Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Natural History Notes: an ecological glance at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Please take note:  The views and commentary expressed in this blog post are my own, and they do not necessarily represent the opinions or viewpoints of the National Park Service, The Student Conservation Association, or any of its staff members or affiliated organizations.  

This past summer (2011), I served the National Park Service as a Student Conservation Association natural resources intern at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (NHP) in Chillicothe, OH.  This ~1,500 acre park is separated into five different sites across Ross County, Ohio.     The park preserves some of the 1,000+ year old earthworks of a late prehistoric Native American culture known for building ceremonial and burial mounds and earthworks (Photo A).  My job, however, was focused on conserving the natural resources of the park.

Photo A: Hopewell Mounds and Earthworks at the Mound City park unit.

The park generally has three main habitat types:  (1) Semi-mature woods (Photos B and C), (2) fallowed (left to grow wild) fields (see photos D and E), and riparian woods and fields (naturalized areas along rivers and streams as shown in Photo F).

Photo B: Woodland area at the High Banks Earthworks unit.

Photo C: Woodland area at Hopewell Mound Group with spring wildflowers.

Photo D: Fallowed (weedy fields) at the Hopeton Earthworks.

Photo E: Fallowed field at the Hopeton Earthworks unit. Some of the former agricultural fields have been partially reseeded with native prairie flowers, such as these Purple Coneflowers.

Photo F: Riparian habitat along Paint Creek at the Seip Mound unit.

The park also contains one permanent body of water within park boundaries.  An old farm pond now filled with a diverse amount of aquatic plants and animals is present at the Hopewell Mound Group unit of the park.

The park in general lies at an interesting ecotone (an ecological transition zone).  During the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago), the glaciers extended all the way down to the base of what is now the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  Therefore, everything north of the glaciers was flattened like a pancake (making for some rather bland scenery now that these lands have all been converted to cornfields and farms) and everything south remained hilly and rugged.  Chillicothe, Ohio and Hopewell Culture NHP lie right at this transition zone.  Prior to European settlement and during the Hopewell people’s time, this region was likely a mosaic of wetlands, oak-savannas, and mixed mesophytic temperate forests.  Wetlands are areas that have saturated soils most of the year, oak savannas are prairies dotted with occasional clumps of fire and drought resistant oak trees, and mixed mesophytic forests are a mix of hardwood trees in soil that has moderated amounts of moisture and acidity.

Unfortunately, most of the area has seen the hard hand of farmers, developers, and industry over the last 200 years.  The wetlands are now gone.  The oak savannas remain as tiny parcels of land in someone’s backyard, and the forests have been chopped into smaller and weedier woodlots.  All of these adverse affects of European settlement and 20th century industrial development are evident in the park.

In addition, there are still some differences in land management practices because of the presence of rare archaeological remains of the Hopewell people.  In many of the fallowed fields, park administrators have blocked most proposals to seed the fields in the park into native grassland or forest in order to prevent further disruption of cultural resources of the park (although you do have to wonder, isn’t a plow more damaging that native trees or grasses?).  This has left many areas of the park dominated by mostly non-native weeds (see photo G).

Photo G: Many of the former agricultural fields have been left to fallow and grow with weeds in order to supposedly protect archaeological resources. This field at Hopetown earthworks is dominated mainly by non-native grasses and forbes.

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) is a highly aggressive exotic plant that quickly overtakes many open field areas and can thrive even in the most degraded soils (even areas such as gravel mounds or decaying trash piles!).   Another non-native old field plant is Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) even poses threats to corn and soybean fields.  And if that’s not enough for you, the wooded areas of the park units are “under attack”  from garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata), Asian Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica),   and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera (japonica).  In some of the more mature fields, we also have an invasion of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

Okay, so what do we do about these invasive plants that threaten the ecological diversity of the park?

To some the answer may seem obvious:  remove them.  However, given the large expanses of invasive species in the park and a skeleton crew natural resources staff, it is unrealistic to remove ALL of the exotic vegetation in the park.  Rather, we can attempt to reduce the overall cover of invasive species and create some “breathing room” for native plants, referred to as invasive species management or invasive species control.  See photo H.

Photo H: Myself mowing a near monoculture of Canada Thistle in preparation for herbicide application. Photo by Dafna Reiner.

The park also has some minor problems with erosion and vandalism.  But why am I give you all of this doom and gloom?  Why am I not talking about all of the great birds seen in the park or about the nice hiking trails and picnic areas this place offers?  The answer is that this internship marks a new direction for my career in the environmental field.

While I hope to include natural resources management as an element of my career, it cannot and will not be my full-time duty.  This sort of work, despite what people may think from watching the Discovery Channel or seeing “wildlife” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, is difficult work that often goes unrecognized by others even within the environmental field, both financially and politically.  It also involves a tremendous amount of mechanical skills and flexibility.  It is for these reasons that I believe I could best service the conservation movement working as an environmental educator and conservation outreach coordinator.

While environmental outreach is not necessarily easier or better paying than natural resource management, it IS something I am much better at it is something that is rewarding and sometimes quite fun.  I also feel I can make a difference for the better, and yes, feel rewarded for it, too.  Also, because I have those grueling natural resource management experiences, I can now reach out to people inside and outside of the environmental profession in order to increase their knowledge of an empathy of the work that is needed.

We must become stewards of the land.  Nature is no longer wild and free.  It needs our help and it depends on us for better or for worse.  It is my hope that I can help keep things on the “better” side.

The nature trail at the Mound City Group unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio as it winds through a floodplain forest in early spring.

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