A novel method for rapid understory plant community assessment across large areas of difficult terrain at Mohonk Preserve, NY
As factors like climate change, human impact and introduction of invasive species are increasing, long-term monitoring of understory plant communities will become a critical part of ecosystem management. Mohonk Preserve, in southeastern New York, has a unique legacy of long term ecosystem monitoring, with multiple meteorological, phenological and land use records, some extending back 300 years. However, understory plant community composition has not been well monitored, due to the logistical challenges and labor required to sample large areas of difficult terrain. Our goal was to develop and implement a method that could be used to rapidly assess large areas of understory, and to produce a baseline data-set to be used for ecosystem management and ecological research. A field crew of three researchers hiked across the landscape and visually categorized understory into community types. Observations were recorded using a field tablet and screen-based mapping and image editing tools. Data was compiled into an ArcGIS database to be used as a management tool and baseline for future surveys. Survey results were also used to study geographical factors affecting presence of invasive species, oak-seedling regeneration related to prescribed fire, and to document recurring patterns of community transition related to ridgeline topography.
Our rapid understory assessment protocol proved to be extremely effective in quickly assessing large areas of land. Work was completed in two summer field seasons. 90 distinct understory plant community types were distinguished and mapped across 4420 acres of varying terrain. Invasive plant species were dominant in 112 acres, mostly along carriage roads and trails. Substantial oak regeneration was present in 50 acres total, including areas that had been treated with prescribed fire. An interesting, and consistent pattern of community transition through five distinct community types, was observed in pitch pine –oak heath rocky summit habitat. Our findings will help Mohonk Preserve prioritize management for prescribed burning and other potential treatments for the purposes of protecting habitat for rare species and plant communities. Our methods will also be valuable for repeat understory surveys that will be used to inform management decisions in the coming century across 40,000 acres of protected land in the Shawangunk mountains.