Report shows Midwest's most 'climate resilient' landscapes

Wild Rice River winds through forest and prairie.
Wild Rice River winds through forest and prairie land about 20 minutes west of Itasca State Park.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News File

Itasca State Park, Tettegouche State Park and much of the Superior National Forest have a unique ability to sustain a wide array of plants and animals now and into the future, according to a new report from the Nature Conservancy.

It's not just by chance that these and other sites across the Midwest stand out for their biodiversity, researchers say. Soil and geology, diverse topography and whether the landscape is split up by a highway are among the factors they analyzed.

"How many types of nooks and crannies does each of these places provide?" said Meredith Cornett, director of science for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota and one of the report's lead authors.

For example, she said, Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore of Lake Superior has a lot of different features like rivers, cliff faces and north-facing slopes that could help the plants and animals living there survive changes in climate.

"If you are a plant or an animal in one of those places, you have a lot of different options for finding a microclimate that's suitable to you," she said.

But it's more complicated than that. Even if a landscape contains those features, what if it's hard to move around?

"If you're in a really dramatic, say, hillside setting but there's a major highway between you as a species and where you need to get so that you can survive a warmer, drier climate, then that's problematic," Cornett said.

Besides Tettegouche, Itasca and the Superior National Forest, the researchers found pockets of resilient landscapes throughout the state. The bluffs region of southeastern Minnesota and the Red Lake Peatlands of northwestern Minnesota also stood out.

The Midwest report follows similar studies of the Pacific Northwest and Eastern United States. Maps and reports showing climate resilience throughout the country are expected within the next two years, Cornett said.

The Nature Conservancy, which invests in conservation globally, hopes the analyses will better inform decisions about which landscapes deserve attention.

"This news gives us hope that — with a little help — nature can endure climate change," said Peggy Ladner, the Nature Conservancy's Minnesota director. "If we work to keep these special landscapes strong, they will help keep nature strong."

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