EMPOWERING, INSPIRING, AND TRAINING
A NEW GENERATION OF YOUNG ECOLOGISTS
EXPLORING PLANT BIODIVERSITY AT TWO NEW NASHVILLE PARKS: STONES RIVER BEND & SOUTHEAST PARKS
TO BE SUBMITTED TO:
PURPOSE OF THE PROJECT:
- conduct a baseline botanical and ecological survey to help inform future restoration efforts of Stones River Bend Park and Southeast Park;
- engage and empower volunteers from the Nashville community to help study the biodiversity of their local park;
- use the results to inform the development of future educational/outreach materials (e.g. kiosks, publications, etc.);
- form a foundation for developing a vibrant volunteer Nashville Grassland Conservation Team to help restore, manage, and study these beautiful new parks as well as other parks within the Nashville Metro Parks system.
Most people imagine the landscape of the Nashville region at the time of European settlement as a dense, vast forest. In reality, however, the area was home to a diverse mosaic of forests and open woodlands punctuated by scattered grasslands of several different kinds, including meadows, limestone barrens and glades, and savannas--the latter grading into open grassy woodlands. The Nashville Basin of central Tennessee was identified in a 2001 study by University of Tennessee ecologists as an "outstanding" hotspot of biodiversity in eastern North America. This designation is due primarily to the unique flora of the rocky limestone glades and barrens, rare grasslands found within a 50 mile radius of Nashville that support many natural communities and species found nowhere else on Earth.
It is likely that the Nashville Basin has had abundant natural openings for at least tens of thousands of years, well before the first Native Americans arrived ca. 13,000 years before present (ybp). A suite of large mammals were present during the latter stages of the last Ice Age as evidenced by fossils of extinct mastodons near Coolsprings Mall in Brentwood and extinct Giant Ground Sloths near McMinnville. Certain tree species that are common today in the Nashville Basin such as honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) have seeds which are thought to have been dispersed by these extinct large mammals.
The fertile meadows and savannas that once occupied the Cumberland, Stones, Harpeth, and Duck River valleys and rolling landscapes of the Outer Nashville Basin in parts of Cheatham, Davidson, Maury, Sumner, and Williamson counties were once home to vibrant towns and villages of the Mississippian "mound-builder" Indians. Native Americans used fire to maintain many areas in the Nashville Basin as open landscapes and this was supplemented by grazing of large animals such as bison, elk, and deer.
The grasslands near Nashville were an important natural feature that attracted the earliest Anglo-American settlers, who arrived in the mid- to late-18th century. Some open meadows supported salt licks that attracted great herds of bison that would congregate to lick the salt-rich rocks and soil. In the 1760s, Frenchmen, like Timothy Demonbreun (1741-1826), were the first to arrive, followed by the English-speaking longhunters (e.g. Michael Stoner--1743-1814--for whom the Stones River was named). These early settlers were drawn to the open meadows to hunt the abundant game. It was the region's beauty and abundance of natural resources that led to the founding of French's Lick, which eventually became Nashville following settlement by two of Tennessee's patriarchs, James Robertson and John Donelson, who arrived in 1779-1780.
Evidently, much of the Nashville Basin was still open as meadows, savannas, open woodlands, and canebrakes by the time Revolutionary War veterans were awarded land grants in the late 1780s-90s. To this day, a number of communities in north-central Tennessee bear names that reflect their much more open grassy past, including Belle Meade (French for beautiful meadow), Fairview (Williamson Co.), Pleasant View (Cheatham Co.), Gladeview (Rutherford Co.), and Barren Plains (Robertson Co.).
Following settlement by Anglo-Americans came rapid degradation and loss of Nashville's grasslands. The fertile grassy meadows, savannas, and open woodlands were likely abundant in the broad valleys around Nashville and probably extended onto the surrounding rolling hills. These were among the first places settled as Revolutionary War veterans were awarded plots of land in the 1780-90s. As they brought their cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and other livestock, widespread overgrazing is thought to have resulted in rapid degradation of the region's grasslands. Overgrazing reached a zenith in the first few decades of the 1800s. Soon after settlement commenced, the elk and bison disappeared due to overhunting and the fires set by roving bands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee became scarce and eventually ceased altogether as they were forced to give up their hunting lands. With fire suppression many grassland areas succeeded to thickets and forests.
The phosphate-rich and highly fertile lands of the Nashville area were rapidly converted to fields of corn and cotton. In the 19th and 20th centuries, native meadows were displaced by non-native species such as bluegrass (Poa pratensis), orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata), timothy (Phleum pratense), red (Trifolium pratense) and white clover (T. repens), and sweet clovers (Melilotus albus and M. officinalis). In the 1940s, "improvement" of pastures commenced as tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus) was introduced on a wide scale. The native grasslands that managed to survive into the 20th and 21st centuries are now largely confined to the rockiest sites where they have escaped the plow; these are limestone glades that are now isolated, tiny, rocky grasslands surrounded by fire-suppressed thickets of redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and forests of oak and hickory.
