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Suzy Ziegler standing in front of a tree.

Susy Ziegler is a physical geographer and an assistant professor at the U.

The giving trees

Physical geographers are helping Minnesotans preserve and maximize the quality of their environment

For physical geographers like Susy Ziegler, there's no such thing as being unable to see the forest for the trees. Indeed, it's only by immersing yourself in those details, Ziegler says--in lake sediments, pollen, charcoal, macrofossils, tree rings--that you can really understand what an environment was, is, and can be.

If you know how to read them, she says, those details will tell you stories about a landscape's past: tales of blazing fires and the regeneration that followed, of decades of gradual climate change and its lasting effects.

These are stories we need to hear, says Ziegler, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. "Understanding vegetation response to past climate and disturbance regimes helps predict the impact of environmental change on future vegetation patterns. If we can understand the past, we can manage land, forest, and water resources better; we can understand the influence people have had on vegetation and better think about what kind of environment we want--and what we want our protected land to look like."

Take, for instance, the region in southeastern Minnesota where the Zumbro River and Weaver Dunes abut the Upper Mississippi River Valley--a complex landscape made up of wetlands, tributaries to the Mississippi River, terraces, and upland sand dunes. Rare, threatened, and endangered species make their homes there. And sundry groups of people have vested interests in the region and its future for agriculture, recreation, conservation, water management, transportation, and utilities.

With the help of a grant from the U's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs Faculty Interactive Research Program, Ziegler is examining the physical characteristics and dynamics of this Minnesota landscape. She's finding out about its past and learning how humans have already affected the area. Based on her findings, Ziegler and her research assistant, Mary Williams, will propose changes in land-use planning and policy that best support the landscape's role as wildlife corridor, hunting and fishing ground, food source, and wastewater treatment area.

In conducting her research, Ziegler is carrying on the department's tradition of studying the connection between vegetation and its larger environment--factors such as climate, landforms, soils, nutrient cycles, and historical events.

Together, these scholars are constructing the knowledge that Minnesota residents need to make sound decisions about how to preserve and maximize the quality of open space and undeveloped land in the state.

Other physical geographers in the department are engaged in similar work. Kurt Kipfmueller conducts research on climate change in Itasca State Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its effect on patterns of vegetation there. Bryan Shuman studies the effects of fire and climate change on the vegetation history of the Big Woods of southern Minnesota. Kathy Klink examines variations in wind speeds over space and through time in Minnesota.

Together, these scholars are constructing the knowledge that Minnesota residents need to make sound decisions about how to preserve and maximize the quality of open space and undeveloped land in the state.

Sharing their findings with Minnesota students in the classroom, Ziegler says, is an important part of that process. In a course called Biogeography of the Global Garden, Ziegler teaches students to understand in historical perspective the relationship of plants and animals with their larger habitat, including climate, soils, landforms, glaciers, and long-term environmental change.

"It's a challenging and fun class to teach," Ziegler says. "We take an evolutionary perspective, looking at change over a range of time scales from millions of years to seasonal cycles. We discuss current events such as the spread of bird flu and the SARS epidemic from a geographic perspective. And we cover a range of topics to help students become better informed global citizens who think about how their choices affect the environment."

Ultimately, Ziegler hopes, the course will prepare a generation to think intelligently and responsibly about how to use untapped land. That's an ambitious goal, but the class is a good beginning--more than 500 students, global citizens all, enroll annually in the course.

"We hope the class will inspire students to be excited about geography, explore the world around them, and embark on projects that will help them understand science and make the world better," Ziegler says. "That's what geography education is all about."