Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Forests cover nearly 31 percent of our planet’s land area and are home to over 80 percent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. From the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the food we eat–forests and other natural areas sustain us and play an important role in recreation and mental well-being. Significantly, in numerous cultures, natural landscapes are closely tied to spiritual values, religious beliefs, and traditional teachings. However, biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history.
Sustainable Development Goal #15 explores how we, as a society and as individuals, can help make a difference in addressing threats to biodiversity across our natural areas. At the University of Minnesota, we look closely at how we can best manage and preserve our natural landscapes and the plants, animals and insects that call them home. This includes everything, from studying how best to manage terrestrial invasive plants and pests, to developing restoration strategies for native prairie land, to exploring how we can protect our forests in an ever changing climate, to sharing the value of biodiversity and the need to protect the surrounding land with the public. Well-managed protected natural areas support healthy ecosystems, which can help keep people healthy.
RESEARCH AND EXPERTISE
OUTREACH AND PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
K-12 Educational Programs on Biodiversity and Land Ecosystem
Since 1994, the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center has provided comprehensive educational programs that contribute to increased understanding and appreciation of natural resources management practices through the 18,000 acre Boulder Lake Management Area. The University of Minnesota Duluth in partnership with Minnesota Power, and Saint Louis County Land and Minerals Department, provide funding and oversight for the area which has served over 8,500 participants including K-12 students, college classes, post-graduate students, and community members from Northeast Minnesota, Northwest Wisconsin and areas across the upper-Midwest region.
Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is a large ecological research site in central Minnesota with natural habitats that represent all of Minnesota. It is owned and operated by the University of Minnesota in cooperation with the Minnesota Academy of Science. Through research, conservation, and education, Cedar Creek staff bridge the gaps between science, community, and government. The education arm of Cedar Creek strives to be an inspiring catalyst and outstanding resource for lifelong science education in Minnesota and beyond. Throughout the year, Cedar Creek provides engaging hands-on experiences, including field trips for K-12 students.
The Bell Museum of Natural History is Minnesota’s official natural history museum and planetarium is on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus in Saint Paul. It brings together science, art, and the environment and while offering a variety of educational programs for K-12 students, including field trips, summer camps, virtual visits and special events aimed at engaging youth. The Museum includes a Touch & See Lab with 10,000-year-old fossils, living plants and animals and a 120 seat planetarium that lets visitors fly through the Earth’s atmosphere, delve inside plant life and the human body, or swim the Great Lakes.
Public Events Supporting Land Ecosystems
Institute on the Environment’s People and Planet Series explores the many intersections of our changing global climate and the human and natural systems that also shape our world. The streaming conversations are free and open to all and in the past have included discussions on planetary health framework, resilient food systems, drinking water contamination – and the connection between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious disease.
The University of Minnesota Invasive Species Conference provides an opportunity for members of the public to deepen their understanding of invasive species in their region. The free event includes a variety of presentations by UMN invasive species experts located—and conducting research—across the state and opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning.
Bell Museum Spotlight Science Series is a program connecting the public to science conducted by University of Minnesota experts and others across the state. The series provides further insights and educational opportunities related to exhibits within the Bell. A 2022 example, Spotlight Science Back to the Birds!, highlighted the museum’s Seeing Birds exhibition in its final weeks. It included meet and greets with ambassador birds from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center and other in hands-on activities to learn how birds adapt to their environment and how the public can help protect and conserve birds.
Biodiversity Programs Utilizing Citizen Scientists
Citizen science is scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions. Researchers at the University of Minnesota use citizen scientists in many of their projects. A few examples include:
- Citizen Science@UMN is designed to connect people to projects, resources, and each other! Serving as a homebase for the citizen science community within and beyond the University of Minnesota, the Citizen Science@UMN website provides resources for citizen scientists, science educators, and coordinators of citizen science programs.
- The City Nature Challenge has taken off in recent years. It which makes documenting your local nature fun by creating an international, bioblitz-style competition. Cities across the globe are in a contest against each other to see who can make the most observations of nature, who can find the most species, and who can engage the most people. In 2023, 13 Minnesota Counties participated and over 3,700 observations were submitted.
The mission of the Minnesota Master Naturalist program is to promote awareness, understanding and stewardship of Minnesota’s natural environment by developing a corps of well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service within their communities. The program benefits the state through direct environmental service and by educating Minnesota’s citizens about its natural resources. Master Naturalists are trained to be stewards of the natural environment and to teach these skills to others.
