Natural resource research in state parks

Easy access and abundant natural features make Minnesota State Parks the perfect place for a variety of resource-related research projects.

Scientific research helps state parks by providing information that can be used to better manage the resources. You can help, too, by not disturbing research sites. If you encounter flags, stakes, measuring devices, or other equipment on your forays, please leave them in place. If you notice that a research site has been disturbed, notify the park manager.

Some folks travel to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park to view the crisp autumn colors that crown the park's lofty hardwoods. Others visit in early spring to catch a glimpse of delicate dwarf trout lilies in bloom.

Kathleen Shea comes here to pour a mixture of mustard flour and water onto the ground, then count and classify the earthworms that crawl to the surface to escape the spicy brew.

An associate professor of biology at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Shea is trying to find out whether earthworms, which (to many folks' surprise) are not native to Minnesota, are harming understory vegetation in the Big Woods ecosystem by gobbling up the rich organic material, called duff, that blankets the forest floor and serves as a medium for sprouting seeds.

"We're concerned that forest plants may not germinate as well because the duff layer is removed by the earthworms," Shea explains. "We really want to try to determine if there is a pattern of changing vegetation, and if the changes are influenced by the earthworms."

Archaeology to Zoology
Shea is one of dozens of scientists who use Minnesota state parks as living laboratories for research spanning the spectrum from archaeology to zoology.

Some survey populations of various types of living things: birds, butterflies, dragonflies, mussels, fungi, fish. Others study traits of particular species. One recently begun project focuses on sounds made by downy and hairy woodpeckers at Buffalo River State Park; another, on reproduction in timber rattlesnakes at Great River Bluffs State Park.

Not all research subjects are living creatures. For several years, University of Minnesota geologists have been studying karst features at Banning State Park. Science Museum of Minnesota paleontologist Douglas Hanks looks for fossils in Hill Annex Mine. Whenever a picnic shelter, road, or other ground-disturbing improvement is proposed for one of the parks, archaeologists Dave Radford and Doug George (employees of the Minnesota Historical Society) are among the first on the scene, surveying the site for pottery or other cultural remains that would indicate a need for protective measures.

In some parks, research is aimed at specific environmental problems. This past summer Minnesota Pollution Control Agency scientist Jeff Canfield collected adult leopard frogs from Maplewood State Park as part of the agency's efforts to uncover the cause of malformation in frogs. University of Minnesota graduate student Stefanie Miklovic is studying the effect of road salt runoff on glacial marshes in the Minnesota Valley Recreation Area.

If you had been in one of a half dozen or so state parks at just the right time last year, you might have been able to watch a certified tree climber venture 140 feet up an old white pine to gather snips of branches and cones for USDA Forest Service researcher Paul Anderson. Anderson is extracting DNA from the samples to determine the degree of genetic dissimilarity among trees from different sites.

"We're trying to identify why white pine occurs where it does [as well as] what kind of variability there is in terms of adaptations to various locations around Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula, Ontario, and Wisconsin," Anderson explains. He expects the study to help forest managers decide what seed sources to use for white pine regeneration in various parts of the Upper Midwest.

Why Parks?
Why do scientists choose Minnesota state parks? For Anderson, state parks are perfect because his study requires trees that predate turn-of-the-century fires and logging. "State parks tend to be some of the best areas for locating older stands of white pine because they've been under protection for longer periods of time," he says.

Frog researcher Canfield says his study required an area relatively unimpacted by humans, "and Maplewood fit that bill. Even though Maplewood is a busy park, it's also a large park. Among its 9,000 plus acres, I was able to locate a secluded area where my research could be carried out.

Brock McMillan, assistant professor of ecology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, liked Crow Wing State Park because it has a campground. McMillan took students in his mammalogy class on a three-day excursion to the central Minnesota park last fall to do a population survey of meadow voles, deer mice, and other small mammals. They had such a good experience that he plans to make it an annual event.

Just because folks want to conduct research in a state park doesn't mean they can just plop a project in the middle of a trail, however. Before formal research can begin, the scientist in charge must complete an application describing the project. The application is reviewed by park and resource managers and, if deemed acceptable, a permit is granted by the DNR Division of Parks and Recreation.

"There's probably been research going on in state parks for most of the last century, but since the 1970s we've gotten more formal with our procedures, partly so we are able to reap the benefits of the research, and also to be sure that we are protecting the resources as we are supposed to," explains state parks resource management coordinator Ed Quinn.

Both Benefit
Research often benefits both the project and the park."The researcher is responsible for providing state parks with a report at the conclusion of the project," Quinn says. "We're able to use that report to better manage the resources in the park." For example, Jim Lind, a scientist with the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, has been surveying forest songbirds in eight state parks for upwards of five years. Lind has found that populations of some species are declining, while others are on the rise. The data he's gathering will help park managers identify management strategies that can help these birds thrive.

"This is one of the only tools they have for managing for songbirds," Lind says. "When they make decisions on how to manage different forest types, we're a good source of information on where certain species occur and what suite of species inhabits each of the forests."

At Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which has more than 25 archaeologically significant sites within its boundaries, scientific research is providing another type of benefit: an opportunity to educate. Last summer naturalist Jim Cummings led four tours per week to a site where park visitors could watch St. Cloud State University scientists excavate remnants of past civilizations.

"Archaeological research has been conducted at Kathio for literally more than 100 years," Cummings says. "It was first conducted by Jacob Brower in the 1890s. Archaeology was intensified in the 1960s and '70s, and continues today with our St. Cloud State University research partnership."

On the Horizon
Scientists conducted nearly 40 research projects in state parks this past year. Quinn hopes the number of projects will be even bigger in future years, thanks to a campaign launched recently that encourages scientists to carry out research that will benefit the parks as well as the larger scientific community.

"We would like to see them conduct additional baseline inventories. We're also interested in the effects of different management strategies we're implementing to make sure we're using the most effective techniques to reach our goals. And we want to be able to develop techniques to measure the effects of recreational use on the natural resources of state parks," Quinn says.

Research permits are required before studies can be undertaken in state parks. Get an application for a state park research permit This link needs Microsoft MS Word to open. here or contact Ed Quinn, resource management coordinator, at 651-259-5594 or via e-mail.