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Mapping natural heritage

By Joseph F. Mooney

The University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum has received a grant of nearly $127,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The grant enables a two-year project to locate and assess at-risk plant communities growing on the four properties managed by Matthaei-Nichols. The project runs through May 2013.

Part old-fashioned fieldwork, part high-tech information-gathering, the project is contemporary natural history for the long term. It’s also an institution-wide stewardship planning process—a high priority for Matthaei-Nichols going forward.

The four properties—Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Nichols Arboretum, Mud Lake Bog, and Horner-McLaughlin Woods—harbor a treasure of natural heritage and a rich diversity of ecosystems, from bog to oak savanna and more. Together they comprise a valuable research and study resource for U-M faculty, students, and others.

A survey by Natural Areas Manager Jeff Plakke, the lead staff person on the project, revealed that 20 of the 76 communities recognized statewide by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory currently live at one or more of the properties. Of those 20, sixteen are recognized as critical, imperiled, or vulnerable in state and/or global rankings.

Moving beyond previous institution-wide efforts, a botanical inventory like this lays the groundwork for ongoing decision-making and is another step on the journey toward long-term conservation of Matthaei-Nichols’ natural areas.

Pivotal to the project’s success is the use of technological recording and tracking tools to create an in-depth accounting of existing natural communities and the threats to them, explains Matthaei-Nichols Director Robert Grese.

“This inventory helps us better understand the communities on our properties,” Grese says. “We’ll learn both the significance of what we have and provide a baseline for the future.”

Teaming up with other U-M units strengthens the project’s success, notes Grese. “We researched collaborative opportunities and developed a unique partnership with the University of Michigan Herbarium,” he says. “We recognized that working with the Herbarium would be a good fit, especially given that the university is encouraging creative partnerships wherever it can.”

In addition to Plakke, U-M Herbarium botanist Beverly S. Walters will assist in the project along with a U-M grad student. During the first season Walters and the student will create a comprehensive geospatial baseline inventory and description of the four properties.

A detailed documentation and cataloging of the natural communities follows, using global positioning system (GPS) technology and the Michigan Natural Features Inventory classifications.

Finally, the areas will be quantitatively ranked for conservation and restoration, a stewardship model along with faculty and expert consultants will be established, and consistent monitoring protocols put into place. Ultimately the results will be released to the public and to professionals in the field.

The grant, and the ensuing cataloging and assessment, will be a model for many other U-M properties, says Grese, who explains that “there are bits and pieces out there, but no full accounting or catalog of resources.” Given our role in curation, Grese believes, creating that model is an important step in taking a leadership role in natural land stewardship.

According to IMLS Director Susan Hildreth, the grants awarded to Matthaei-Nichols and other institutions support the essential work of caring for museum collections. “The grant roster is a delight to read and includes conservation activities that protect art and artifacts from nearly every corner of the globe; native and endangered animals and plants; and time periods that span from early cretaceous fossils to 21st century e-games,” says Hildreth.

The IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (MBGNA) is 720 combined acres of gardens, trails, woods, and prairie. The Gardens are located at 1800 N. Dixboro Road. The Arboretum is located at 1610 Washington Heights. MBGNA is owned by the University of Michigan. Its mission is to promote environmental enjoyment, stewardship, and sustainability through education, research, and interaction with the natural world.; 734.647.7600.

Joseph F. Mooney is the manager of marketing and public relations at the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum.