Why are native plant communities important?
Native plant communities provide a range of ecological functions that are increasingly recognized as valuable for the quality of life in Minnesota and even for human health and safety. Among these functions are water filtration, flood moderation, carbon storage, moderation of water-table level, local temperature moderation, erosion control, and development and enrichment of soil. Large tracts of native plant communities provide opportunities for sustainable resource use, such as logging systems that mimic natural cycles in forests and help to perpetuate all of the beneficial functions that plant communities provide while also supplying commercial products.
In Minnesota, native plant communities provide habitat for several thousand plant and animal species. Many of these species are uncommon in the state and many of them—such as the western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara) and the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis)—are almost completely dependent on native plant communities for their long-term survival and viability in Minnesota. 440 of these plant and animal species are uncommon enough that they are listed under state or federal endangered species acts. In addition to relatively conspicuous plant and animal species, native plant communities also are likely to be reservoirs of other groups of species that have not been thoroughly surveyed or studied in Minnesota. These include microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria (which often play important roles in uptake of nutrients by plants) and insects and other invertebrates (which can help to cycle nutrients in ecosystems or to pollinate plants).
Native plant communities have also played an important role in the development of Minnesota's cultural history and heritage. For several thousand years, human lives in Minnesota have been closely connected with the resources available from plant communities—which have been sources of food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and medicine. In the last 150 to 200 years, the products and byproducts of native plant communities have been a source of great economic wealth in addition to sustenance, and have fueled trade, civic development, and cultural development across the state and even globally. The cultures that have grown up around the prairie farms, the fur trade, and the northern logging operations are conspicuous examples of the way the byproducts of plant communities have shaped human communities in Minnesota. Finally, native plant communities such as the northern pine forests, the prairie marshes, and the eastern deciduous forests provide diverse aesthetic and recreational experiences for hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, bird-watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Decisions made by Minnesotans today are likely to determine whether the state's native plant communities will exist for future generations. The key to protecting native plant communities is awareness of their location and value, development of policies and management tools to sustain them, and finding ways to avoid destroying them. With this approach, wise decisions regarding development and economic growth can be made at the same time that steps are taken to protect native plant communities.