While many limestone glades remain in the Nashville Basin, the same cannot be said of the original deep-soiled meadows and savannas. In fact, more than 99.9 percent of these have been eliminated. But, if we know what to look for, the signs of their former existence are still all around us. On low hills in and around Nashville, including at Stones River Bend Park, old massive chinkapin oaks (Quercus muehlenbergii) and bur oaks (Q. macrocarpa), with broad spreading crowns, tell a story. Their wide crowns and massive size are the result of having grown for centuries in relatively open conditions. Early in the lives of these trees, they would have existed in open savannas, but following Anglo-American settlement they grew in open pastures. In areas too wet to cultivate, remnant wet grasslands still can be found. Near Mufreesboro, thin strips of native grasses and grassland wildflowers hug the banks of streams so close to the streambank that they are beyond the reach of the plow or mowers. Here and there, in cattle pastures or at the edges of woods, we can still find the remnant species that once dominated the grasslands of the Nashville Basin. Many of these are common species in the eastern U.S. and are not always thought of as "grassland" species but they certainly aren't forest species either. They are relicts of the former rich meadows and savannas that occurred in deep, rich, fertile soils of the East. Examples include tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), purpletop grass (Tridens flavus), nimblewill (Muhlenbergia schreberi ), eastern gama grass (Tripsacum dactyloides), and wild senna (Senna marilandica).
In recent years, Nashville Metropolitan Davidson County has invested in the development of new large public parks, including Bell's Bend, the Warner Parks, Shelby Bottoms, Beaman Park, and most recently the new Stones River Bend and Southeast parks. This past year was a turning point for grassland conservation in Nashville. Mayor Barry's Livable Nashville Plan Committee adopted language that specifically emphasized the need to use native species and to partner with Tennessee Department of Transportation to plant native grasses and wildflowers along roadsides. In June, Radnor Lake State Park staff began restoring ten acres of meadow. The Tennessee Division of Natural Areas has been working to restore Couchville Glades and Barrens State Natural Area about 10 miles southeast of downtown Nashville. Other grassland projects have been ongoing at Bell's Bend Park and there is interest in restoring meadows in the floodplain of the Cumberland River at Shelby Bottoms and elsewhere by Nashville Parks and Recreation. Restoring and conserving grasslands has not just been limited to wild lands. A number of landscaping firms have been planting green-roofs with native grassland species on several of the newly constructed high-rise buildings in downtown Nashville. Landscape architecture firms are now incorporating grassland restoration in their plans for a variety of city projects. At Stones River Bend Park, a recent master plan led by the Nelson, Byrd, Woltz firm (Charlottesville, VA & New York City, NY) recommended that approximately 300 acres be restored as grassland habitat. Likewise, a separate master plan was developed for Southeast Park where grassland restoration is also being considered in the long-term planning.
Prior to the development and implementation of the master plans for Stones River Bend Park and Southeast Park, ecological assessments are needed to help identify important existing natural features that should be preserved, restored, or enhanced.
stones river bend park
- Conduct a baseline floristic survey of Stones River Bend Park and the portion of Southeast Park that lies east of Old Hickory Blvd.;
- Conduct a baseline inventory of the existing vegetation types and plant communities of both parks;
- Map locations of significant natural features (sites favorable for savanna restoration, rare plant populations, invasive species, old growth trees, special natural communities, etc.);
- Produce a report summarizing the botanical and ecological resources of both parks and how these resources could be incorporated into future restoration and park development efforts.
Area to be Surveyed
At Stones River Bend Park (maps below), we will survey the entire park with special focus on those areas intended to stay in a natural or semi-natural state or to be restored as such.
At Southeast Park (map below), we will survey the southeastern portion of the park which consists of the entire section that lies east of Old Hickory Blvd.
Baseline Floristic Survey
We anticipate finding populations of some species that botanists believe were part of the original grasslands of the Nashville Basin Savanna ecosystem. Click here for a link of expected species of the Nashville Basin Savannas. We will document species found at Stones River Bend Park in two ways. First, all species will be photographed and documented using the mobile app iNaturalist. This easy-to-use system will allow young and old and inexperienced to experts to be able to document the plants of the Park. Additionally, we will also collect physical specimens that will be pressed, labeled, and preserved in the plant museum (herbarium) at nearby Austin Peay State University, the headquarters of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (www.segrasslands.org). These specimens will be photographed, databased, and hosted on the SERNEC portal, an online database of plant specimens that serves the southeastern U.S. They will form a permanent record of the species found at the Park and contribute to our greater knowledge of the biodiversity of Tennessee. Populations of rare species, major infestations of invasive species, and occurrences of grassland species, will be mapped.
