provide outsized benefits for a huge diversity of organisms, and they contribute to cleaner air, drinking water, and soil. Projects help keep our wetlands healthy include invasive species removal, planting trees, building natural buffers along waterways, and allowing the water to flow naturally rather than diverting it.
The healthiest forests are ones where genetic diversity among and within tree species is high. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “such diversity is like climate ‘insurance’ – if one element of a system is compromised, it is more likely that other elements will still be available to support key ecological processes.”
When Sycamore planted 28,900 trees at Touch the Earth 2 Preserve in Brown County in 2018, we used 12 species of hardwoods to establish a forest, plus a pollinator-friendly blend of shrubs to buffer the creek. This border of gray dogwoods, buttonbush, and other shrubs is what we call a riparian border, and it’s another tool in our belt to combat climate change. You can read more about them in our Fall 2018 issue of The Twig, The Water Issue. And in 2018 we planted5,000 native tree seedlings at Beanblossom Bottoms thanks to a grant from Lucky’s Market – and thanks to all of you who supported Sycamore in Lucky’s Bags for Change!
MOVING FORWARD, INTO FOREVER
Climate change is profoundly altering ecosystems and thus complicating our task to restore habitat. But humans are adaptable, just like other animals. We can change our habits, evolve our thinking, and throw our efforts into protecting the beautiful wildlands that are our home.
While researching for this article, I had many emotional moments. Climate change grief is real. I also uncovered reasons for hope; one of them came from a long talk I had with Chris Fox, Sycamore’s Land Stewardship Manager. These words from Chris stuck with me:
“When I’m out there in the woods, I’m having fun doing my job. But still I ask myself, am I really making a difference? Then I remember, I’m part of a group on a mission. Our community has already protected 10,000 acres in just 29 years.”
Every action we take has a ripple effect. Together, we are making profound change. For our families, for future generations, and for the countless species of plants and wildlife now populating safe habitats that wouldn’t exist without Sycamore members.
Birdlife International and National Audubon Society (2015). “The Messengers: What birds tell us about threats from climate change and solutions for nature and people.” Cambridge, UK and New York, USA.
Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University website: https://eri.iu.edu
Glick, B et al (2011). “Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment.” National Wildlife Federation, Washington, DC.
“In This Climate” podcast from the Environmental Resilience Institute and the IU Media School (October 2019). “Lost birds and how to bring them back.” https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/in-this-climate
Leiserowitz, A et al. (2019). “Climate change in the American mind: April 2019.” Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
National Audubon Society (2019). “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.” https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees
Pearson, DE and RM Calloway (April 2006). “Biological control agents elevate hantavirus by subsidizing deer mouse populations.” Ecology Letters 9:4.
Vose, James M et al (2012). “Effects of climatic variability and change on forest ecosystems.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.