June 2015 - In
my new job as OSI’s Senior Research & Communications Associate, I am
constantly looking at maps of the places where OSI works—on both the office
walls and as reference material for various communication projects. To my
untrained eye, these maps are merely color-coded shapes of data, static and
symbolic. Only when I see photos of the places we conserve do they come alive
in my mind as beautiful and ecologically significant places.
Increasingly, OSI’s efforts center on helping land trusts protect places that
can withstand the effects of climate change. In the process of writing about
the science behind our Resilient Landscapes Initiative, I’ve been getting a
crash course in concepts such as connectedness,
complexity and geophysical settings (see below). These ideas aren’t hard to
understand, but I related to them mainly in terms of those mystifying maps.
So when I had an opportunity to visit a site in person this past spring, I
jumped on it. Finally, a chance to see what a resilient landscape looks like—alive
in three dimensions.
Destination: Black Mountain
had recently approved a grant to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) for the purchase
of two parcels (406 acres) at Black Mountain Natural Area, just outside
Brattleboro in southeastern Vermont. The parcels expand the protected site to
more than 1,000 acres. Black Mountain is a just a few miles from I-91, the road
OSI Research Director Abby Weinberg and I would be driving back from New
Hampshire’s annual Saving Special Places conference. (Appropriately enough, the
conference’s theme was climate change.)
According to the reports I read, Black Mountain was considered “one of
Vermont’s premier natural areas,” a “biodiversity hotspot” with a state
designation as significant wildlife habitat. It is also home to the endangered
three-birds orchid, other rare plants such as harsh sunflower and Greene’s
rush, and tree species seldom found this far north, such as pitch pine and
But of particular importance to OSI, the recently purchased tracts scored
highly for climate resilience traits according to datasets TNC has developed to
measure ecological resilience. What a perfect opportunity to “ground
truth” all the technical material I’d been absorbing! With Abby (who has a
background in forestry) leading the way, I did just that.
Tracing the Trail
First, we had to check a few more technical maps—each composed of separate layers showing land characteristics that inform how well the property will be able to provide refuge for plants and animals as the climate changes. To find the trailhead, though, we relied on an old-fashioned hand-drawn one made by Vermont Land Trust’s Liz Thompson, whose research and advocacy literally and figuratively put this mountain on the map.
Following along an undulating dirt road, we finally came to this unmistakable feature:
Over the course of several hours, we hiked the often steep, 1.5-mile trail up to Black Mountain’s 1,280-foot summit and back. As we traversed its diverse woodlands, we observed the distinctive features that not only provide habitat for unusual plants and native wildlife including bear and beaver, but also make this scenic place climate resilient.
trailhead sits parallel to the West River. The first part of the trail itself
was steep, with a hairpin right turn early on. Despite its being April,
winter lingered, the ground slathered with slushy snow and random ice
patches. I wondered how many land forms and their inhabitants would be
visible. I needn’t have worried: As I rounded this first curve I saw a steep
drop to our right and a terraced slope to our left, with the path in front
soon flattening out. There, Abby pointed out a dense stand of “dog
hair,” or thin young pine trees.
The entire hike proved to be a series of ups and downs, arounds and overs, with
sudden flat areas where we could catch our breath. Up stairs made of rocks,
across boardwalks atop wetlands, over small streams, past indentations where
vernal pools formed, and/or down bumpy ridges. This is complexity, I realized:
the presence of a variety of landforms—peaks, slopes, valleys—each with
different temperatures, levels of moisture, and exposure to the elements.
time the landform changed, so did the life forms. Moss clung to rocks where a
stream cut through, and about halfway up (where the views become more dramatic)
Abby asked, “Notice how the trees are changing here? They are shorter and more
gnarled, because there is less soil and they are more exposed to the elements.”
Above our heads, birds of prey careened – most likely turkey vultures attracted
by the updraft of warm air caused by the mountain ridge. Higher still, we hiked
around a bend and mountain laurel filled the understory, which had been more
open previously. Now green, the flowers will explode into pink come early
summer. At Black Mountain’s summit, the most notable features were fields of
black granite boulders surrounded by pitch pine, scrub oak and heath.
On the way back down, we encountered a textbook case of “microclimates” at a
small scale. An indentation in the sloping terrain created a two-sided bowl:
the north-facing, sun-exposed side on the left was dry, and the south-facing,
shaded side on the right was wet with snow, providing options for plants and
creatures whose needs match those places.
Two mini microclimates
The Bigger Picture
The underlying story of Black Mountain’s biological richness is its unusual geology at different elevations. Here were the geophysical settings I’d read about, each supporting a unique variety of species habitats and natural communities. It was hard to miss the granite pluton, or dome, rising around us—the result of a volcano that began to form millions of years ago but never erupted. The mountain’s distinctive horseshoe shape creates a bowl that collects water and holds moisture (like the wetlands, streams and vernal pools we saw).
Pluton and bowl, autumn (credit: Jon Binhammer, TNC)
its highest points, Black Mountain is mostly rock, without much fertile soil;
yet these harsh conditions have bred compatible plant communities unique to the
state. There are also sandy, limestone, mafic, and other soil and bedrock types
here, hospitable to a variety of other types of forest – red pine, white pine,
white oak, beech, maple and more – and the creatures who like them.
As I walked along, I tried to imagine what might have happened had the two
parcels TNC added to this landscape been developed. New buildings would have
fragmented the landscape, creating barriers for plants and animals that may
someday need to move to find the resources they need as the climate changes. It
was clear why connectivity is important: If plants and animals are to
going to take advantage of the different moisture and temperature levels,
they’ll need to be able to access them without barriers like roads, houses and
Nearly 600 acres of Black Mountain were already protected, meaning species have had a little “elbow room” to grow and move. The newly purchased land adds essential puzzle pieces that will maintain the area as a single, relatively uninterrupted landscape that allows natural processes to continue.
By the time Abby and I returned to the parking lot, I felt confident that I understood what climate resilience looks like. But seeing Black Mountain was educational in another way. I have visited this part of Vermont countless times. Yet I never knew Black Mountain existed. I plan to return, and encourage others to discover it too. If resilience science bears out, its treasures will remain for many years to come.
What Is Climate Resilience?
Resilient land can bounce back from disturbance and continue to support diverse forms of life. The latest climate science has led conservation professionals to develop a strategy to ensure resilience based on the enduring, ingrained features of the land. This strategy involves permanently protecting a network of resilient sites that will support the full range of biological diversity under changing conditions.
Based on science developed by TNC, a site’s resilience is determined by its:
- geology and elevation ( also known as geophysical settings or stages)
- connectedness (a measure of the presence of barriers that impede movement and ecological processes)
complexity (the presence of a variety of landforms –peaks, slopes, valleys–with different temperatures, levels of moisture and exposure to the elements).
These features create a variety of individual “microclimates” where species can find the resources they need. And by protecting a diversity of geophysical settings that are well connected and complex, we
can provide climate-resilient-sites for the greatest range of plants and
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