Stones River Bend Park (left) has had comparatively fewer species documented than Percy Warner. Southeast Park (right) has had no species documented. These two parks present tremendous opportunities to engage the public to help better understand and document the biodiversity of these two parks. SGI, in partnership with Nashville Parks & Recreation and The Nature Conservancy will help to organize, empower, and inspire the citizens near these parks to join in on the biodiversity documentation.
We will survey for and map ecological communities present at both parks. Specifically, we will search for higher quality remnant natural communities (e.g. grassland remnants, glades) that have unique qualities such as old-growth trees, concentrations of conservative native species, rare species, or are otherwise important. Each will be photo-documented (see below) and described. Species found in each community will be documented according to dominant species in the canopy, subcanopy, shrub, and herb layers, along with notes concerning the relative abundance of each. Ecological communities, both natural and man-made, will be mapped with ArcGIS.
Mapping of Natural Features
Significant natural features that are otherwise important to consider for restoration or as "points of interest" will be noted. These may include particular wetlands that have high potential for restoration, particularly nice old-growth oak trees that when restored will help to re-create the visual appeal of the historical savannas for interpretative purposes, particular locations of species that help in interpretation such as those with edible fruits or that were important for extinct animals (e.g. honeylocust).
There are two purposes of the report we aim to generate. First, it will summarize our findings with a rich array of photographs and maps.This will include documentation of significant botanical finds (including list of all plant species documented), descriptions of natural communities, and representative landscapes deemed of significant ecological importance.
Second, we will use the results of our ecological assessment to provide recommendations to Nashville Parks and Recreation for managing the Park's natural resources. These may include recommendations for removal of certain trees to re-create particular views to enhance the "savanna structure" (e.g. removal of certain tree-lines along fencerows), treatment of infestations of invasive species, the use of prescribed fire, grazing, restoration of wetlands and riparian zones, and protection or enhanced conservation of rare species.
empowering, inspiring, and training volunteers
We will work with our partners (Nashville Parks and Recreation and The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee) to recruit and engage teams of volunteers from the Nashville community to work hand-in-hand with us on all phases of this project. During workdays, we will set up base camps at each of the parks. Volunteers will break into groups and work with each of the four graduate student leaders from Austin Peay State University's Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. Each team will survey different portions of the Park. For example, one team might be assigned to survey the river floodplain and a second team might survey the bluffs and uplands on the east-central side of the Park, etc. Within each team, some members will document plants using the iNaturalist mobile app on their smart phones or tablets. Other team members will collect specimens of plants in their survey areas to be processed as museum specimens back at base camp. An invasive species task force team will be in charge of mapping invasive species. Still other members will assist in taking notes about the general ecological conditions of each portion of the survey area and mapping notable features (e.g. old-growth trees). Meanwhile back at Base Camp, additional teams will be stationed to help process incoming data, specimens, photographs, notes, and collate ecological information.
- We expect to recruit a team of 25-30 volunteers that we will train to conduct biodiversity research and that we will empower and inspire to make a difference in their own communities in Nashville, many of whom may return for future workdays to help restore and manage Stones River Bend Park and Southeast Park.
- We expect to document approximately 200-400 species of plants during our survey.
- Most of the native species we expect to document will be common and widespread species frequently encountered within the Nashville Basin of Middle Tennessee; however, there are several rare species that we hope or expect to find.
- We expect to document and describe several different ecological communities to help compliment the preliminary information given in the master plans for both parks.
- We hope to document plants that were part of the original meadows and savannas of the area that would have occurred naturally 200 years ago, including species of grassland wildflowers, grasses, and sedges.
- We expect to document and map occurrences of trees (e.g. bur oak) and shrubs (e.g. hawthorns, wild plum) indicative of open savannas, meadows and grassy woodlands.
can we solve THE MYSTERY OF THE WHITE CLOVER OF "CLOVER BOTTOM"
BUDGET & TIMELINE
The project will be conducted in the spring, summer, and fall of 2018. Final report will be submitted by June 30, 2019
This project will be administered by Austin Peay State University (APSU)'s Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. SGI's Director of Research, Theo Witsell, will oversee the project and will coordinate efforts with SGI Grassland Explorer, Mason Brock
SGI graduate students, will assist the SGI Director of Research and Grassland Explorer in various capacities. They will help assist and direct activities of volunteers.
We will engage and empower a team of 20-25 volunteers from the Nashville community to help study the floristic biodiversity of Stones River Bend Park and Southeast Park.