Become a worm ranger! Jumping worms are the latest invasive worm to arrive in Minnesota and the worm rangers are tasked with investigating their distribution and dispersal mechanisms throughout the state. The overall goal of this project is to characterize the status of the jumping worm invasion in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Bumble Bee Atlas is a public-participation science project aimed at tracking and conserving Minnesota’s bumble bees. Anyone is welcome to take part and contribute to a better understanding of bumble bee needs. The team trained citizen scientists via workshops and then spread out across Minnesota to survey bumble bees and report back on what they find.
Zooniverse, which was developed, and continues to be supported, in part by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy, is the largest platform for people-powered research in the world. To date, over two million Zooniverse volunteers have come together to assist professional researchers with over 240 projects, many of which include studying biodiversity and changing natural landscapes.
Biodiversity Projects Using Big Data
Advancing Spectral Biology in Changing Environments to understand Diversity (ASCEND) is a National Science Foundation Biology Integration Institute housed at the University of Minnesota that seeks to understand the causes and consequences of plant biodiversity across scales in an era of rapid global change. ASCEND is the only research institute of its kind aimed at using spectral biology to create a greater understanding of plant and vegetation biodiversity from the genome to the global scale.
The Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas is an online digital resource offering public access to hundreds of thousands of plant and animal specimens, from algae to zebras. The Atlas–the Midwest’s first portal to integrate such disparate collections–houses over 5 terabytes of data from the Bell Museum’s botanical and zoological collections. More than 16,000 species from Minnesota and around the world are represented.
U-Spatial, the spatial science infrastructure at the University of Minnesota, offers a range of spatial activities and services, including data access, training, and community building. To date, over 140,000 maps and datasets exist, many of which highlight the significance of land distribution across the state and the changes occurring because of climate change and other pressures on our natural world.
In 2016, UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) launched the Minnesota Natural Resource Atlas. The Atlas uses online mapping tools and data for natural resource planning, management, and research in Minnesota. The goal of the project is to provide a set of basic tools for visualizing and analyzing spatial data that are free and easy to use.
UMD’s NRRI includes a Data Collection and Delivery Platform that helps turn data into decisions. The platforms broad capabilities in data development, management, analysis, and visualization help scientists and engineers realize more from their research. Minnesota Mammals, one key project supported by the platform, includes a website highlighting all the state’s carnivore species—from the tiny least weasel to the black bear.
Partnering with Local Government to Support Biodiversity and Land Ecosystems
The Lawns to Legumes pilot program offers a combination of workshops, coaching, planting guides and cost-share funding for installing pollinator-friendly native plantings in residential lawns. The program, which is administered by Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), also includes demonstration neighborhoods, which are pollinator programs run by local governments and nonprofit organizations with support from BWSR, and a public education campaign, developed in partnership with the UMN Extension Master Gardener’s Program, designed to raise awareness about creating pollinator habitat.
In Minnesota alone, roadsides offer the potential for over half a million acres of viable pollinator-friendly habitat. That is why a team of University of Minnesota researchers, with support of Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Local Road Research Board, studied whether restored roadsides could provide safe habitats for declining pollinator populations. To date, over 400 roadside sites have been surveyed across the state to help impact future conservation efforts by providing data-driven guidance to roadside managers.
Partnering with Non-Profits to Support Biodiversity and Land Ecosystems
The Forest Assisted Migration Project is deceptively simple. For trees that are already growing in northern Minnesota—think white pine, bur oak and red oak—seeds are collected from their more southerly “cousins.” The project, a joint effort between researchers at UMD, UMN Extension and the Nature Conservancy and is part of a broader Reforestation Project. To date, it has been successful in identifying seedlings with better growth and survival rates compared to their northern counterparts and is working to establish a team of growers who will grow the climate-adaptive tree seeds into seedlings, and then sell the seedlings to reforestation agencies and individuals.
Oak savanna is a rare shifting-mosaic plant community. Once covering nearly 5.5 million acres in Minnesota, it is now reduced by approximately 99.8 percent, making it one of the most threatened habitats in Minnesota. The Silvopasture Learning Network promotes silvopasture, the deliberate integration of trees and grazing livestock operations on the same land, to improve soil health, water quality, and restore oak savanna in Minnesota. This ongoing project is a joint effort led by University of Minnesota Extension with the Sustainable Farming Association and Great River Greening.
The Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program is a continent-wide collaborative effort among public agencies, non-governmental groups, and individuals to assist the conservation of birds and their habitats through bird banding. Led by the Institute of Bird Populations, there are currently over 400 cooperating bird banding stations in the MAPS network, including one at the University of Minnesota Hubachek Wilderness Research Center.
EDUCATION AND STUDENTS
UMN POLICIES AND ADMINISTRATION
UMN Managed Lands Part of Sustainable Use, Conservation and/or Restoration Projects
The University of Minnesota Office of Sustainability and the educational campaign It All Adds Up provides direction and coordination for sustainability initiatives in the Twin Cities. Recently, they developed the Sustainability Walking Tour in an effort showcase and highlight sustainability efforts, included those related to biodiversity and land ecosystems, across the Twin Cities campus.
The oak savannas of Minnesota are now nearly gone, but some of the largest remaining tracts available for restoration are at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Experts at Cedar Creek are working to preserve and restore its savannas through intensive conservation and management methods, including prescribed burning.
Vermillion Highlands is a 2,822-acre research, recreation and wildlife management area that is jointly managed by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with Dakota County and Empire Township. As a modified wildlife management area, research, recreation, and wildlife management activities are allowed to take place simultaneously on the property. One of the primarily wildlife management activities currently taken place on the site is a prairie restoration project on land previously used as a pasture for UMN cattle and sheep.
The Pomme de Terre River watershed area in west central Minnesota was once a sprawling prairie, home to beneficial pollinator species and prairie vegetation. Beginning in the fall of 2018, the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris began restoring a 17-acre portion of grassland along the City of Morris bike path to a native prairie habitat with the hopes of restoring the area so beneficial pollinators can flourish. The land is owned by the City of Morris, who approved the project, but is under a 100 year lease to the University .
The Raptor Center focuses on ensuring the health of raptors and the world we share. Their specialized hospital on the TC campus in Saint Paul admits around 1,000 birds of prey each year with the aim of rehabilitating and releasing them back to the wild. They also train future generations of veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators, conduct research into raptors and the environment, and educate thousands of people each year with their educational programming.
The Hubachek Wilderness Research Center’s (HWRC) boreal-transitional forest landscape is an ideal location for long term, place-based research ecological research. Incorporated into the University's Research and Outreach Center system in 2014, HWRC invites new experimental and observational research projects. Its location also provides a great jumping-off point for research travel into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park.
UMN Policies and Reporting Related to Protecting Biodiversity
The University of Minnesota has an official policy related to Environmental Protection which includes requiring faculty, staff and students to protect the environment by: minimizing waste, conserving aquatic resources, reusing and recycling, properly disposing of hazardous materials and protecting soil, surface water and ground water from contamination.
As part of their Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) reporting, University campuses are required to submit information related to land management and biodiversity efforts every three years. Currently Duluth and Morris have active Gold Star ratings.
University of Minnesota Duluth is committed to using many different land management practices to maintain and regenerate the UMD land and protect the waters that are impacted by it. Their efforts to date include stormwater management techniques (including rain gardens, native plantings, and retention ponds), a pollinator pledge to help maintain pollinator-friendly practices in plantings and pesticide use, and a tree preservation policy that discourages tree removal and requires a trunk-inch to trunk-inch replacement for trees removed during construction projects.
UMN Policies Land Sensitive Waste Disposal
To reduce the quantity and improve the quality of storm water flowing off campus, UMD has developed a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program (SWPPP). The SWPPP is approved by the Minnesota pollution Control Agency, acting on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection agency to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.
The University’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety (DEHS) provides fact sheets and instructions to help units remain compliant with relevant environmental and waste disposal requirements. Additionally, their Waste Division provides chemical waste pickup and disposal services at no cost to UMN departments.
The Twin Cities Campus Recycling Program is nationally recognized for innovation and excellence. Waste on campus is collected in four streams: paper, cans & bottles, organics, and trash. In FY2019, about 40% of the 7,775.8 tons of municipal solid waste generated on campus was recycled or composted.
Influencing Land Ecosystem Policy on the State, Regional or National Level
The Center for Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy fosters interdisciplinary and community-engaged research on human well-being, environmental sustainability, and social justice in a complex and diverse world. The Center conducts public engagement with external partners, develops environmental leadership, and facilitates solutions-oriented projects at the nexus of science, technology, and environmental policy.
The Natural Capital Project, a 10-year partnership among the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, is at the forefront of developing interdisciplinary science that incorporates the value of natural capital and ecosystem services — the benefits nature provides to people — into decision-making.